Friday, December 24, 2010

The World Upside Down

The Collected Stories of Wolfgang HildesheimerThe Collected Stories 
of Wolfgang Hildesheimer 

by Wolfgang Hildesheimer

". . . standing among cloth-draped cages in the nocturnal dimness of the bird shop. The owner asked me what I would like.
"An owl, please," I said.
"Aha," he said, winking, as if relishing the shrewd expertise of his client.  "You're a connoisseur.  Most customers make the mistake of selecting an owl in the daylight.  Should I gift-wrap it?"
"No. It's for me.  I'd like to carry it to Athens."" (pp 79-80)

What imagination could conjure the "owl of Athena", not literally but as the basis for a short story?  The stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer try to contain the imagination of the author who pens tales like this.  This is the first English-language appearance for 19 stories, most of them very short, by the witty, whimsical author of a controversial Mozart biography (1982) and four novels.  Many of the pieces here take the form of literary/academic parodies, with provocative views of culture emerging indirectly, but effectively.

In writing them Hildsheimer shares the journey of a man carrying the owl (owlet, to be exact) along with an amazing panoply of other characters in this small book. There is the retired magician who goes out in what some might call "Keatsian" glory, and a concert Pianist whose dream occupation turns on end the real-life struggles of so many famous composers and performers.  The response of the owner of the bird shop in the excerpt above from "I Carry an Owl to Athens" captures the epitome of Hildesheimer's style.   "I Am Not Writing a Book on Kafka" satirizes the little world of biographical scholars, clinging like parasites to their chosen subjects.  "1956--A Pilz Year" pays hilarious centenary tribute, complete with footnotes, to one Gottlieb Theodore Pilz, little-known apostle of sloth ("the pioneer of sitting in the sun"), whose contribution to Western civilization "was expressed in the non-existence of works which never came into being thanks to his courageous, self-sacrificing interference." (In 1836, for instance, "at the height of his powers," he "managed to talk Delacroix out of painting a series of colossal pictures of various jungle scenes.") Several stories explore the notion of a self-divided artist: in "Portrait of a Poet," it is revealed that Nobel-winning poet Sylvan Hardemuth was really literary critic Alphons Schwerdt, who wrote all those pseudonymous poems--intentionally awful, crassly derivative--in order to give himself a target for scathing, witty reviews; and one very Woody Allenish entry tells of the famous pianist who's secretly a frustrated insurance agent ("a double talent of unwonted proportions").  Hildesheimer sometimes pens an existential fable, often with surreal touches reminiscent of (among others) Donald Barthelme. One man, desperate for solitude (a recurring theme throughout the collection), turns himself into a nightingale; another builds himself a tiny apartment many stories up, virtually in thin air--a doomed experiment in sell-sufficiency. 
The strength of which is in his ability to turn the world upside down, to create a story out of a throw-away line, to dwell masterfully on the metaphors of the world and our lives in it.  Readers with a taste for cross-cultural drollery and dark whimsy will find this an impressive performance.  I found the result of his imaginings to be delightful, often humorous stories of people that I know I would like to meet, and, fortunately, thanks to Wolfgang Hildesheimer (and the excellent translation of his stories by Joachim Neugroschel) I already have.

The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. The Ecco Press, New York.1987

Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. Ecco Press, 1987.

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