Critical Context

In 1983, two years after the publication of Marbot, Hildesheimer announced that he was giving up literature in order to devote himself fully to his painting. Already in 1975, in an essay titled “The End of Fiction,” he had expressed his doubts about the ability of the writer of fiction to deal with contemporary reality, a reality over which people had no control and which threatened them with extinction. His two “biographies,” Mozart and Marbot, both escapes into history and historiography, postponed Hildesheimer’s inevitable turning away from a successful career as a writer of satires, comedies, radio plays, and novels. His first collection of stories, Lieblose Legenden (1952; loveless legends) contains playful, ironic, parodic, absurd, or grotesque satires on postwar German culture. In one of them, a writer and critic named Gottfried Theodor Pilz (1789-1856), who successfully fought against the cultural overzealousness of his age by persuading artists and musicians to curtail their production, is a cheerfully portrayed predecessor of Andrew Marbot. In both works, history and fiction are intricately intermingled, yet Hildesheimer identifies far more closely with the struggles of the protagonist of the later work. Hildesheimer’s other major novels, Tynset (1965) and Masante (1973), are lengthy monologues of melancholic narrators who have withdrawn from the world in order to contemplate in endless variations the absurdity of their failed lives.

Marbot is an intriguing yet flawed work that can be best read and appreciated in conjunction with the critically acclaimed Mozart. Its brilliant forgery of documents and pretensions to authenticity are unique among the numerous German biographical novels. The fact that Hildesheimer himself was wrestling with many of his hero’s questions and yet sought an answer not in suicide but in a renunciation of fiction and a renewed commitment to art lends the novel a curiously ironic fascination.