THE FEMALES by Wolfgang Hilbig reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
by Wolfgang Hilbig
translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
Two Lines Press, 129 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
“Perhaps…I should speak of castration, castration that mutilated my interior world,” mutters Herr C., the unnamed narrator of The Females. “I wasn’t operated on, it was all left attached to me, but the cells that steered it were dimmed; my cells, certain cells of mine, were sterilized and castrated. It was a castration of the brain, and fair femininity was the forceps they used.”
Herr C. is speaking from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and his narrative addresses the problems of gender and sex in a society where gender divisions are supposed to be a thing of the past. Herr C. isn’t physically castrated, but his masculinity is supposed to be “sterilized,” the “cells” that govern his male perceptions are supposed to have been made inert.
Except, the cells did not remain inert. It seems to be a general rule of human experience that whatever is denied becomes an obsession, and it’s certainly true for Herr C.: his stream-of-consciousness narrative is shaped by “the females.” He thinks about them constantly and looks for them everywhere. Is this a failure of the state? A personal failure? Or is the text about something else entirely?
The Females was my first encounter with the late writer Wolfgang Hilbig, who grew up in East Germany and was allowed to move to the West in the mid-80s. He died in 2007 and was buried in Berlin. Isabel Fargo Cole has been translating his work for twenty years now. She started working to gain Hilbig an English-speaking audience before his death, and The Females, from Two Lines Press, is her sixth Hilbig work.
The Females is a slim book, just 130 pages, with no chapter divisions and text that is sprinkled with ellipses and hyphens that emphasize the free-association quality of Herr C.’s ruminations. The plot itself is also slim: the catalyzing event is the narrator’s loss of his job, where he worked in the basement of a factory. Through an iron grate he could watch the women upstairs working the factory machines and joking with one another. After losing his job, Herr C. claims that “all the females of the species had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity. —Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use.” For the rest of the book, Herr C.’s monologue is shaped by his search for the females, and his perceptions of women, femininity, and sex. He moves back and forth in time constantly, covering his childhood spent partly in a work camp, his education, his attempts to be a writer, his inability to securely hold a job and his difficulties dealing with the labor offices.
Hilbig’s prose has been described as “earthy,” but this isn’t just a stylistic quality. His ability to use coarse physical description and imagery as a commentary on the individual’s relationship to the state is what I found most striking and artful about this little book. The narrator guides us through his skin conditions and masturbatory habits; it’s certainly “earthy” and even a bit gross sometimes, but the body illustrates the physical and moral collapse of the state. The human body is a reliquary for history’s failures, in this case the rupturing social experiments of the East German “new society,” where both class and gender will disappear. Herr C. describes genitalia and skin lesions with animalistic gratuity, but the point is that while the state has tried to forget what it means to be human, the human body does not forget.
My favorite example of this Hilbigian (if this isn’t a literary term, it should be) quality comes later in the text, when the narrator wakes from sleepwalking; he notes that sleepwalking seems to be one way that he “loses contact” with himself, and decides that the only “practical” way to find contact with one’s self is surely “not by bowing to the descriptions of you by others, which are often as cruel as can be.” The “description” that Herr C. then begins to talk about is the physical act of “procreating,” but his play on the various ways that the word “engender” can be interpreted and used allows his discussion about “descriptions of you by others” to move easily from talking about physical procreation to the social creation of the self as a civic subject:
If I become I…If you let me, just once, I’ll leave the trash heaps of my own free will, I’ll never be a pornographer again, I’ll forego my revenge. I’ll forget the state’s attempt to extirpate my gender by keeping my capacity for procreation secret; yes, I’ll accept it, I’ll forego procreating, I’ll never try to engender anything but myself. But they refused to believe that I wanted to forget, they wouldn’t even open their institution’s gates for me.
I’d made a serious mistake, I hadn’t pledged to keep engendering their idea—the idea that desire was permissible only as a gift from the state—no, I’d merely pledged to engender myself. And in so doing I forgot that I’d been recognized as an innate evil.
“Engender myself” means several things simultaneously here: it does mean a gendered self, as Herr C. feels that gender has been erased from his experience, but it also means to be known to one’s self (to “make contact” with one’s self instead of “losing contact”) and to engender the ideas of the state, to replicate (or “procreate”) the dominant narrative of those who control ideas and language.
This passage also illustrates the other sense in which I read The Females: as a tale about the oppression of the artist who is Othered by the state: in this particular case, the writer. Herr C. wished to be a writer, is haunted by the drafts that he wrote and lost, and tormented by the “pedagogues” who have assured him that his writing would be worthless. True to his obsession with the females, he suffers most when he remembers his mother scoffing at his ability to become a writer. The power of language to control the identities of subjects is affirmed by Herr C.’s recollections, and the role of language control in shaping whole societies is illustrated by his faith in the fake news of his own social context, always mixed in with his perception of the body and sex:
I was an uninvited guest in the literary sphere, and the literature I was permitted to read was one that couldn’t corrupt me—and, avid to learn something about the relationship between my prick and the females, I felt great respect for everything available in print. From all I was able to learn about the problem, it seemed conclusive that my prick was distasteful to the females; the females, I believed, preferred to go to bed with Enlightenment literature; I was at best a sad case study in those disquisitions.
[F]or heaven’s sake give myself time, I was told, by the newspapers, that is, for I had no confidante; yes, the newspapers were beginning now and then, in the section aimed at young people, to touch on questions of the relations between the sexes.
There are endless discussion points here: the power of the “literary sphere,” and questions about what makes something “literary” or culturally powerful, along with the temptation of state information to act as a “confidante” and source of identity for people. Herr C. is a subject of his language and only knows his physical experience through the language that has been provided to him; when he chaffs against sexual isolation, he is also chaffing against the sanitized language that has been used to control his perception of himself and his social role.
I should mention that Hilbig is not only transparent and sometimes grossly sharing-too-much in these passages; there are also moments of dark humor that made this reader chuckle, although they may not be for everyone:
Indeed, I knew that in their hearts the females loved men such as Lenin, who had no prick…or at least nothing was known about Lenin’s prick.
If there was something to be known about Lenin’s prick, then I am confident that Herr C. would know it and would share it with us.
Besides Herr C.’s proclivity for the word “prick,” there is his interesting proclivity for the word “female,” rather than “women.” At first this seemed to simply be another of Herr C.’s earthy descriptives that he just couldn’t shake. In wondering about females, he asks “mustn’t the females be made from earth as well?” and points out the bodily fluids that males and females share. But then Herr C. points out a deeper association that he is making, that comes from his childhood experience in a work camp, and it is both troubling and sobering: “I felt I must describe the females who lived in the torment and the simple solidarity of these barracks, where they were called females, because women staffed the guard details. That was where that honorific was invented: the females.”
In short, the “females” are the other human beings that have been dehumanized or Othered, like Herr C. It is meant to be an “honorific” that indicates solidarity and shared suffering, both in the sense of physical isolation and in the sense of cultural marginalization.
The book kept my attention because of the philosophical insights and the quality of the questions that the narrator’s experience poses about state and gender, identity/physicality, historical memory and the individual. Isabel Fargo Cole, in a wonderful 2017 interview with Joseph Schreiber of 3:AM Magazine, explained that what drew her to Hilbig’s work was that he had “courage,” that he described “dark things” and was able to charge that darkness with “mythic significance.” Hilbig is writing about the GDR, but “he ruptures the surface reality to delve far beneath it, and ends up in a place that seems timeless.” One of the great gifts of writers is timeless dissidence: courageous writing doesn’t vanish after the act, it remains present on the page to be read and re-read. The Females challenges several contemporary narratives in ways that are courageous and timely as our social milieu asks over and over again: What is the role of the individual, the artist, the writer? Which identities are privileged right now and which are subverted, and what is the cost of that subversion? What does it look like when those costs accrue over a generation or two? These are timeless questions though it continues to require courage to ask them.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.