Uwe Schütte on Hermann Burger

Hermann Burger (Menziken, 1942) is one of the truly great authors of the German language: a writer of consummate control and range, with a singular and haunting worldview. Yet it is not surprising that he fell into obscurity after his death, from an overdose of barbiturates at age forty-six. He shares this fate with many of the most august names from the peripheries of German-language literature who, never managing to escape from the ghetto of Austrian or Swiss publishing, either gave up in exhaustion, or went on writing and were forgotten nonetheless.

Burger might have seemed the exception at first: by 1979, with his third book of fiction, he signed with S. Fischer Verlag, making the leap into the higher echelons of German publishing. He would later break with them publicly in favor of Suhrkamp, which would release his finest novel, Brunsleben, as the first volume of the projected tetralogy Brenner. Had he finished, it would likely have cemented his reputation as one of the late twentieth century’s most important writers. That Brenner had represented from the start a losing struggle between the author’s ambition and his waning attachment to life was evident in the second chapter of the incomplete second volume, Menzenmang (1990). There, after recounting his hospital admission for depression and suicidal ideation, the narrator—recollecting his toy car, the “time-annihilation machine” that is one of the ciphers for evanescence in the novel—decides to buy himself a Ferrari 328 GTS because, “as my life has a maximum duration of two to three years, there’s no point in saving, in restraint, in squirreling away.” And indeed, Burger, who had bought himself the same car, and posed with it in a famous photograph wearing a driving cap with a cherry-red scarf, was dead three days after volume one of Brenner hit the shelves.


Burger’s suicide was the endpoint of a life of torment, which he wrote through under the mercilessly stern tutelage of depression. He was bipolar, and never made a secret of his illness. Rather, with real passion, though reluctant to make a show, he railed against fate, which had marked him out for a premature end—as the author never doubted. The ineluctable specter of suicide left him no choice but to view his life from the perspective of tragedy: one whose denouement had an uncertain date, but a definite form. It was natural, then, that he would place himself in a long line of author-suicides situated on the outskirts of the German language, from Georg Trakl to Paul Celan, the subject of his doctoral thesis, to Jean Améry.

Tipping his hat to Wittgenstein, Burger entitled his 1989 apologia for suicide Tractatus Logico-Suicidalis. This sinister hint at the approaching disaster comprises 1046 “thanatological” aphorisms. With characteristic relentlessness, Burger exposes his private thanatology (“as we term the precepts and philosophy of the total dominion of death over life”) and “the grim science of killing the self” also known as suicidology.

Unlike Jean Améry’s On Suicide, which might serve as a companion piece, Burger’s book is suffused with an irony that provides, as in all his texts, a counterweight to a sorrow that it never manages to completely subsume. Reading it, one frequently shudders, as with mortologism number 109: “The sufferer of endogenous depression ought to be praised every day he forgoes taking his own life. Instead people wait patiently for him to do so, and then console those who remain behind.”

Defense Reaction

Unusually, Burger’s suicide seems to have played a significant role in his disappearance from publishers’ catalogs and bookstores and thus, inevitably, from the consciousness of the reading public. Whereas a spectacular end of this sort often gives rise to voyeuristic curiosity about an author’s work, Burger’s pitiless candor as he openly contemplated his doom provoked a defense reaction in many. In his work, the parade of prospective suicides and aficionados of death were not simply a literary conceit, but rather the avatars of an existential balancing act in which eloquence and vigor in the artistic approximation of suicide become a strategy for eluding it.

Thomas Bernhard as Exemplar

Burger never denied that his reading of Thomas Bernhard had been decisive for the composition of his work. Burger encountered Bernhard in his twenties, after he’d changed his program of study from architecture to German literature. He had already published one volume of verse and another of short fiction, both stamped with an extraordinary sensory awareness and a refined feeling for detail; but the evolution from these early works to his first novel, Schilten, could not be more dramatic. The idea for the novel came to Burger during a visit to the writer and schoolteacher Jannis Zinniker in Schiltwald, the model for the village of Schilten in Burger’s book. Surprised to find his friend out of class, Burger asked where the children had gone. “I had to send them home,” Zinniker said. “Today there is an Abdankung, that’s our word for funeral.” “Do you know,” Burger replied, “you’ve just hit on the subject of a novel? The burial ceremony pushes the lessons aside, the cemetery takes precedence.”

In a series of twenty quarto notebooks delivered as a School Report Addressed to the Inspectors’ Conference, to use the novel’s subtitle, Schilten tells the story of Armin Schildknecht, a former schoolteacher who has been relieved of his duties on account of the distressing nature of his lessons. After losing his employment, Schildknecht buys the schoolhouse, moves into the attic, and composes a report to justify his actions. Rather than prepare his students for the life ahead, Schildknecht has tutored them in cemetery lore and death science, and commanded them to practice suspended animation, forcing them to lie in a covered hole in the floor reciting poetry to themselves while preparing for the eternal nothingness that awaits. Modeled on such Bernhardian chroniclers as Prince Sarau in Gargoyles or the painter Strauch in Frost, Schildknecht is the first in a long series of deranged protagonists who will voice Burger’s misgivings about the futility of habituating oneself to life.

A hallmark of Burger’s work was exhaustive engagement with his material. Schilten was the product of years of research into Schiltwald and its surroundings, architecture, local funerary customs, and the ins and outs of the Swiss educational system. Similar work would go into his collection Diabelli, the titular story of a “disillusioned illusionist” determined to make himself disappear and to end an acclaimed but futile career. Burger was familiar with the prestidigitator’s art, and had even taken the magician's oath in the course of his investigations. Though he dazzled journalists, publishers, and critics with his tricks, he never revealed their secrets, whether verbally or in his texts. In a prize lecture, Burger would state, “I gladly admit that the circensian matters more to me than everyday normalcy, that magic fascinates me incomparably more than the true physics of things.” Behind this was something darker: Burger’s conception of life itself as an elegant deception, a ruse rendered more or less plausible by the elaborate distractions that overlay it.

Ailment and Indulgence

Burger’s second novel, Die künstliche Mutter, is significantly more autobiographical than one might suppose, given its fantastic setting. In this glum but sardonic account of a specialist in German Literature and Glaciology, Burger took up the theme of his own psychosomatic affliction, his “genital migraines,” as the protagonist terms them. The book takes place in an otherworldly institution where patients, lying on beds in tunnels carved in a massif, absorbing the heat and moisture, are subjected to a battery of bizarre therapeutic measures. To devise his hero’s elaborate medical history, Burger devoured reams of psychiatric literature and even took a cure himself near Bad Gastein, in Austria, where guests rest in underground caves to enjoy the allegedly salubrious effects of the area’s high radon concentration.

Even in the early tale “Die Notbremse,” where an Epicurean in a dining car reflects on the consequences of pulling the brake, Burger’s sybaritic inclinations were already evident, and it was only natural that his masterwork would attempt “to reconstitute, through the medium of cigars,” the sensual world of childhood, which had vanished into air like smoke. Early in Brenner, Burger affirms:

There are ur-phenomena of tone, color, and scent that are often predestined, so to speak, irrespective of their contingent nature, to tune an existence like a stringed instrument; and the adult, when he attends a concert, an exhibition, a theater opening, searches, as though after a lost picture book, for the traces of these earliest magical impressions.

In the guise of his narrator, Hermann Arbogast Brenner, Burger, the cigar lover, composes an autobiography of ashes: part wish-fulfillment, part settling of accounts, with the languid, bitter feel of a last smoke before an execution. Here Burger reveals, in the rawest form to date, his sorrows, his rancor against his family, and his solitude in the aftermath of divorce; at the same time, his style sheds the last vestiges of his Bernhard-worship to arrive at a dense, crowded idiom, rife with dialect and ornate, Latinate turns of phrase that possess rare evocative power.

At twenty-three, on a road trip to Berlin with his friend Kurt Theodor Oehler, Burger had already pronounced death the most important part of life. A few years later, in “Das glücklichste Tag unserers Lebens,” he would write, with reference to the fairy tale “Hans in Luck”: “You can’t ride happiness and you can’t milk it, you can’t slaughter it and you can’t polish it, all you can do is forget it and in that way, hopefully, not disturb it.” Reading Brenner, it is hard to escape the sense that things were the other way around: that it was long-buried happiness that had come to avenge itself on the author in his late misery. Page after page in Burger’s magnum opus attest to his intense longing for temps perdu, giving sense to Ilse Aichinger’s phrase, “Nothing looks so much like homeland as the things one takes leave of.” The five hundred pages that exist give only a vague sense of the direction Burger’s work would have taken. Many questions remain open, particularly with regard to the novel’s autobiographical content. Only one thing is certain: for Burger, as for Kleist, there was no help in this world.

translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West

Click here to read “The Emergency Brake” by Hermann Burger.