Wolfgang Hilbig

Guest at the ilb 2001

Wolfgang Hilbig was born in Meuselwitz, Germany in 1941. His hometown is an industrial centre in the brown coal mining area of Saxony.  Hilbig was raised in the family of his grandfather, a miner, as his father died in the battle of Stalingrad.  After completing an apprenticeship as a horizontal drill mechanic, Hilbig served in the East German Armed Forces and then worked in a heating plant.  Later he made a living as a toolmaker, ditch digger, outdoor rigger, locksmith’s assistent, and busboy in an inn frequented by hikers.  Hilbig made waves as an author for the first time as a member of the ‘worker-writers circle’, to which his company delegated him in 1967. His poems did not obey the laws of Socialist Realism.  Their unbridled metaphoric references were perceived as irritant. Moreover, Hilbig’s worker identity had by no means overcome capitalist labour alienation as the Comunist regime’s ideology prescribed.  For this reason the poet was first discovered in West Germany.  His first volume of poetry ‘abwesenheit’, was published in the West in 1979.  This literary defection cost Hilbig several weeks of pre-trial custody and a fine for “violation of currency exchange regulations”.

Thanks to the intervention of Nationalpreis holder Franz Führmann, who assigned the young poet to the same level as Rimbaud and Novalis, a few of Hilbig’s short stories and poems were subsequently published in the German Democratic Republic.  However, the East German writer primarily evoked enthusiasm on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Critics in the Federal Republic were soon comparing him with Kafka.  Hilbig was allowed to accept the Brüder-Grimm-Preis of the city of Hanau personally in West Germany in 1983, but was not permitted to go to West Berlin in 1985 to receive the Förderpreis of the Academy of Arts. While continuing to write poems, he also penned major prose work, e.g. ‘Der Brief’ in 1985 and ‘Territorien der Seele’ in 1986. These were only published in the West. In 1987 the renegade worker-writer was finally “eased out of the country”, as Hilbig described his extradition. He was awarded a one-way exit visa. In 1989 Hilbig’s first novel, ‘Eine Übertragung’, was published. It won the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis in the same year. His short story ‘Alte Abdeckerei’ (1991) was universally hailed as the most valid allegory of the demise of the GDR. Following the much heralded novel ‘Ich’ (1993), a few years lapsed before the author spoke out again in his customary expressive manner.  “Rarely had anyone ever hurled so much fire and brimstone against East Germany, and rarely has anyone discharged so much bile on the West” – that is how Ingo Schulze described Hilbig’s last novel, ‘Das Provisorium’ (2000). The writer continued to harvest rave reviews despite the doldrums of a writer’s “mid-stream crisis”. Ursula März began her review in ‘Die Zeit’ with the words: “What huge potential! Wolfgang Hilbig is probably the only writer today who can stone his readers with language, sentence structure and paraphrase – without breaking realisms rules of recollection and image reflection.”

Hilbig was awarded the Peter Huchel Prize and the Georg Büchner Prize. He was a member of the Saxonian Academy of the Arts. He died in Berlin in 2007.

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