Authors: Wolfgang Hildesheimer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Paradies der falschen Vögel, 1953

Tynset, 1965

Masante, 1973

Marbot: Eine Biographie, 1981 (Marbot: A Biography, 1983)

Short Fiction:

Lieblose Legenden, 1952, revised 1962

Ich trage eine Eule nach Athen, 1956

The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer, 1987


Die Eroberung der Prinzessin Turandot, pb. 1955

Pastorale, pr. 1958

Spiele, in denen es dunkel wird, pb. 1958

Das Opfer Helena, pr. 1959 (adaptation of his radio play; The Sacrifice of Helen, 1968)

Die Verspätung, pr., pb. 1961 (The Delay, 1981)

Nachtstück, pr., pb. 1963 (Nightpiece, 1967)

Mary Stuart, pr. 1970 (English translation, 1972)

Radio Plays:

Das Ende Kommt Nie, 1952

Begegnung en Balkanexpress, 1953

Prinzessin Turandot, 1954

Das Opfer Helena, 1955

Herrn Walsers Raben, 1960

Unter der Erde, 1962

Monolog, 1964

Maxine, 1969

Hauskauf, 1974

Biosphärenklänge, 1977


Mozart, 1977 (English translation, 1980)

Briefe, 1999 (correspondence)


Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden, 1991

Schönheit als Therapie: Bilder gegen die Verzweiflung, 1996 (collages)


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.{$I[AN]9810001164}{$I[A]Hildesheimer, Wolfgang}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Hildesheimer, Wolfgang}{$I[geo]ISRAEL;Hildesheimer, Wolfgang}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Hildesheimer, Wolfgang}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Hildesheimer, Wolfgang}{$I[tim]1916;Hildesheimer, Wolfgang}

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.

BibliographyHildesheimer, Wolfgang. “The End of Fiction.” In Wolfgang Hildesheimer: Gesammelte Werke, edited by Christiaan Nibbrig and Volker Jehle. Vol. 7. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991. A lecture given at University College, Dublin, in 1975. The same detached, analytical outlook as in the early stories but without the humor. Hildesheimer questions the validity of culture in a time of impending ecological disaster. Ends with an imaginary dialogue between a novelist and a scientist, which foreshadows Hildesheimer’s decision to cease creative writing. States his belief that the writer should support a good cause.Lea, Henry A. “Wolfgang Hildesheimer and the German-Jewish Experience: Reflections on Tynset and Masante.” Monatshefte 71 (Spring, 1979): 19-28. Places Hildesheimer in historical context and explains his distrust of all things German. Helps the reader recognize references used in the short stories as well. Identifies the basic tone as fear and compares Hildesheimer’s precise prose to Franz Kafka’s. This article is an English precursor of Lea’s excellent book on Hildesheimer that appeared in German in 1997.Lea, Henry A. Wolfgang Hildesheimers Weg als Jude und Deutscher. Stuttgart: Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1997. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Long, J. J. “Time and Narrative: Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Tynset and Masante.” German Life and Letters 52 (October, 1999): 457-474. Examines Hildesheimer’s conception of time in his novels as cyclicality within linearity, the former being represented by the liturgical calendar, the latter by clock time and the imagery of entropy.Sacker, H. D. “Hildesheimer’s Vision of Literature.” Hermathena 121 (Winter, 1976): 198-213. An appreciation of Hildesheimer written after his lecture, seminar, and readings in Dublin, Ireland, in 1975. Focuses on Hildesheimer’s criterium that literature must make the reader see something not actually in the outer world.Stanley, Patricia H. Wolfgang Hildesheimer and His Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. A thorough, systematic overview of the critical reception of Hildesheimer’s works. The first ten pages deal with the Lieblose Legenden. English translations for all German titles and quotations. Includes mention of Hildesheimer’s graphic art and suggests topics for further investigation.Watt, Roderick H. “Self-Defeating Satire? On the Function of the Implied Reader in Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Lieblose Legenden.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 19 (January, 1983): 58-74. Explains many of the references in the stories and shows how Hildesheimer both aligns himself with and satirizes the culturally educated upper middle class. Casual asides and name-dropping presuppose common knowledge, but some of Hildesheimer’s cultural allusions are fictional, and he parodies critical and scholarly jargon. Contains German quotations but is quite understandable and worthwhile.
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