Despite the intermittent rain I’ve been making fire this weekend, by percussion, striking flint against iron to generate sparks that glow and ignite my tinder. Though on this occasion, I’m not in the woods, but in the comfort of my library, sparking Wolfgang Hilbig’s ‘I’ against Samuel Beckett’s How It Is.
Hilbig’s novel is situated within the social relations of the former German Democratic Republic, depicting the life of a Stasi informer. ‘I’ feels like an exorcism, a chilling novel of neurosis and nightmare, neutralised through being rendered as fiction, a story that searches for resolution between the conscious and unconscious compulsions of its narrator.
Like Beckett’s How It Is, Hilbig’s ‘I’ requires attentiveness to figure out what is going on behind the basic plot level (to the extent that plot exists in either novel). Hilbig plays with the idea that when hearing a story, we experience it a present tense, even when it is recounted in the past.
Like Beckett, Hilbig gets closer than most writers to the actuality of our thought processes, made up as they are not only of a flow of information but with their gaps and misremembering. Rendering these processes in text is difficult and though ‘I’ is less cryptic than How It Is, both are great novels and repay immersion to synchronise a reader with the prose’s ebb and flow.