Obituary: Helmut Heissenbuttel

German writers after 1945 had more reason than most to reflect on the corruptibility of language and the merits of silence.

Many animadverted briefly - and then settled down to more or less traditional forms of story-telling or poetry. Others, from the 1950s on, were more radical, exploring the possibility of fresh starts via language stripped and re- ordered. Their centre was Vienna but Helmut Heissenbuttel, born at the opposite end of German-speaking lands in Wilhelmshaven, was equally radical and more independent of groupings. Moreover his fascination with the limits and the resources of language never flagged over almost four decades. Although his own literary practice and his thinking about literature were never other than measured and reflective, he became, as the years passed, a living reminder of those distant, heady days of linguistic experience.

Heissenbuttel was born in 1921, served in the Second World War until seriously wounded (he lost an arm) in 1942 and then studied - first in Dresden and Leipzig, after the war in Hamburg - Architecture, Art History and German, a combination that may well be reflected in his tireless interest in typography, layout and in concrete modes of writing.

In 1957, already author of two volumes of experimental texts (Kombinationen, 1954, and Topographien, 1956) and a recipient of a literary award from Hamburg, he became editor of the "Radio-Essay", a department of South German Radio in Stuttgart. For over 20 years, until 1981, he was at the centre of a creative enterprise that was a distinguishing feature of German writing in the 1950s and 1960s - the radio play was a form that engaged a surprisingly large number of Germany's leading writers.

The radio play was a natural medium for a writer interested in the distance between language and the visible, material world. In the modern, post- realist world language was no longer able, in Heissenbuttel's view, to reflect or penetrate a reality beyond itself, no longer anchored by systems of thought and literary practice. What was needed was "a new and radical nominalism . . . that takes words as objects, structuring words to form a new reality, not figuratively standing for something, but like a second reality".

In practice, Heissenbuttel was neither as prescriptive nor as divorced from reality as he might sound. He rejected even the word experiment - it suggested too clear a sense of purpose - preferring Ausprobieren ("trying things out"). In much the same spirit, he published his poems and other pieces from 1960 onwards in Textbucher, thus avoiding any kind of genre definition. His refocusing on language as language might seem impoverishing - he quotes more than once Paul van Ostaijen's claim that "the most beautiful poem about a fish is the word fish" - but he demonstrates with great virtuosity and in a variety of forms how far a return to linguistic basics can enrich the range both of poetry and of short prose.

Even a poem like the following, creating visual order out of a trivial occasion, makes something memorable out of one man, one bench, one hand, one dried biscuit - and crumbs:

I Mann auf I Bank

I Zwieback in I Hand

I Hand

in I Hand und

I Mann und

1 Zwieback und

Hand

in Hand und

auf I Bank

I Zwieback

I Zwieback Hand und

Krumel

Non-literary everyday usage, newspaper reports, the language of politics and bureaucracy supplied Heissenbuttel with his raw material (his term) for collages of interlocking or interrupted quotation or for teasingly repetitive demonstrations of language growing circular or contradicting itself. The results could be taxing (the quotations were always unattributed) and yet language, however rearranged, pointed back time and again, often wittily, sometimes menacingly, to the users of language.

Heissenbuttel was most at home in short forms. He attempted, however, one full-scale work, the novel D'Alemberts Ende ("D'Alembert's End", 1970), in which nine people in one day exhibit the linguistic habits, the colloquialisms, the jargon of their class and their profession in exchanges which flatten out plot and character in a tortuous display of language in use. That novel has been more acknowledged than admired; indeed Heissenbuttel himself, perhaps inevitably, has enjoyed much esteem (he was awarded the Buchner Prize in 1969) but little popularity. Yet his dominant presence in the field of linguistic "trying things out" has been recognised by generations of young, would-be innovative poets right into the 1990s.

"Everything is possible, everything can still be said" - thus Heissenbuttel in 1965. It was his motto for decades, fascinatingly exemplified, and others have adopted it.

Helmut Heissenbuttel, writer: born Wilhelmshaven, Germany 21 June 1921; married 1954 Ida Warnholtz (one son, three daughters); died Gluckstadt, Germany 19 September 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own