Wolfgang Hildesheimer Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Wolfgang Hildesheimer (HIHL-dehs-him-ur) is regarded as the most important writer of the absurd in twentieth century German literature. Born in Hamburg on December 9, 1916, the son of the chemist Arnold Hildesheimer and his wife Hanna Goldschmidt, he spent his childhood in Hamburg, Berlin, Kleve, Nymwegen, and Mannheim. He was a gifted child descended from families of rabbis and scholars, and it was assumed that Hildesheimer would be an artist; he studied painting and graphic art. After extensive private schooling in pre-Nazi Germany, he emigrated with his parents to England in 1933, then to Palestine. From 1934 to 1937 he undertook a carpentry apprenticeship and drawing lessons, later completing trade school in furniture design and interior decoration. This training was enhanced in the following two years with extensive experience in drawing and stage design in London.

With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Hildesheimer returned to Palestine. There he spent two years as an English teacher at the British Institute in Tel Aviv and three years as an information officer with the British Public Information Office in Jerusalem. From 1946 to 1948 he served as a simultaneous translator at the war crimes trials in Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and was editor of the entire court record at the close of the proceedings. For the next five years, he settled in a small Bavarian village and worked as a painter and graphic artist. One winter, he became a writer purely by chance, according to his own recollection: Since it was too cold to paint, he settled near the fire to sketch but soon began to write a short story; from that day forward he was not able to stop writing. For many years, however, he did not consider himself a writer, despite his preoccupation with literature and increasing public and critical attention.

One of Hildesheimer’s earliest works, the novel Paradies der falschen Vögel (paradise of phony birds), derived directly from his lifelong involvement in the visual arts. The narrator, a painter, is drawn by a wily uncle into an art scam: The painter produces pictures which are attributed to a long-dead genius and then sold by the uncle at exorbitant prices. Clearly, this novel satirizes the materialistic acquisition of art—the public’s greed and lack of aesthetic values. In a larger sense this early work first raises the question of reality as a “forgery,” a topic which was developed more extensively in...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Wolfgang Hildesheimer was born in Hamburg, Germany, on December 9, 1916. The Hildesheimers were Jewish and emigrated to England after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Wolfgang learned fluent English, trained as an artist in Jerusalem and London, then worked as an English teacher and British information officer in Palestine. From 1946 to 1949 he was a simultaneous translator at the Nuremberg Trials.

Writing was Hildesheimer’s second profession. He began writing fiction in 1950 and stopped in 1983. As he explained in his lecture “The End of Fiction,” he had become increasingly concerned about the world population explosion, the threat of ecological disaster, and technological developments “outside the scale of moral values.” Before, during, and after his literary career, Hildesheimer worked as a graphic artist. His work in the studio gave him a sense of peace he could not find elsewhere. His book of collages, Schönheit als Therapie: Bilder gegen die Verzweiflung (beauty as therapy: images of despair), was published in 1996.

Hildesheimer married the artist Silvia Dillman in 1953. They chose to live in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, in picturesque Poschiavo. He died there of a heart attack on August 21, 1991. In the year of his death, the German publisher Suhrkamp put out a seven-volume edition of Hildesheimer’s complete works, including his illustrations.