Summer Reads: Michael Holtmann on Wolfgang Hilbig and Zbigniew Herbert


We’re having a July Summer Sale, with up to 50% off all Two Lines Press titles and back issues of our journal for as low as $2.

Here, Two Lines Press’s Michael Holtmann discusses one of his favorite TLP titles, plus one of his best summer reads.

2016 has been a hell of year, hasn’t it? Between deeply upsetting accounts of discrimination and violence in the U.S., chilling rhetoric emboldened by the presidential campaign, deaths of exemplary musicians and writers, and the seeming precariousness of the European Union, where does one turn for a touch of summertime cheer?

Sure, you can purchase it as part of our cheekily titled “East European Beach Read Set,” but Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous is unlikely to be the first book to come to mind. And yet I find it consoling. There is something instructive about reading a collection of stories rooted in (or, in the spirit of Hilbig, mired in) the postwar past: The Sleep of the Righteous provides evidence of what everyday life is like in a place cut off from the world. In the first few stories, Hilbig, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s glittering translation, captures the point of view of a boy growing up in East Germany after the end of World War II with gentle unflinchingness. Summer is very much present in “The Place of Storms,” where you can almost breathe in the oppressive heat, and “The Bottles in the Cellar,” where a fruitful bounty has turned overripe. As the book catches up in time to the German reunification, Hilbig’s thinly veiled narrator, morally flawed and knowingly broken, writes with great clarity about the effect of his upbringing:

[My wife] regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason—because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches . . . because they had no desires and no questions . . . because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment—for that very reason did every possible thing wrong.

Even with dark contours, Hilbig’s book inspires in me a sense of forgiveness.

For true uplift this summer, I’ve returned to Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, the masterful if also hard-to-find collection of poems translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter. If you’re seeking a dash of charm to balance out some of this era’s pervasive woe, I don’t think you can go wrong with poems such as “Mr. Cogito Looks at His Face in the Mirror,” “Mr. Cogito Considers the Difference Between the Human Voice and the Voice of Nature,” and “Mr. Cogito Laments the Pettiness of Dreams.” Mr. Cogito also happens to conclude with one of the greatest poems in any language, “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” which reminds us, in spite of everything the world throws at us, to:

Be faithful Go

You can get The Sleep of the Righteous, plus 9 other Two Lines Press titles, for up to 50% off in our July Summer Sale. See all the details here.

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