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Ascent , by Ludwig Hohl

Bergfahrt - Ludwig Hohl

Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980) is another of the sui generis authors I find myself drawn to. The Swiss-German Hohl was thrown out of school for being a bad influence and never acquired a profession, subsequently living in poverty for most of his life. For quite some time he lived in a cave, where he wrote some of his best work... Somehow or other he managed to wed five times. (!) He had a low opinion of writing and writers, though he spent a great deal of his life writing, primarily for the desk drawer. Not surprisingly, he had trouble getting his work published, and when he succeeded in doing so, the sales were minimal, despite the fact that authors such as Adolf Muschg, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt admired his work. Much of his writing was published posthumously, and it is out of print again.

Bergfahrt (which has been translated into English with the title "Ascent") is a novella begun in 1926 and re-written many times. When Adolf Muschg convinced Siegfried Unseld, the head of the great German literary publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, in the early 1970's to read some of Hohl's work, Unseld was impressed and started publishing Hohl's texts, most for the first time. Among these was Bergfahrt (1975), which I stumbled across in 1980. I loved it and bought what I could find of his books. Not enough, unfortunately.

Bergfahrt is a parable-like story of two men climbing a mountain in the Swiss Alps early in the 20th century. On a beautiful late spring morning, two very different men set out to climb a mountain. Ull, shorter and more experienced, takes the lead and Johann, tall and gaunt, follows behind. The stages of the climb, the different regions of the mountain, are described in an often poetic, but realistic, prose. One feels one is climbing with them.

Already at the first rest stop it is clear that something is not right with Johann. This impression is reinforced at the evening stop, where Johann does not take Ull's sound advice how to stay warm. All the next day they are socked in by rain and snow, so they remain in the little hay storage hut they had spent the night in. From Johann hardly any signs of life; and then another dark, miserable, freezing night in the hay hut. The rain was finished as the next day dawned, but Hohl convincingly evokes the threatening inhumanity, the alien otherness of the high mountain morn amid wind whipped gray and black cloudbanks.

But they continue their climb, though it was now clear that they undertook the climb too early in the season, because the next hut was completely buried under snow and ice. They managed to locate and dig down into the hut to find some shelter, but there wasn't much rest for them. The next day offered yet more problems to the stubborn pair.

All the while Hohl is powerfully describing for us the increasingly alien, increasingly deadly surroundings as they slowly and painfully ascend the mountain. The climbers, whose thoughts we are not privy to and who rarely speak, shrink into insignificance in these surroundings. Then comes a glacier, which is anything but a smooth, solid sheet of ice slowly moving down a mountain. Johann speaks the first word of the day, "Schrecklich" (terrible, frightening), as Ull gestures at what stands before them.

They still continue! This is where I realize that I don't understand mountain climbers at all. Yeah, I know, the challenge. I'd rather swim through the sharks from Cuba to Florida, thanks...

I don't want to spoil the story for you, so, again, I'll leave it there. It gets worse and worse for the climbers, and then there are some surprises, and then some more. Might you want to read this short and intense book about the small matters that can transform a man's greatest strengths into his greatest weaknesses? And what about that moment when death is everywhere, when there is no escape; or that other, very different moment when death surprises? Though the parable aspects of Bergfahrt left me untouched, the rest is burnt into my imagination in such an indelible manner as few other books are.