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Novel by Wolfgang Hildesheimer, 1965

The novel Tynset is generally regarded as Wolfgang Hildesheimer's crowning achievement in the realm of prose fiction. A year after it was published in 1965, the author received both the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize, specifically for the novel, and the Literature Prize of the City of Bremen. Hildesheimer felt a particular attachment to the work: "I have the feeling that I truly have said something here and I feel a strong kinship to this novel." It is one of the few central European novels written in German during the 1960s that is freighted throughout with Holocaust imagery.

As in two of Hildesheimer's previous literary works, Nachtstück (1963; "Nocturne") and Monolog (1964; "Monologue"), the anonymous protagonist-narrator of Tynset cannot sleep. In fact, it is the melancholy Nachtstück that sets up the situation from which the sleepless night in Tynset proceeds. As the interior monologue opens, the insomniac narrator is poring over a Norwegian railway schedule, becoming increasingly fascinated by the sound of the eponymous remote town of Tynset. An anchorite living alone with his maid, Celestina, he reveals that he has lived apart from society for 11 years. By imagining himself in Tynset, the narrator fulfills his continuing urge to withdraw ever further into a world of emotions and thoughts, yet at the same time he releases hallucinatory information related to the Holocaust.

The theme of Nazi-related murder appears in a shocking early scene the narrator recalls having heard about in the city of Hamar, not far from Tynset. The German Kommandant had ordered 13 Norwegians hanged from lampposts in the street. (The Nazi had originally wanted 17 strung up, but because of time constraints he personally had to shoot the remaining 4 in quick succession.) Even though the narrator has an urge to escape to the pristine sounding Tynset, with this example of World War II Hamar before him he begins to realize that no one area is free of plunder and barbarity.

It is in the middle of the novel that the narrator shares one of his most chilling memories. He not only remembers an object from the Holocaust but also comments on the primitive mentality of those Nazis still living in West Germany in the 1960s: "Where did I see a drum covered with dark human skin that had been made in Zanzibar?—And where did I see lamp shades made of human skin in Germany created by a German amateur craftsman who is alive today as a retiree in Schleswig-Holstein?" Some 15 pages later the narrator reveals that his own father had been murdered in the Holocaust "by Christian family men from possibly Vienna or the region of the Weser river." By underscoring the religion and locale, the narrator indirectly criticizes both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities for not having protested during the Holocaust, a criticism that also can be found in Hildesheimer's Nachtstück when the sleepless protagonist has a vision of cardinals preserving silence as European Jews are being exterminated.

By the novel's final paragraph the sleepless narrator has come to realize that an escape to Tynset is impossible. Just as no single locale can be identified with all of the horrors of the Holocaust, so no geographic location can serve as a refuge from these genocidal events. Hildesheimer himself referred to the novel as a musical rondo, and as such the narrator is once again left alone with his unearthed memories.

The inability to take flight reflects an episode early on when the narrator thinks of a Jewish woman who had tried to conceal her heritage by having a nose job but who, along with her husband, had nevertheless been murdered by the Nazis: "Both actually died. Died, yes that is what one says. She died in a gas chamber … and he, his name was Bloch, as far as I remember, he was the only person I ever knew personally who literally dug his own grave, and to be sure while being watched … [by an SS man] … who shot him … using his right hand, that big red and blond hand." The indelible memory of the murderer's hand and references to the Schleswig-Holstein retiree powerfully reemerge in the novel's brief penultimate paragraph to recapitulate the protagonist's harrowing nocturnal memories.

In 1971, 12 years after having translated Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1937) into German, Hildesheimer observed that Barnes's masterpiece shares with his own works of the 1960s the overarching theme of "the night that both surrounds and inhabits us, to which we are delivered." In particular, in the chapterless Tynset it is the nocturnal images of deportation and death ("Nacht und Nebel," "night and fog") that hold the protagonist captive in an ongoing nightmare.

—Steven R. Cerf