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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999

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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 later works such as Mozart and Marbot.

In addition to numerous radio plays, short stories, and translations, Hildesheimer’s most substantial works are extended prose. Though he eschewed the term “novel,” or even “fiction,” in a world which requires none because of its own absurd nature, his greatest popular and critical success can be traced to three longer works with two-syllable titles: Tynset, Mozart, and Marbot. Tynset (like its sequel Masante) is the monologue of an insomniac, alienated from reality and thus from an active life. While reading European train schedules late one winter night, the narrator’s imaginary goal becomes a small Norwegian village with the magical name of Tynset. Representing an unknown and thus alluring life, Tynset and its accompanying illusion can only be maintained if the main character does not actually go; there he would inevitably discover a reality that could only be less appealing than his imaginary vision. Thus the intellectual, dissatisfied with crass and meaningless reality, can either confirm his disillusionment by an active life or nurture idealistic illusions by staying home in his self-constructed fantasy cocoon.

The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his inimitable artistry had occupied Hildesheimer for several decades, eventually leading to the publication of Hildesheimer’s biographical revision entitled Mozart. This work attempts to reach the “truth” about the musical genius, first by dispelling the traditional clichés which had accumulated over two centuries of adulation—reflecting not the personal life of the composer but rather the subjective prejudices of the biographers themselves. According to Hildesheimer, Mozart was certainly not the classical hero, the sublime idol so revered in Western cultural myth; though in the absence of any compelling personal documents, history can never fully reveal what the man himself was actually like.

Hildesheimer’s attempt to see the world in different terms led to a fictional biography which fooled even experts in its purported authenticity. Marbot is a complement to Mozart; however, it is the “biography” of an artist who never existed. Utilizing his literary and intellectual skills to the utmost, Hildesheimer created the biography of Sir Andrew Marbot so convincingly that most critics and readers believed it to be true. Yet in the tradition of many of his own fictional forgers, Hildesheimer concocted a scholarly tome which illuminates the Mozart-dilemma—that is, the personality of the artist in relation to the finished work of art. Here Hildesheimer clarifies his absurdist perspective that there is no comprehensible reality in this life, that humankind is incapable of discerning a meaning to existence. In a sense, human beings create a forgery whenever they presume to interpret or understand the truth about existence. On the other hand, an intentional forgery—that is, a fictionalized existence—is perhaps humankind’s only recourse in the face of an incomprehensible reality.

Hildesheimer achieved his greatest renown as a writer of the absurd—perhaps not surprising, when one considers Hildesheimer’s background as a Jew and a witness to the horrors of Nazi Germany during his work at the Nürnburg trials. In reaction to the brutality and senselessness of these, his most formative years, he began writing satires and grotesques reminiscent of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Despite sustained wit and a polished writing style, his works are in general depressing, for they posit that humankind cannot expect to discover meaning in the natural universe. This accounts for the general reception of his works: His absurdist humor is appreciated, though it has not gained for him a large popular audience. On the other hand, critics have praised his intellectual qualities and his philosophical stance, while frequently ignoring his artistry.


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