The Boxer and the Smell of Broom

Ingo Schulze on the Death of Wolfgang Hilbig on June 2nd, 2007

When I last saw Wolfgang Hilbig in late March and he told me about his doctors’ diagnosis, I was stunned into silence. He was, as they say, marked by disease and weighed maybe half of what he used to. Despite the fact he felt dizzy—a side effect of the course of chemotherapy he’d subjected himself to, against medical advice—he tried to cheer me up. “They said I can smoke now to my heart’s content.” He described scenes of hospital life like he was reading from one of his books. “Well, you know,” he said and smiled, “I’m cool with it.”

You have to imagine these phrases in his Saxon-Meuselwitz accent, drawing the word “cool” out into eternity. “I’m taking it easy,” said the boxer with the broken nose, finishing the last syllable on a much higher pitch, as though he were reading out loud, as though every sentence had to be followed by another. He couldn’t imagine dying.

He claimed for himself another ten years.

I’m not convinced he really believed that. I wouldn’t put it past him to offer this prognosis solely for the benefit of the interlocutor, who—in light of a future of ten years—had now regained the power of speech and asked him if and what he had been working on. “Ghost stories,” he said. “I’m writing ghost stories.” “Ghost stories?” I looked at him in surprise. Yet in the same instant I found his answer to be plausible, indeed only logically consistent. Each of his books had always seemed to me his last, for I believed each one to be so insurmountably radical that he himself seemed hardly able to surpass it. What was to come after Die Weiber, what after Alte Abdeckerei, what after ‘Ich’ and what after Das Provisorium? Yet with each new book I eventually came to recognize its genesis in the one that had preceded it.

We spoke, no more than a few sentences, about the paths leading to his ghost stories—and those leading back from them. The name of his mentor and friend Franz Führmann came up—his essay “The Mythical Element in Literature” was one of the fundamental works in poetology. From Fühmann led another path to E. T. A. Hoffmann, the one Hilbig knew best amongst all of his much-cherished Romantics. I attempted a rough paraphrase of something he wrote in his fiction and nonfiction works of the 1970s; namely that, amongst the working class, belief in ghosts was more prevalent than class consciousness and that, in his youth, the belief in ghosts came to stand beside general theology. “You read that?” he asked me in surprise—laughed, coughed, lit up another cigarette. “Literature that refuses to be put in the service of distraction was to be punished through non-recognition on the market,” it says in Das Provisorium.

Cancer, he said, was in his bones. It pleased him that twice a day, someone would come to bring him his medication. He felt taken care of. And in the evenings, C. would often visit. He said he had been sleeping a lot, but once chemo was over, he intended to do something again . . . maybe poetry. “I’m taking it easy.”

I was reminded of the opening sequence of Das Provisorium, of the boxing match with the display dummy. “The next instant he was astonished at how splendid his instincts still were. His left fired automatically from his hip, crossed an arm raised in threat, and thumped drily against [his opponent’s] chin, at an angle he hadn’t actually considered . . .”

It is difficult to talk about Wolfgang Hilbig in terms of a magnum opus. His early or late poems, his early short prose, his novels, his stories—with him, everything is good. For me, Das Provisorium is the most important work of German fiction of the past 20 years. Its preface contains two quotations, the first by August Strindberg: “To write my works, I have sacrificed my biography, my person. Because I’ve long felt that my life had been staged for me so that I might be able to view it from all sides. That reconciled me with misfortune and taught me to regard myself as an object.” The second quotation is from Nicolás Dávila: “I walk in darkness. But I am guided by the smell of broom.”

He, the machinist and boilerman from Meuselwitz, whose father died in Stalingrad, whose grandfather was illiterate—he took the GDR at its word, thus leading it nolens volens ad absurdum. He stirred up the dregs of his soul and of our society. His style is of a magic irresistable to anyone who isn’t deaf. When we said goodbye, I found myself scrambling for a word that would summarize everything that I saw in him. Instead, he patted my belly and said: “I used to have a nice belly like that, but mine is gone, unfortunately.” We laughed.

In the hope of seeing him again I wrote a laudation whose title referred to the last sentence of Alte Abdeckerei: “The place where minotaurs feed.” My dialogue with that minotaur, for which I had so wished Wolfgang Hilbig to be present, already took place in his absence. That was when I realized how brief those ten years would be.

That afternoon at Peter-Huchel-Haus in Wilhelmshorst a friend told me he had been to a Bob Dylan concert with Wolfgang Hilbig a mere two weeks ago. And he described how Hilbig the poet suddenly lunged from his seat, throwing his fist into the air with a scream. That was, said his friend, his farewell to Bob Dylan. I think it was just his farewell. I can see this scene in front of me as though I had experienced it myself, a gesture and a scream of a man in his mid-sixties—and in this instant I knew the word that expressed everything that I saw in him. And it seemed to me that only he could give dignity and stature to this utterly ridiculous and questionable word: Wolfgang Hilbig, you are the champion!

translated from the German by Luisa Zielinski