BOOK REVIEW: THE INTERIM

In Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel The Interim, the protagonist C. is an East German writer who spent decades stoking boilers in the labyrinthine bowels of an industrial complex – working nights so he could be alone to write. When he escapes to the West in the mid-1980s at the age of 44, it is not by scaling the Wall, or evading the border guards. Vilified and unpublished at home, C. is discovered by a West German publisher who invites him to spend a year in the free and opulent West, all expenses paid. And so, armed with only a visa, he departs Leipzig by train, leaving behind his mother and Mona, his long-time partner.

What follows is Hilbig’s harrowing account of C.’s moral disintegration. Instead of rejoicing in his good fortune, he becomes shipwrecked and stranded in an interim state of mind, where he is perpetually arriving and departing, lost in a sea of train stations with no real destination, and no country he can claim as his own.

From the moment the novel opens until its final paragraph, Hilbig’s tormented protagonist seems never to eat or sleep. Instead, he is always moving, quenching his loneliness with alcohol, which only increases his self-loathing and alienation, causing him to drink even more. When he is not lurching lost and intoxicated through the streets of Nuremberg, Munich, and Berlin, he takes refuge in their cavernous train stations, which he prefers over the cities themselves. “For some unknown time now he had experienced the world only in train stations. He moved from station to station with rare interruptions; all that lingered in his mind were the images of stations; they had become the sole points of reference for his consciousness.” For C., train stations are interim havens that reinforce his spiritual paralysis and his growing unwillingness to commit to his writing, to his lovers, and perhaps to life itself.  

Hilbig imbues The Interim with an unrelenting dissonance that, at times, threatens to overwhelm, but in the end, serves to make C.’s self-loathing all the more palpable. The words are so filled with tension and dread that there is no choice but to continue reading until the end. The novel unfolds during a decade that itself is an interim period in history. As C. departs for the West, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is losing its grip on East Germany. By 1989, the Wall that had severed a nation since 1961 is pulled down. But while it still stands, the Wall and everything that it represents haunts C. “You looked out the closed window at a smooth pale gray concrete wall with no beginning and no end, longer than the entire train and interrupted only by its supporting columns.” C. is all too aware that the Wall, which was built to keep the world out of East Germany, has become a barricade to keep its citizens from leaving – its design and construction, “Siberian gulag architecture, concocted by pale gray brains out of sheer contempt for mankind….”

In C.’s interim world, even the color yellow, traditionally a symbol of hope and radiant joy, becomes noxious. A Nuremberg admirer gifts him a yellow leather jacket that he wears constantly like a second skin: “The jacket was a garment of soft smooth leather, almost weightless, that just grazed his belt, and it seemed so perfectly tailored to his body that he felt it was made from his very own substance. Mona insisted on seeing it as a sheath protecting him from her.” Later, in yet another train station, yellow exudes the smell of chloroform, “…yet the hall seemed to have a strange smell of chloroform. Its repulsive yellow paint seemed to transpire the smell, it was a dull oily paint with a pungent salty tang, the smell of old stations that could never be heated properly.”

Unlike the middle-aged misanthropic Harry Haller in Hesse’s Steppenwolf, who is alienated because he believes he is half-wolf and therefore not wholly human, C. has no such delusions; he suffers because he is all too human. Whereas Haller’s mystical journey leads him out of the abyss toward his likely redemption and self-realization, C is incapable of such a journey. Like one obsessed, he pursues love, sex and the myriad pleasures available to him in the decadent West, only to reject them at the last minute. Among literature’s gallery of anti-heroes, C. is solely responsible for his own torment, while Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, and Camus’s Meursault, are the random casualties of a chaotic, meaningless world.

Like one of C.’s trains speeding down the track to the next city, the next country, it is Hilbig’s powerful language that propels the story steadily forward to its conclusion. Throughout the novel there are transcendent passages where Hilbig’s language sparks a panoply of vivid images. As C. nurses his coffee in a cafe, he loses himself in the view of the street outside the window: “For a few seconds all the lanes of the street were swept clear; flickering colors played on the moisture of the December night as it sank wearily onto the asphalt. The sad sky was Jackson Pollock, painting the street with multicolored tears and magical daubs.”

The Interim may not have been intended to be a prescient novel like Orwell’s 1984, but thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s brilliant translation from the German, the novel’s release in English on November 2, 2021, is eerily timely. Much of C.’s reality in the divided Germany of the 1980s feels surprisingly relevant in a chaotic and unstable 21st century beleaguered by global divisiveness. 

Hilbig wrote more than twenty books before he died at the age of 66 in West Germany and was awarded Germany’s major literary prizes, including its highest, the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize.

A sobering, brutally honest work, The Interim may stand as one of Hilbig’s greatest literary contributions.

The Interim
By Wolfgang Hilbig
Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Two Lines Press, 256 pages


Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton is a writer based in Southern Appalachia. His most recent fiction is featured in, or is forthcoming in, Two Sisters, Drunk Monkeys, Cagibi, The Ice Colony, and The Write Launch. Newton has also produced, written and directed two award-winning feature length documentaries: "Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection" and "One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness". He is currently at work on a novel set in the 1970s and a short story collection.

Stephen Newton is a writer based in Southern Appalachia. His most recent fiction is featured in, or is forthcoming in, Two Sisters, Drunk Monkeys, Cagibi, The Ice Colony, and The Write Launch. Newton has also produced, written and directed two award-winning feature length documentaries: "Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection" and "One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness". He is currently at work on a novel set in the 1970s and a short story collection.

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