Obituary: Helmut Heissenbuttel

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The Independent Online
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


in Hand und

auf I Bank

I Zwieback

I Zwieback Hand und


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.