Ludwig Hohl manages to establish an enigmatic simplicity where poetry and philosophy coexist in close intimacy, telling an allegorical story of two young men climbing a mountain until they fulfill their destiny

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Ludwig Hohl, Ascent, Trans. by Donna Stonecipher, Black Square Editions, 2012.

Two young men with very different personalities set out to climb a mountain. Ull, decisive and competent, has his eye on the goal: the summit. Johann, irresolute, is just along for the climb; after several setbacks, he gives up and turns back. Ull continues on -- despite near impossibility of summiting alone, and ignoring all warnings signs -- determined to reach the summit in defiance of his friend.

Ludwig Hohl began writing this story in 1926 and finished it only in 1975, in the year of its first publication. With his narrative he manages to establish an enigmatic simplicity where poetry and philosophy coexist in close intimacy, telling an allegorical story of two young men climbing a mountain until they fulfill their destiny.

"Hohl is a great discovery, an unjustly neglected author."—Susan Bernofsky

In Grammars of Creation, George Steiner calls Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980) “one of the secret masters of twentieth-century German prose.” Written between 1934 and 1936 but not published until 1944, Die Notizen is Hohl’s magnum opus, comprising 832 pages of aphorisms, assertions, dreams, recollections and descriptions of daily life. The manuscript consisted of over 3000 slips of paper. The first volume of Die Notizen sold less than 200 copies, causing his publisher to cancel the second and final volume. So Hohl sued and won. Nevertheless, the second book sold just as poorly. In the 1970’s, after another publisher resurrected Hohl’s works, his unique accomplishments were finally recognized by writers such as Max Frisch, Peter Handke and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
Hohl was born in Switzerland and spent his twenties in Paris, Vienna and The Hague. In 1937 he returned to Biel, then moved to Geneva where he lived penuriously for years in “a cellarage or below-street level cavern” until a small inheritance arrived in his later years. Alcoholic and stubbornly unemployable, he was married five times and had one daughter.
He produced two other works related in form and style to Die Notizen. But in 1926, ten years before immersing himself in non-narrative prose, Hohl began writing Bergfahrt, translated by Donna Stonecipher as Ascent. The story follows two characters, young friends Johann and Ull, as they make their way from a verdant Alpine village in summer to stormy mountainous heights. In his youth, Hohl was an enthusiastic mountaineer, and one can read Ascent as his effort to create precise visions of simplicity and clarity out of memory and imagination.
On the first page, Johann is described as “tall and gaunt, with a sleepy expression on his face,” while Ull, “not nearly as tall, of a more concentrated character, looked incessantly up, looked searchingly up, to the summits of some of the mountains, how they stood all around with an unusually powerful, radiant presence.” Both young men are experienced climbers; they have climbed together before. But as the early signals suggest, Ascent portrays how two different temperaments react to the overwhelming aspects of reality: beauty, change, hindrances, danger.
Stonecipher gets Hohl’s tone just right, the practiced, measured intensity of a story-teller whose only withholding lies in not saying at the outset what happens in the end. As each aspect of the climb unfolds and is exquisitely described, Ascent makes demands of the reader’s powers of interior vision. One must pay attention, and in that sense, the potential perils that face the climbers also threaten the reader.
As in any arduous climb, Ascent offers moments of rest. In one early episode as the climbers wake two or three hours before sunrise in a hut, the teller describes the sensation of opening one’s eyes from deepest sleep:
“The darkness of the hut intensifies the impression of cold, and even when one manages, after much painstaking feeling around and many failed attempts, to light the candle in the lantern, this wavering little light, which makes giant, moving shadows spring up all around, can’t produce the feeling of greater warmth. One could say that such a lantern makes mainly shadows, not light; and the shadows move, because one must keep changing the location of the lantern, because people move, because the lantern, when it is hung up, swings, and finally because of the flickering of the flame … So in the darkness and the cold he who has just gotten up feels tempted to make absolutely no movement, to keep his hands in his pockets, his body held tightly together … Once he finally gets the door open, the door that unfailingly makes excessively loud creaking or groaning noises, but now and then is also ripped out of his hand by the wind to bang against the other side, so at his first glimpse of the mountain-world – glassy-uncanny, when the moon is shining, and otherwise murky-uncanny – the feeling of cold will without exception be still greater, even when in reality it was not any less cold in the hut.”
Hohl had little “success” as a writer and never courted it. Steiner said of him, “He came to distinguish between aloneness as suffocation, as sterility, which he identified with the flatness and dour Calvinism of his years in Holland, and the festive, fruitful solitude of the Alps.” And Hohl noted the paradox in Die Notizen when he wrote, “The greatest, who are the solitary ones, have trust in the world.” Ascent ultimately makes solitude its obsession. Hohl must have strongly sensed the kinship of this novella with his accumulation of notes since he guided Ascent through a forty-year gestation. It was finally published in 1975.
Perhaps more than any other principle, Hohl insisted that writing be driven only by necessity, not the desire to please the market. One of his notes reads, “The worst suffering is always associated with an achievement,” though I wonder if he refers here to private or public goal attainment, or both. Arbeit, the work, was all that mattered to him. The work, an exertion that includes keen perception, is also all that truly matters on the heights of Ascent. - Ron Slate

The Opposite of Modernist Fragmentation
Some years ago George Steiner named Ludwig Hohl as one of the greatest 20th century authors. "Die Notizien" is his central work; it is 900 pages long and still untranslated. I read this to get a sense of him, but it seems to be a singular piece, by which he can't be judged.
Steiner's judgment, which is widely repeated on the internet, is that Hohl is "one of the secret masters of twentieth century prose... a voyeur into the nuances and tremors of sensibility. Hohl experienced physical and psychological phenomena as interminably fragmented. with disenchanted scruple, he fitted these fragments into a language-mosaic of exceptional lucidity" He wrote, according to Steiner, "from a literal underground, from a cellarage or below street level-cavern in Geneva. There, the teeming notes and aphorisms that constitute his opus (Die Notizen) in an always provisional, mobile array, were hung on clothes lines for inspection and revision" (Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 224).
I haven't yet read "Die Notizien," but if Steiner's report is accurate (by which I mean, not overdetermined by his worshipful attitude to isolated genius), then "The Ascent" must have been a kind of counterbalance for Hohl. It is absolutely unified, with a crystalline structure supported by polished set-pieces of naturalistic description.
"The Ascent" is an extremely carefully written realist story of two mountaineers, with a simple character puzzle drawn like a moral at the end. Its descriptions of mountain phenomena -- seracs, couloirs, a Bergschrund -- are patient, rational, even architectonic, and its characterizations of the two mountaineers are spare and schematic.
It's hard to see how this is a modernist's text: it could have been written by Georg Simmel or even Adalbert Stifter, and its roots go back to Buechner's "Lenz." I am hoping that "Die Notizien" is this novella's sprawling and uncommunicative opposite. - James Elkins

Die Notizen oder Von der unvoreiligen Versöhnung

The Notes – the work of a »Montaigne of our time« – were written between 1934 and 1936, three years during which Hohl lived in the Netherlands in »greatest spiritual solitude«. Despite the short period of time in which the collection was written, it is a sum of his whole life and thinking.
The public always considered Ludwig Hohl a stranger. It was only very late that they tried to make up for what had been missed: in 1978, Hohl was presented with the most important prizes for his works, the Robert Walser Centenary Prize, followed by the Petrarca-Prize in 1980. The power of Hohl’s work is a consequence of the intensity of Hohl’s approach to everything he said and thought. But above all, it is the process of thinking, which is made transparent with this volume, the kind of thinking that Hohl perceived as work.

»A work, perceived of thirty years ago, before the Second World War, or, dated in a literary fashion: before Kafka broke out, before many a shift within the classics, before the posthumous coronation of Wittgenstein, before linguistic experiments that are now part of the compulsory curriculum of an averagely gifted person and before the declaration of ›texts‹; as such not a prophetic work, therefore not posthumously-relevant because the course of time has confirmed it, but as virulent now as it was decades ago and readable as if it had just been created, remotely contemporary, ›un-famed‹ but available, linguistically acute; I think, this is class.« - Max Frisch

»Ludwig Hohl’s work, like almost no other these days, can be picked up and read without prerequisite or compromise. It’s as outrageous as it is self-evident. It doesn’t have to be discovered, recommended or be made accessible by interpretation, but is available freely to be read, like a human piece of writing belonging to nature and giving it a soul in the first place.« - Peter Handke

»[Hohl] was a voyeur where the nuances and shivers of sensitivity are concerned. Hohl experienced physical and psychological phenomena as endlessly fragmented. With disillusioned qualms, he assembled these fragments to a mosaic of language that is of extraordinary clarity.« - George Steiner

»Swiss writer Ludwig Hohl is always good for a pointed and surprising observation. His work reveals countless idiosyncratic notes, among them maxims, parables, small portraits, sketches: the forms often merge into one another.« - Martin Zingg, Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag