The Females
by Wolfgang Hilbig (Die Weiber, 1987)
translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (2018)
Two Lines Press (2018)
136 pp

I had to hallucinate in order to discover the world and the possibilities I had for living in it.  

[..]

I would call these creatures the females rather than women, flying in the face of prohibition, because it sounded more animal, more earthly.

Die Weiber was Wolfgang Hilbig’s first novella, published in 1987, but closely thematically linked to the two following novellas, Alte Abdeckerei (1991), translated as The Old Rendering Plant (2017; my review here), and Die Kunde von den Bäumen (1992), novella, translated as The Tidings of the Trees (2018; my review here).

All three books, and indeed all five Hilbig works in English, have been very ably translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, who has also done so much to bring Hilbig’s wonderful to the attention of publishers and readers. And credit must also go to Two Lines Press.

Die Wieber must have presented a particular issue with the title. “Weiber” in German is a macho or pejorative term used to describe wives or women. There isn’t an easy English equivalent; The Females is a very good, but necessarily imperfect, choice.

And this distinction between the more neutral “frauen” — rendered here as women — and weiber/females, is at the heart of the book, although the exact logic of the distinction that, given the narrator’s feverish prose, is not always clear or consistent.

As the novel opens the first person narrator is working in the basement of a factory, largely staffed by women, and where the females are working tantalizingly above him, out of physical reach but within his voyeuristic gaze.

And the pressing shop was where the females worked — through the grating above me, damp, smoldering heat flooded down with steady force. I sat on a chair beneath the grate amid this hot tide, hidden in semidarkness, several bottles of beer by my chair; when I drank, the beer seemed to gush instantly from all my pores, lukewarm, not even changing temperature inside my body. It was a ceaseless strain — head constantly tilted back — to stare through the grate into the light, always hoping to see the women up there step across the bars. Sometimes I climbed onto the chair, almost touching the iron grid with my brow, to gain a narrow, densely crisscrossed view into the pressing shop; I could see the short stepladder, a bit more than a yard high, by which the women reached the capacious hopper of a mill that ground away with a terrible racket, reducing scraps of cooled plastic — left from the casting of coil-like radio parts in the presses — to granules enough for reuse.

But when he is dismissed from the factory — for, we later discover, physically threatening a male supervisor who he felt had treated a young female workers on a bus with disdain — a curious absence follows:

I’d felt the lack of some particular thing: venturing out in the evening I struggled for air, it was as though the air were drained of a special aroma, an aroma I needed in order to live. I sought the cause of this sensation; then came a suspicion that grew stronger, and soon I roamed for days at a time just to see how right I was, for nights at a time just to confirm my hideous suspicion: all the females had vanished from town. It was no help at all to sense I was possessed by an obsession, in my overpotent head a cascade of letters blazed: all the females of the species had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity.

Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use; I thought I suddenly noticed people in town referring to trash cans as der Kübel instead of die Tonne. When I saw those trash cans from afar, set up in long rows along the curbs that summer — something unlikely to change, as the trash collection service was still more dysfunctional then than in the winter — at first I’d think a line of unshapely females was loitering there, dully iridescent in the bluish streetlights, and I’d hurry toward them. I’d realize they were just the trash cans I saw every night, from their gaping orifices hung rubbish that looked hairy, that had some indefinable evil about it.

The rest of the novella is a non-linear series of rather febrile, sometimes masturbatory, recollections, roaming between his childhood, his relationship with his mother, his earlier putative career as an author, his summoning by the local labour office to demand he perform productive work, his time at the pressing plant, bus journeys in the surrounding area, littered with open-air garbage dumps and incinerators (as revisited in The Tiding of the Trees), and the immediate aftermath of his dismissal when he attempts to complain to the authorities.

As just one chain of thoughts, a voyeuristic fantasy of stroking the long hair of a young woman worker sitting in front of him on a bus (“her long dark hair, in several smooth spills, hung down over the upholstery toward me, and after a sharp curve I noticed that my hand, feeling the need to brace me, had grabbed the seat and lingered there [. . .] I saw my hand twitch, the crippling urge to instantly hurdle that one half inch pulsing unmistakably”), which as a consequence also leads indirectly to his dismissal as noted above, later morphs into a vision of piles of hair burning on the garbage heaps outside of town (“I saw hair smoking upon the plain, cloudy skeins of it drifting towards the last bare trees, where they snagged in crippled winter branches to flutter like black scraps of flags, flags to mourn the murderous traditions of my homeland”), which itself brings to mind a much earlier pornographic text he wrote where he described himself with a girlfriend “on a soft bed on different kinds of hair, heaps of women’s hair … tresses, thick braids, wild half-spoiled snarls offering protection from the icy cold of a filthy concrete floor; fear and loathing of this hair merged with the shamelessness of our lust,” a text he ascribes to influences from his early years (“some childhood experience must have caused these imaginings … it must have been connected to the empty barracks of the concentration camp on the edge of M., which was my chief playground until the age of 12”), and, later, in the novel to an erotic dream involving the same concentration camp and the infamous Ilse Koch.

This is at times a difficult read, particularly in the #metoo era of 2019. Hilbig’s narrator has a very difficult and distant relationship with the women / females. For instance, they seem to represent scorn, threatening his manhood. The interview a year earlier at the Workforce Steering Office, which ultimately forced him to give up his attempt to write a novella for factory work, was, he admits, all the more painful for being conducted by a “hefty female interrogator,” and earlier in life his mother was also dismissive of his writing, both women regarding writing as an unworthy occupation.

In an otherwise generally positive review (e.g., “Cole, herself a talented writer, perfectly captures Hilbig’s lush melancholia, at once devastating and devastated”) by Amada Damarco in the TLS of The Old Rendering Plant and The Tidings of the Trees (here), she comments that “at their worst, they descend into a sort of apocalyptic masculine hysteria.” The Females arguably, indeed quite deliberately, takes apocalyptic masculine hysteria as its lodestone.

Isabel Fargo Cole discussed Hilbig’s narrators, and their relationship with women, in a 2015 interview with Sarah Coolidge (here) about The Sleep of the Righteous, but The Females is a more extreme example of the approach:

Either the women are unattainable, or the narrator finds himself embroiled in excruciating conflicts with them. There’s a profound alienation — but then, Hilbig’s narrators are alienated from everyone. Only with the women, though, is this alienation so tormenting, because they are in some ways the fullest human beings in Hilbig’s work, the ones who seem to hold the secret of feeling and decency and vitality. The narrator feels this keenly, but for all his yearning is unable to form a human connection with them, to understand them, avoid disappointing and betraying them; he is not equal to them. He is like an alien confronted with human beings.

In 2019, misogyny is often a function of political extremism as we see today. Hiblig’s narrator sees a link with his stunted sexuality, and his difficulty in dealing with the females, and with the post War partition of Germany, both symbolically but also practically, in particular given the Leninist/Stalinist view of sexuality and the role of women workers in rebuilding the economy:

I grew up under the rule of psychopathologists who declared the sex drive to be abnormal … and sex to be capitalistic.

[…]

I imagined the country’s partition first being explored through the waists of the females […] the females lower bodies, their perfumed refinement — or so I gathered from the polemical stew my brain was fed – belonged in the other side of the wall in the reactionary camp, where they’d be stuffed with money. […] The females’ upper bodies remained here, buttoned up torsoes dressed in grey or blue, with muscular arms longing to embrace the rebuilding of the country.  And the heads of the females remained here as well, heads filled with clean thoughts, heads that would reward me with brotherly love if I managed to do my part to rebuild.

On ‘psychopathology’ the narrator makes explicit reference to Lenin’s remarks as reported by Clara Zetkin, an expanded version of which I found in The Emancipation of Women: From the Writings of V. I. Lenin:

I was told that questions of sex and marriage are the main subjects dealt with in the reading and discussion evenings of women comrades. They are the chief subject of interest, of political instruction and education. I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard it. The first country of proletarian dictatorship surrounded by the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world, the situation in Germany itself requires the greatest possible concentration of all proletarian, revolutionary forces to defeat the ever-growing and ever-increasing counter-revolution. But working women comrades discuss sexual problems and the question of forms of marriage in the past, present and future.

[…]

This masked respect for bourgeois morality seems to me just as repulsive as poking about in sexual matters.  … It is, mainly, a hobby of the intellectuals and of the sections nearest them. There is no place for it in the Party, in the class-conscious, fighting proletariat.

And near the novel’s end, the narrator also links the root source of his issues back to the concentration camps that surrounded his childhood home:

Yes, I felt I must describe the females who had lived in the torment and the simple solidarity of these barracks, where they were called females, because women staffed the guard details. That was where the honorific was invented: the females.

Ultimately, an earlier work that the four other Hilbig works I have read, and his themes and writing are less well refined, although all the more striking for it. It isn’t where I would advise someone to start with Hilbig, but as with all his writing, it is highly worthwhile.

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