Gespräch Seductions of Surveillance:
The Writing of Wolfgang Hilbig

Wolfgang Hilbig © Gezett Wolfgang Hilbig © Gezett


Goethe-Institut New York

Wolfgang Hilbig © Gezett

Marking the English publication of German writer Wolfgang Hilbig's story collection Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press, 2015) and his novel 'I' (Seagull Books, 2015), Hilbig’s translator Isabel Fargo Cole is in conversation with New-York based writer Joshua Cohen (author of Book of Numbers) about the work and life of one of postwar Germany’s major literary figures, focusing on his penetrating, prescient exploration of surveillance and its corrosive effect on psyche and society.

Doppelgängers, a murderer’s guilt, pulp noir, fanatical police, and impossible romances—with these pieces The Sleep of the Righteous builds a divided country. Delving deep into the psyches of both, East and West Germany, Hilbig reveals a powerful, apocalyptic account of the century-defining nation. From a youth in an industrial East German town to a conflicted escape to the West, the author’s cipher is at once himself and anyone ensnared by the clash of cultures. In the crowning novella The Dark Man, a surreal confrontation with a Stasi agent evokes a pitch-black parody of The Lives of Others. The theme of the surveillance state and its seductive, corrupting power is further unfolded in Hilbig’s novel "I" (published in German in 1993), the darkly absurd tale of a postmodern poet recruited as a Stasi informer.

Though raised in East Germany, Hilbig (1941-2007) proved so troublesome to the authorities that in 1985 he was granted permission to emigrate to the West. The author of over 20 books, he received virtually all of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor. Evoking the eerie bleakness of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, this titan of German letters blends the rigor of Sebald with a dazzling Romanticism, creating a visionary statement on the ravages of history―and promises of the future. In the words of 2015 International Man Booker Prize recipient László Krasznahorkai, Hilbig “described a world which is distasteful not only to the Germans but actually horrific for all of us.”
This evening event is presented in collaboration with Two Lines Press, with support from Seagull Books.

Isabel Fargo Cole is a U.S.-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar (Twisted Spoon Press, 2006), All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Seagull Books, 2011), The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann (Seagull Books, 2013), Selected Essays by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Seagull Books, 2013) as well as Hilbig’s novel "I". The recipient of a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2013, she is the initiator and co-editor of, an online magazine for new German literature in English.

Joshua Cohen, born in 1980 in Atlantic City, is the author of Book of Numbers (Random House, 2015). His novel Witz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010) and short story collection Four New Messages (Graywolf Press, 2012) were named a Best Book of the year by The Village Voice and The New Yorker. Cohen’s nonfiction writing has appeared, amongst others, in The New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, and The Forward. He is a critic for Harper’s Magazine. Cohen reads both German and Hebrew and has translated works in both languages into English. He lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Praise for The Sleep of the Righteous
“[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.” — Los Angeles Review of Books

“Hilbig’s prose is vivid and poetic, and a Kafkaesque touch gives these stories ample atmosphere.”  Publisher’s Weekly

Praise for "I"

“… a fascinating historical artifact with resonance for our own increasingly surveillance-prone society…” — The Boston Globe

“…'I' is a powerfully eloquent read which wraps us in the stratified world of its main character's perceived impotence against an almost invisible omnipotent state. … an impressive piece of writing, which manages to combine a multitude of genres and questions in one single novel.” — Bookslut