The Interim

Wolfgang Hilbig, trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole

November 16, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Wolfgang Hilbig's novel, The Interim, newly translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. Hilbig was one of the major German writers to emerge in the postwar era. The author of more than twenty books, he received virtually all of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor. Isabel Fargo Cole is a U.S.-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include five books of Wolfgang Hilbig.

In Nuremberg, in the ambivalent light of a so-called boutique something had suddenly happened to him: he’d been going down the broad, shallow steps to the lower level, rounding a narrowing turn in what was a sort of spiral staircase, his tread inaudible on the carpet, its rhythm irregular because the steps with their differing widths threw him off, when abruptly he felt an attack from behind. An opaque shadow overtook him, he sensed a hand raised against him, armed or unarmed, and quick as a thought he spun on his heels. In the next moment he saw to his amazement how splendidly his instincts still functioned. Automatically his left hand shot up from his hip, crossed the menacingly raised arm, and landed with a crack on a chin he hadn’t even quite glimpsed. It seemed that should have done the trick, but with knees flexed for power he followed up with his right hand, hitting the guy in the midsection; he grazed the horn button of a casually fastened jacket, the exact spot he’d aimed for, and with the rest of his momentum he jerked his right fist up the fellow’s body; the button flew off, the jacket burst open, the uppercut lifted the guy off his feet. And with a short step back, bobbing from foot to foot again, C. landed another direct hit, a left cross to the unprotected head. That finished him off; he broke apart.

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With a groan the guy fell against the railing, jackknifing over it, then seesawed back and clattered down onto the steps, coming to a rest on his belly after an inelegant backward somersault that overturned and extinguished a floor lamp. Even in the semidarkness, C. could see fragments of shattered limbs slipping from the figure’s coat sleeves, and the face, twisted around on the neck, displayed a reproachful grin. Through the cloud of dust, shrill cries resounded from the sales floor of the boutique downstairs; C., brushing off the plaster dust, stepped over the wrecked mannequin he’d felt attacked by, and took off, ignoring the chaos behind him; with a quick but casual stride he stepped back out into the bright afternoon sunlight on Breite Gasse. He shook his head and looked around nervously, swallowing something that resembled a strange sense of guilt: no doubt about it, his counterattack had been much too fierce, just the first right and left would probably have done the job.

There are certainly plenty of people here! he thought aggrievedly, watching the bustle of humanity. Plenty of characters, more than enough characters.

Nothing had happened, it was a normal afternoon, everyone acting as normal as could be, Breite Gasse filled with the everyday crush of consumers that allowed him to slip away unnoticed. Now, just a few hours before closing time, the rush was especially heavy; no one strolled along the gleaming row of stores, they all hurried and hustled, their faces radiating the certainty of serving the world’s most righteous cause: shopping. Down on the corner the taxis never stood for long; the moment one stopped, bulging plastic bags were tossed into the back seat or the trunk; car after car filled with customers, and car after car slipped away, smooth and playful, making way for the next; the taxis purred off toward outlying neighborhoods or the suburbs, where they loaded up with new, as yet unappeased consumers and drove them back to the pedestrian mall. So it went, to and fro, a constant flux of doings and dealings—as some president, a bank president or the West German president, once said in some speech, suavely conservative as he did deals of his own—and the trams that pulled up at the train station opened their doors and disgorged floods of consumers who dispersed at once into the pedestrian mall. And underneath the pavement the subway trains raced up and released more droves of consumers, conducting them, marshaled by the voices from the PA systems, to the densely thronged escalators, which catapulted the masses of humanity right into the bright glare of the shopping district. And there the contented mingled with the discontented, and the other way around; the deceived joined together with the undeceived, embracing their deceivers in delight when they entered the Boutiques, the Emporiums and Markets and Gallerias, and they bought and paid and paid again, signing their checks with a flourish. And back outside on Breite Gasse they beamed in the radiance of their liquidity, and all were distinguished and important enough to bear God’s favor in their hearts. So they strolled, overshadowed by the nearby cathedral spires…

Meanwhile he sat sweating under one of the umbrellas that shaded the tables outside a pastry shop, nursing a lukewarm coffee; the glass of water he’d ordered along with it had gone down in one gulp.

There are certainly plenty of people here! he thought aggrievedly, watching the bustle of humanity. Plenty of characters, there were more than enough characters for even a hefty novel. Enough to satisfy even the critics, the literary critics who’ve been obsessively counting the dramatis personae of narratives ever since the good old days of the stagecoach. Personae, personae, and more personae, always the same old line… But why should I play that game anymore… What I really need to do is make myself back into a personage. And I gave up my battle with the critics before it even started. – This sort of grandiloquence was a habit of his when he was alone with himself, exchanging views, usually on literature, with a shadowy interlocutor, often while recovering from some excitement that had passed.

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Where he happened to be looking, a direction he couldn’t quite determine, somewhere above the tall buildings to the left of the station, the sun had dropped into the haze that hung over the city, and in this haze, as though with the last of its strength, it rekindled its effulgence, and heated colors seemed to spill down slantwise into the street. Evening was falling, and the bustle all around showed the first signs of fatigue. In what just now had been a solid wall of cars along the curb, parking spaces opened up without being filled, the human tide into the pedestrian mall ebbed, and more and more people started leaving. Suddenly, seats freed up outside the pastry shop, and now that the rush was over the staff became lax about bussing the tables. A young couple sitting at his table suddenly up and left as if an alarm had gone off in their heads. Just a moment before the two had been stuffing their doggedly determined faces with hunks of strawberry tart and whipped cream. They left more than a third of it behind on their plates—first tearing it up and smashing it with their cake forks to render it unfit for further use. Had they taken C.’s gaze for that of a starving man, watching mesmerized as they stuffed themselves? They’d thought wrong; what gleamed in his eyes was thirst. But their headlong departure had a different reason—disappointment that it was 6:30 and time to leave the shopping district. The men with the keys stood outside the big department stores, opening the glass doors one last time for the stragglers from the merchandise labyrinths, releasing them, crimson-faced, onto the street: it was all over! The evening was empty, the night to follow would be without end. The darkness to come, bordering on the void, was tenacious and oppressive, and the question of tomorrow being just as fine a shopping day was unanswerable. Skeins of clouds might be gathering in the dark above the city—oh, this capricious September! Exuding a toxic red-gold tincture, the sun had crawled into the haze, its vestigial heat now powerless to burn off the smells in the city’s crannies. And these smells now ventured forth: the inexplicable stench of old cooking fats rose from the gutters and settled like soapy sweat on the woven plastic patterns of the café’s tablecloths. The warmth had melted the raspberry-red glaze on the leftover strawberry tart, making puddles on the plate in which yellowjackets twitched, caught in the trap of colors and aromas. The café wouldn’t close until eight, but that man left sitting by himself, who had spent the past hour with a half-full cup of coffee on whose pale brown surface swam a drop of yellow fat that had failed to dissolve when he stirred in the cream—that man who refused to order anything more had long been drawing dirty looks from the staff, one blonde and one brunette, both of indeterminate age. What was the man thinking, loitering at the edge of the shopping district, evidently without a car? To be sure, he had nothing to transport; his sole loot consisted of a plastic bag, about 12 by 12 inches, holding something square-shaped and flimsy. In all probability he’d bought just one single record, and here at the café table he’d ordered just one single cup of coffee and a mineral water, and had paid as soon as he was served. Without any tip at all. It was hard to place the type of guy he was—judging from his dialect he wasn’t from Nuremberg. From the East, that might be more like it, but how did he get here, to Nuremberg, from the East? Something was wrong with this picture.

In manner, too, he didn’t compare with the three beer drinkers who’d taken seats at a table over by the curb, tossing their car keys down on the tablecloth. Three younger men, but not too young, and three different car keys, embellished with the corporate emblems of the automobile brands and decorative key rings that glittered gold or silver. Blasé, they toyed with the jingling metal—nothing cheap—now and then twirling it jauntily around their fingers. All three wore brightly patterned shirts, unbuttoned nearly to the belt, showing salon-tanned skin and curly blond or dark chest hair: you could tell they took care of their bodies. The short sleeves were closely fitted, stretching over the muscles of their shoulders and upper arms; two of them sported colorful tattoos, all three were decked out with golden watches and fine-linked bracelets, also gold, and more gold chains glimmered amid their chest hair. When they topped off their glasses, they held their beer bottles with three fingers, wrist jewelry glittering in the evening sun, focused on keeping the foam from spilling over the rims of the stemmed glasses… Watching them drink, C. sensed his own thirst; the way they drank was so calculated and well-measured—well-heeled was the word for that type of drinker, a type C. had never been. They paid him no attention, conscious of the two waitresses giving them the serious scrutiny that was their due, while they conversed, intent, yet rather offhand. Only one ever spoke at a time, with the others listening and now and then, as though in unspoken accord, taking a drink from their glasses. The one without tattoos, whom C. could look at head-on, followed each swig by fastidiously wiping the foam from his mustache, then twirling its pointed tips, meticulously and absentmindedly, and the long upward-curving tips of the mustache on his over-short upper lip bobbed when his turn came to speak, and C., spellbound, followed that bobbing motion like a vulture flying away. Smoothly swaying, the waitresses slid their hips around the uncleared tables. They stacked dishes on a tray and brushed crumbs from the weave of the tablecloths, now and then vanishing into the café. The remnants of the tart were left sitting next to C.; feeling he had slipped from everyone’s awareness, he thought: It’s all over… Over! he repeated, and already it was like an echo from his slumbers. Over, and too late for me to pick up the thread again. In a few moments I’ll disappear into this city in some direction or other. Something has broken off, something has shifted. Maybe I’ll suddenly open my eyes and see what that thing was…

He was in Nuremberg, which he still couldn’t quite comprehend. He had come from somewhere else, but now he was in Nuremberg, the city boasting a special breed of youngish male monsters with knock-off Kaiser Wilhelm mustaches. Nuremberg was a city of mementos, a city of reconstructions; his sense was that every grain of human nature had been mass-produced here for sale in the boutiques.

So he’d arrived in a city where, with absolute certainty, you could vanish without a trace. If he vanished to the right, toward the Old Town, he’d retrace his steps through the pedestrian mall, nearly deserted now, and soon reach the foot of the so-called Castle Rock, where all paths led steeply uphill. Here every stroll turned into an arduous climb, ill-suited to the capacity of his lungs, which had once been the lungs of an athlete. That belonged to a different life. Before the late-summer twilight descended, in the open areas at the foot of the castle fortifications, the people referred to as backpackers congregated, along with large groups from that sector of Nuremberg’s youth that regarded itself as unconventional. It appeared, was supposed to appear, as though a whole army camp of deserters and stragglers had spread out on the rough cobblestones, basking in the last rays of the already setting sun. The attitude of rebellion convinced itself that up here, while the light briefly lingered, a stand was being made against the frenzy of consumption that had just subsided one level down, on a stratum of the city less difficult to scale. Amid the throng of wine and beer drinkers someone was having a crack at his guitar and seemed to be attracting attention. He even managed to make C. slow his step… What was the point of that musical statement? At the moment all it did was remind C. of his record, which he intended to put on as soon as he got home.

Between the people squatting or lying on the cobblestones wandered others who were merely taking in the scene, and C. wasn’t one of them either. These were people who were better or more expensively dressed, or who at least no longer felt obliged to signal a certain social identity by donning denim or scuffed leather, squeezing into those ideological straitjackets; people, that is, who had satisfactorily completed their shopping and dropped off their loot at home. Now they strode tall across the Castle Rock, exuding tolerance from every pore and unmistakably demanding it back in the form of indifference, which was generously granted them. And so, heads held high, they strolled through the grilled sausage fumes that floated at nose level atop the beer vapors, circling the Castle Rock. All the nearby kiosks were open, and on this late-summer evening they had no dearth of customers.

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C. wanted to go home and listen to his record, he kept repeating to himself. He did not want to stop at one of the beer kiosks. He belonged neither to one group nor the other, neither to the people lying around nor to the people strolling between them and taking it all in. The freedom here was not for him, because he was much freer. He was unfree by virtue of a far greater freedom, because he belonged neither to this side of the world, where people lay and strolled around, nor to the other side, where people yearned to be lying here…


Excerpt used by permission from The Interim (Two Lines Press, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Two Lines Press.

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