Few writers have discussed the question of failure more truthfully than Wolfgang Hildesheimer. Most of his characters suffer from their inability to overcome their anxieties. Moreover, they feel that they have to identify themselves with their failure.
But why did Hildesheimer allow himself to be subjected to this strong sense of failure? Because he saw himself as a player in Beckett’s “End Game”; because he believed that artistic imagination could not keep up any more with the scale of scientific discoveries; and because he questioned the value of fiction in today’s world.
He took the decision to stop writing in 1984 after having published novels and plays for stage, radio and television since the late 1940s, some of which belong to the finest pieces of prose written in the German language this century, most notably his novels Tynset (1965), Masante (1973) and Marbot (1981). His biographical essay on Mozart (1977) marked a watershed both in the history of literature on Mozart and in the development of biographical studies. In Mozart Hildesheimer suggested that the composer of Don Giovanni had in fact produced the “end game” of the eighteenth century.
However, his study on Mozart was even more remarkable in terms of its structure and style. Hildesheimer presented it in the form of extended reflections on various aspects of Mozart’s life, time and work; they focus on reconstructing elements of Mozart’s creative process, his psychological predispositions and the sociological factors that might have influenced him. Yet, at the same time Hildesheimer showed how inevitably inadequate such knowledge is in relation to the actual work of art and its interpretation. In other words, Hildesheimer, in writing Mozart, demonstrated the impossibility of ever producing a complete satisfactory biography.
With Marbot, an “anti-biography” of a fictitious English gentleman who was supposed to have been in contact with Goethe, Byron, Leopardi and other great artists “of his time”, Hildesheimer took up a narrative method that Virginia Woolf had applied in Orlando. His Marbot, too, is oscillating between Then and Now, Here and There, except that he does not get any pleasure out of it, unlike Orlando. Marbot is intellectually overactive but artistically impotent. He knows everything about the arts and the artists; and he ought to be able to create something artistic himself. But he is lacking in inspiration. His only “work of art” is the stage-managing of his attempted suicide. But the reader is left in the dark about whether he “succeeded” in undoing his “failure” in life in that way.
“My time is running out and, indeed, not only mine,” Alain, the main character in Masante, writes shortly before he disappears into the desert. Both he and the narrator in Tynset are exposed to a strong feeling of utter pointlessness. In Tynset reality is disintegrating. The narrator’s perception of things and his painful recollections of the past helps to speed up his own deconstruction. In Hildesheimer’s works life is seen as something decidedly inconclusive; consequently, he caused the impression in his texts that his narrative would peter out.
Hildesheimer once explained that his “pessimism” was not just to be seen as something purely negative. He hoped that the depiction of desolation and extreme absurdity would make his readers think and reflect on the disastrous implications of a morally sterile technology. In one of his last public appearances Hildesheimer addressed a large group of young students talking about the question: “Why are we doing what we are doing?” In this talk he argued in favour of a constant re-thinking of one’s moral and intellectual position. He questioned the value of a purely homocentric way of thinking and called for genuine solidarity with nature and all species.
Hildesheimer mistrusted definitions and categories. Instead, he preferred images and metaphors that prompted associations in the viewers of his collages and readers of his literary manifestations of absurdity. As a visual artist he discovered the collage as a means to express contrasts more directly. The collage gave him the opportunity to work with materials and shapes which would together constitute new meanings. Occasionally, Hildesheimer commented on the transformation that occurs during the work on a collage: the initial arbitrariness of the materials would turn into an unexpected pattern with its own aesthetic logic and coherence, no matter how vague the initial intention had been.
The first half of his life resembled one of his later collages. Born in Hamburg, Hildesheimer was forced to emigrate from Germany in 1933 at the age of 23; from London he went to Palestine, where he worked as a carpenter, before returning to London again to study art. From 1939 until the end of the Second World War he stayed in Tel Aviv, first as an English teacher and then in Jerusalem as a British Government information officer. But his psychologically most taking task was yet to come.
In 1946 Hildesheimer worked as an editor on the minutes of the Nuremberg Trials. For him his experience was both traumatic and cathartic. He was confronted with many of the worst Nazi war criminals; yet he knew that no sentence passed by the jury could be strict enough to punish them sufficiently for the crimes they had committed. But even so, the work on those minutes helped to document the re-establishing of the Rule of Law and to record material that was to become part of the collective memory, a fact from which he drew some comfort.
Nonetheless he believed that the barbarity of totalitarianism in the twentieth century proved drastically that mankind had programmed itself to self-destruction. The apocalypse of the Holocaust and the Second World War had traumatised its survivors. Hildesheimer’s profound pessimism derived from the observation that despite our knowledge about this unprecedented scale of destruction we have done little to prevent other, and this time global, mechanisms of annihilation from being established. To that Hildesheimer had but one answer: time and again he repeated that the assumption of a “point of no return” in the development of civilization is in itself an absurd conception. #