Hermann Burger (July 10, 1942 – February 28, 1989), was a Swiss poet, novelist and essayist. In his creative works Burger often focused on society's lonely outsiders and, increasingly, the inevitability of death. His virtuosity in applying literary styles and use of thorough research are significant features of many of his publications.
Hermann Burger was born in 1942 in Burg, Canton of Aargau; his father worked for an insurance company. He enrolled at the ETH Zurich in 1962 and began studying architecture, but switched to German literature and art history in 1964. The publication of the poetry collection "Rauchsignale" ("Smoke Signals") in 1967 marked the beginning of his literary career, followed by the prose collection Bork in 1970. For the next couple of years Burger focused on his career in literary studies, writing his thesis on Paul Celan and his habilitation treatise on contemporary Swiss literature. He taught at universities in Zurich, Bern and Fribourg and worked as a literary editor for the Aargauer Tagblatt. His academic experience is reflected in the loosely autobiographical novel "Die künstliche Mutter" ("The Artificial Mother") which won him the Conrad-Ferdinand-Meyer-Preis in 1980. It was dedicated to his wife and its first edition has the dedication „Für Anne Marie“.
Burger's first major novel "Schilten. Schulbericht zuhanden der Inspektorenkonferenz" ("Schilten. School Report for the Attention of the Inspectors' Conference") was published in 1976 and made into a movie by Swiss film director Beat Kuert in 1979. It is about a teacher who has to tell the conference of inspectors about the development of his pupils, but speaks about death cult, graveyards and burials in a very detailed way. Archetypes of this novels are Franz Kafka and Thomas Bernhard. Burger mixes reality and fiction, and the more one reads about him, the more one finds out, that Burger writes about himself, his own suffering.
He won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1985 for his story "Die Wasserfallfinsternis von Badgastein" ("The Waterfall-Eclipse of Badgastein"). 1988, a changing of publishers from S. Fischer to Suhrkamp took place in a spectacular way.
The novel Brenner (in two volumes, four were planned), shows a protagonist wrapped in cigar smoke, who tells his life - Burger himself was a cigar smoker and descendant of cigar producers. Volume 1 has exactly 25 capitles, like a cigar box contains 25 cigars. Each capitle's name contains the name of a famous cigar brand. The second capitle announces the author's suicide intention: A red Ferrari is bought, because saving money no longer makes sense. It is about the divorce and the grief about having no contact to his two kids. Burger's last lessor was emeritus historian Jean Rudolf von Salis (= „Jérôme von Castelmur-Bondo“ in the novel). The last months of Burger's life and a review on his 46 years are described detailed in this roman a clef, he describes all coining persons (under changed names).
Burger's depressive and desperate moods grew with his literary acclaim, leading him to write the "Tractatus logico-suicidalis" (1988), a collection of aphorisms advocating suicide. The 1046 aphorisms are about the sentence „Gegeben ist der Tod, bitte finden Sie die Lebensursache heraus.“ (Death is given, please finde the cause of life.) The title remembers Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The book about suicide was viewed by the critics with sarcasm, and the seriousity of his suicide plans were not recognized. On February 28, 1989 he committed suicide in Brunegg by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Not until Burger's death the critics saw similarities to Jean Améry and his book Hand an sich legen (that Burger knew).
Burger's early promoter Marcel Reich-Ranicki, literature critic, wrote March 3, 1989, few days after his death, in an obituary: „Hermann Burger war ein Artist, der immer aufs Ganze ging, der sich nicht geschont hat. Er war ein Mensch mit einer großen Sehnsucht nach dem Glück. Die deutsche Literatur hat einen ihrer originellsten Sprachkünstler verloren.“ („Hermann Burger was an artist who went the whole hog every time, didn't conserve himself. He was a man with a big longing for happiness. The German literature has lost one of her most inventive language artists.")
His work—mainly prose—was coined by very precise investigation. He e.g. has sworn the magic oath because he wanted to write about a magician (in Diabelli). The oath created a fascinating new challenge for him: Describing Diabelli's tricks without breaking the oath.
Burger was very faithful in linguistic matters, too. When he was young and wanted to build his style of writing, he did copy passages out of literature (e.g. by Thomas Mann) and filled their syntax with new content. The protagonists of his novels and narrations try to describe the situation of their lives in a way that is linguistically virtuosic and in love with details. Those protagonists mostly are diseased and the receiver of their texts is very often a higher authority, e.g. the „Inspektorenkonferenz“ (inspector's conference) in "Schilten" (1976).
Hermann Burger's literary estate is archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern.
List of works
- Rauchsignale (1967) poems
- Bork (1970) prose pieces
- Schilten. Schulberichtzuhanden der Inspektorenkonferenz (1976) monologue
- Diabelli (1979) stories
- Kirchberger idyllen (1980) poems
- Die Künstliche Mutter (1982) novel
- Ein Mann aus Wörtern (1983)
- Die allmähliche Verfertigung der Idee beim Schreiben (1986)
- Blankenburg (1986) stories
- Als Autor auf der Stör (1987)
- Der Schuss auf die Kanzel. Eine Erzählung (1988)
- Tractatus logico-suicidalis. Über die Selbsttötung (1988)
- Brenner (volume 1 published in 1989; volume 2 published posthumously in 1992)
- 1977 - Award of the Schweizerische Schillerstiftung for Schilten
- 1980 - Conrad Ferdinand Meyer-Award
- 1983 - Friedrich Hölderlin-Award of Bad Homburg for Die künstliche Mutter
- 1984 - Aargau Literature Award
- 1985 - Ingeborg Bachmann-Award for Die Wasserfallfinsternis von Badgastein, ein Hydrotestament in fünf Sätzen (in: Blankenburg)
- 1986 - Work order of the Stiftung Pro Helvetia
- 1988 - "Gesamtwerkspreis" of the Schweizerische Schillerstiftung
- Literary estate of Hermann Burger in the archive database HelveticArchives of the Swiss National Library.
- Publications by and about Hermann Burger in the catalogue Helveticat of the Swiss National Library