Gert Hofmann - Homeland, a mixture of lower-middle-class Gemutlichkeit and concentration camp: rose gardens, barbed wire and guard towers

Gert Hofmann  Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl. Transl. by Michael Hofmann, CB Editions, 2008.

 pdf excerpt here, read it at Google Books

‘Europe’s belated answer to Lolita’ – Gabriel Josipovici

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99) – mathematician, physicist and compulsive scribbler – invites a thirteen-year-old flower seller to call on him at home. He is vain, pettish, frisky; she becomes his housekeeper, pupil and lover; and there blossoms, in this novel’s wry, playful imagining of the real-life romance between Lichtenberg and Maria Stechard, a rare but credible happiness.

From dross to gold, an enchanting tale of love is spun. 
Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Einstein... all praised the writings of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), a mathematician, physicist and astronomer by profession, and an aphorist and satirist on the sly. In Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, novelist Gert Hofmann weaves a wondrous fictionalized tale of Lichtenberg's real-life romance with "the model of beauty and sweetness," Maria Stechard, a flower seller he meets one day near his laboratory in Göttingen.
"The greater part of what I commit to paper is untrue, and the best of it is fiction!" exclaims Lichtenberg, our hunchbacked hero. His daily life of "wrestling with death," of electricity machines and exploding gases is plunged into new passion the day he encounters the little Stechard girl: "Something is found that was lost for a long time." Soon he teaches her to read and write, she helps him keep house... and then? Colored with Lichtenberg's humorous, enlightening meditations on life, death, and everything in-between, Hofmann works a subtle magic in this unusual fable-of-awakening about the transience of human attachments and the resilience of the human spirit.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century Göttingen mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, is remembered for the satiric aphorisms he wrote in his spare time, which have been celebrated by luminaries from Nietzsche to Einstein. He was also a dwarf and a hunchback, attributes crucial to this lively fictionalization of his life by the late German novelist, which charts Lichtenberg's love affair with the progress of civilization and, in parallel, his failure to find a wife. Hofmann gives the scientist a delirious, childish glee at the universe's workings, and a sweetness of character that, true to Lichtenberg's biography, eventually wins him the love of a thirteen-year-old beauty. The author shares with his hero a gift for the epigram, which makes the book seem at first a rather weightless affair. But a mass of loneliness and longing just beneath the comedy keeps it from floating away.  - New Yorker

‘Lovingly and crazily based on the life of the 18th-century German mathematician, who was a dandy despite having a hunchback, Gert Hofmann’s final book translated by his son is delightfully anarchic and imaginative in its exploration of an unlikely love found and lost.’ – Eileen Battersby

‘It is somewhat flabbergasting that this has not been snapped up by a larger publisher. [Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl] is based on the real historical figure, the aphorist Georg Lichtenberg. A short, hunchbacked man, he had a beautiful mind and a witty and idiosyncratic way of expressing himself; and Gert Hofmann has captured this in a style – beautifully translated by Michael – which betokens wonder and innocence, attributes which are necessary if one is going to describe, as this novel does, the romance between a 35-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl. “It’s probably the zaniest, gloomiest and funniest thing you’ve read in a long time, if not ever,” says Michael Hofmann in his Afterword, and this isn’t idle boasting.’ – Nicholas Lezard

Hoffman died in 1993, and his last novel (following The Film Explainer, published here in 1996), translated again by his own son, is a quietly powerful masterpiece of human charm that manages to capture the very essence of the Enlightenment in Germany.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a real person (1742–99), and here he lives all over again as a fictionalized presence—small, short, hunchbacked, eccentric, and utterly charming, a professor in Göttingen, ever-curious intellectually, well known among the international community of thinkers and scholars—and yearning for a private life of passion, fulfillment, and affection. How could a squat and ugly little hunchback ever hope for such? Well, how could it ever come about that a pretty girl of 13, Maria Dorothea Stechard, a flower-seller on the street, should move into his house and live there with him, alone, for a number of years? It hardly matters how, but that it did happen matters greatly: and readers will be intrigued indeed at the way the two live together, preternaturally shy at first, then bit by bit coming to terms with each other, and, finally, falling into love and fulfillment in a way wholly captivating in its charm and utterly lacking in any prurience whatsoever. The end that comes to this exquisite love will bring a tear to the reader’s eye, but not before much else of genuine interest takes place—lectures to students; correspondence with and sometimes visits from scientific greats of the era (“He was in contact with Bernoulli, Delalande, Maskelyne, Messier, Cassini, with Mallet in Geneva and Rumowski in St. Petersburg,” not to mention Volta, Lessing, and Blumenbach); the seriocomedy of death (“Because he had passed on, Erxleben had stopped coughing”); the wonder of teaching Maria Stechard how to read; and Lichtenberg’s endless jotting of notes large and small on the nature of life.
Brimful with love, nature, energy, and intellect: history proved on the pulse and expressed through the heart. A treasure. - Kirkus Reviews

Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been cited before on this blog as a reliable source of reading – he wouldn’t waste his time, so I won’t be wasting mine – but I wondered if his judgement might be clouded when it comes to his father. Gert Hofmann has had his final three novels translated by his son: this, published in 1994 following Hofmann’s early death at the age of 62, was the last. Until now we’ve had to rely on an (admittedly handsome) US edition from New Directions. This month, the book is finally published in the UK by CB Editions. Its cover is elegant if plain, but might have an austere 1950s charm appropriate to these credit-crunched times.
The book itself is a fancy and a beauty. We are prepared for – or forewarned of – what to expect from the opening paragraph.
Once, many many years ago, Professor Lichtenberg pulled on his lecture coat and headed out. He wanted to see what the weather was doing. Because he was a vain fellow, he had silver buttons on his lecture coat. From time to time, he would lose one. Then he would go crawling around his apartment in the wing of the house on the Gotmarstrasse, crying: Where has it got to now? As he scrabbled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let’s write about it!
The hunchback was enormous!
At once we are in a conspiracy where the narrator shares the skittish, disarming charm of the character of Lichtenberg, and the boundaries between author and character – and even reader – are blurred. And why not, since Lichtenberg was a real person (though the only place I had seen his name before was in the catalogue of NYRB Classics): an 18th century polymath who is depicted by Hofmann as having the childish curiosity of great genius. Around him the world is flooded with Enlightenment discoveries:
How quickly progress was being made all over the world! In England they were assessing the effect of electricity on the growth of plants and animals. How it made everything shoot up! Only cats failed to thrive and shrivelled up!
Lichtenberg himself investigates: “He made some extraordinary discoveries that later all turned out to be wrong.” Yet for all his interest in the outside world, it is Lichtenberg’s ability to look in on himself which gives the book balance. He has self-awareness enough to know his physical limitations: four feet nine inches, hunchbacked, with “awful teeth,” lying about his age (“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel”). However he lacks understanding of social mores and falls in love with a thirteen-year-old flower seller (22 years his junior): “a girl had ‘crawled into him, and was spreading out’.”
Hofmann’s task here is to prevent Lichtenberg from seeming like a sexual predator, to maintain the reader’s compact with this charming man. This is as significant an achievement as Nabokov’s ability to gain sympathy for Humbert in the closing chapters of Lolita. In fact it is more significant: Hofmann has balanced the tone of the story delicately so far largely through a wild overuse of exclamation marks, which results in an inversion of the usual rules. Now a full stop, relatively rare, seems to be making a dramatic point, and when Lichtenberg’s lover, ‘the Stechardess’, makes a plain plea as they consummate their relationship –
Don’t hurt me, she said.
– it brings back Isaac Babel’s dictum that “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” Thereafter, in this exceptional central scene, even the formerly charming exclamation marks have a chilly, seductive horror to them:
When she was finally naked, and he pulled her to him, he saw she was still a child. She got quite beside herself, throwing her little head from side to side and and crying: No! No! He said: Wait! and blew out the last candle.
What happened next was the laborious, brutal and bloody business!
And then? as the Stechardess would say, to drive Lichtenberg to tell her more of his life. Then we have an acute understanding of the contradictory impulses of the human heart and brain. “Ideas are … the backdrop to the world. Everything takes place in front of a prospect of ideas.” But Lichtenberg finds that, once admired for the beauty of his lover, “there wasn’t much left of the sympathy he had once enjoyed as a cripple.”
When comic novels are rarely done, and even more rarely done well, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is a breath of air, a carefully chaotic representation of real life through the prism of a fictionalised historical character, complete with cheeky bracketed birth and death dates for its secondary characters. “The times were, like all times, extraordinary,” observes Hofmann. And his book, unlike many others, is too. The only problem lies in the question you ask when you want to find something else to read that’s as lively, charming and cheering.
And then? -  John Self

Happiness is notoriously hard to describe, and few novelists even bother with such an inherently boring condition. Happy families are all alike, etc., etc. But misunderstanding, rivalry, jealousy and hatred -- now these offer the full panoply of interesting plot options. In most novels happiness arrives only in the final chapter, when the right lovers are finally united, the orphan identified as the old millionaire's long-lost child and the hero welcomed home by his faithful Penelope. Alas, should a blissful young family appear in chapter one, nothing but horror and disaster can possibly await them. In chapter two, the husband will almost certainly be dragooned by mercenaries who've wandered in from the Thirty Years' War, the delicate wife will be duly gang-raped before being sold as a concubine, and the couple's flaxen-haired daughter -- a dancing, blue-eyed pixie-child of 6 -- will be traded to an evil plutocrat who believes that quaffing the blood of pre-pubescent virgins will extend his life. But 400 pages later everyone will be back together, and all's well that ends well.
Yes, that's a Real Novel.
By contrast, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl merely recounts the growing affection between a dwarfish hunchback and a young girl who becomes first his servant, then his lover. Nothing dramatic happens. Really, nothing at all, unless you regard philosophical conversation between 18th-century German academics as dramatic. But about a third of the way through Gert Hofmann's novel, one realizes that here is a quiet and convincing description of human happiness.
The misshapen Lichtenberg is a professor at the University of Göttingen and "because of his hunchback, he had to be clever the whole time, people expected that of him." But the "little man" yearns for tenderness. Sometimes he puts on his wig and trots off to a concert. "There were pretty young ladies sitting there, maybe he would catch one? Lichtenberg went right up to them, but he didn't manage to catch any. They were only there for display purposes." That touch of dry humor, by the way, is wholly characteristic of Hofmann's glancing, indirect style: "Professor Kastner (1719-1800) liked to stand by the window. He was twenty-three years older than Lichtenberg and of course much, much taller."
One day the ill-favored Lichtenberg notices a pretty 13-year-old flower girl named Maria Stechard. He dubs her the Stechardess, and soon begins to spend more and more time with her. Finally, one mild spring night, the shy beauty moves into his house, where she helps out in little domestic ways. Time passes, and Hofmann touchingly suggests the pathos of the heartsick Lichtenberg's growing desire for the girl, a mere servant, after all, illiterate besides, not of his class, and he a cripple too. And yet.
"At night he often stood in front of her door, pressing an ear to it. He wanted to hear her breathing. Every sound that reached him, he would match up with some movement on her part. Because she wore straw-soled shoes, he could hardly hear her. Her bonnet was green and laced under the chin. Her chin was white and soft, and he would have loved to stroke it. Her skirts were black and dark-green, and reached almost down to the floor. That's how I'll picture her to myself, thought Lichtenberg, when she's booted out of my life again."
But the Stechardess doesn't abandon him. Instead, as the seasons pass, she slowly grows to love the little man. By this point, if not earlier, the modern reader has come to realize that this isn't Lolita but Beauty and the Beast. Lichtenberg teaches his darling her letters; she prepares his meals; they talk and talk. And their love continues to grow, until one night they eventually sleep together. Afterward, they find themselves, suddenly, unexpectedly, even more happy. For a while Lichtenberg tries to keep their relationship a secret -- and here one feels he should have been more courageous -- but eventually Göttingen society knows what's going on and tacitly accepts it. There's a "sad" ending to this tender story, but it arrives so fast that it hardly matters; one remembers only the delicate portrait of a kind of marriage, a little civilization created by two needy people who have somehow managed to find each other.
Hofmann builds his compact novel with short scenes and observations, which together grant the story speed, lightness and a certain emotional distance. But this darting, apparently haphazard form also allows him to emulate a diary, and thus to incorporate actual passages from Lichtenberg's so-called "Waste Books," the name given to his collections of notes and aphorisms: e.g., "The most important things in the world flow through tubes." Indeed, the novel incidentally provides a good brief introduction to its hero's life and thought.
One of the luminaries of German culture, Georg Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was in his heyday internationally respected as a scientist, a wide-ranging polymath who worked with electricity, studied the heavens and surveyed the towns of Hanover and Osnabruck. Yet this "cripple" of Göttingen was also an important writer and is today revered as a master of the aphorism as well as an astonishingly imaginative critic of the English artist William Hogarth. (See The World of Hogarth: Lichtenberg's Commentaries, translated by Innes and Gustav Herdan, who describe the book as "an ingenious reading of the tales found in Hogarth's engravings." Ingenious isn't the half of it -- Lichtenberg makes every detail of "Marriage-a-la-Mode" or "The Rake's Progress" into an occasion for a mini-essay on 18th-century mores and customs.) The aphorisms have been translated several times, by Louis Kronenberger ("The fly that doesn't want to be swatted is most secure when it lights on the fly swatter") and more recently by R.J. Hollingdale ("He moved as slowly as an hour-hand in a crowd of second-hands").
Throughout Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, Gert Hofmann deliberately toys with the reader by never giving in full his hero's most famous observation: "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is unlikely to look out." A true enough statement, most of the time. But not in this fine and original book (lovingly translated by the late novelist's son, the poet and critic Michael Hofmann). The 18th century might describe Lichtenberg as an ape, as it did that other dwarf-genius Alexander Pope, but in Hofmann's pages he is kind-hearted, lovable, funny and absolutely devoted to his Stechardess, not quite an apostle, perhaps, but surprisingly close to one nonetheless.  - Michael Dirda

I have been meaning to read the late Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (Kleine Stechardin, 1994; tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann, 2004) ever since John Self reviewed it on his blog.  John’s review spoke of charm, yet, mixed in the review, is a disturbing premise.  Charming and disturbing?  Why did I take my time getting around to it?  Whatever the reason for my procrastination, I recommend you don’t wait.  Now that I’ve read it, I feel pity for that alternative life I would have led had I not.
"Once, many many years ago . . .” is the soft opening to the book about the real historic figure Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799).  In his afterword, Michael Hofmann (the author’s son and translator) says we might be forgiven for not knowing who Lichtenberg was since it is likely we would only know if we were “a Germanist, a lover of aphorisms, or a student of ur-science.”  In 1763, Lichtenberg arrived at Göttingen University where he was a physics professor until his death, though he has no major accomplishments to his name.  This book gives a comical account of one of his failed experiments when he inflated a balloon indoors, but it was too big to take outdoors where he planned to use it as a transportation device — something already invented by others — and, consequently, “Lichtenberg was left sitting with his balloon in his lecture room.”
My own knowledge of Lichtenberg before reading this was limited to the fact that NYRB Classics published The Waste Book, a collection of those aphorisms Michael Hofmann mentions.  I haven’t read The Waste Booksbut I’m now tempted because this book uses them liberally.  Lichtenberg was apparently a clever man and took pride in it, carrying around a pencil to copy down and refine his wit.

“In case Heaven should really consider it necessary to withdraw me from circulation and put out a new version,” he wrote to his friend Polycarp Erxleben (1744 – 1777), “I would like to give it one or two bits of advice, in particular concerning the form of my body and the overall design of the whole thing.  Straighter,” he wrote, “altogether straighter!”
Why straighter?  I’m getting ahead of myself, and perhaps to the detriment of this book.  After all, perhaps the idea of reading a book about an eighteenth-century scientist and aphorist sounds a bit dry.  I should retreat a bit and allow Lichtenberg to be introduced the way Hofmann introduces him:
As he scrambled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback!  Quick, let’s write about it!
The hunchback was enormous!
As you can see, that this book may be stodgy should not be a concern.  Hofmann’s presentation is whimsical and vivacious, chuck-full of exclamation points (which I never, here, tired of).  Whoever the narrator is, the thrill he gets telling the story is contagious as he brings the reader into the narrative, always assuming our next question: “And then?”
As the story begins, we feel sorry for Lichtenberg.  He’s in his thirties but is a feeble wreck of a man:

“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel,” he wrote to Alessandro, Count Volta (1745 – 1827).
His hunchback, in particular, is a constant embarrassment.  He dreads going to his classes, knowing that everyone’s attention is on his hunchback, not on physics.  As much as he wants to be social, he can’t stand the thought that his hunchback is always between him and his friends.
He wished they wouldn’t insist on touching it.  It made him feel terribly impatient, later sad.
Of course, he saves himself with some cleverness:
“The only manly attribute I have, decency unfortunately prevents me from displaying.”
What Lichtenberg wants more than anything, though, is love.  He adores females of any age; he comes off every bit as lusty as he does witty.  Any dread that his hunchback instills in him is almost eclipsed if a woman is giving him a bit of attention.  Nevertheless, he knows he is repulsive.  One day, though, Lichtenberg’s time comes:
Shortly thereafter, Lichtenburg wrote a letter — still preserved — to his schoolfriend, the pastor Gottfried Hieronymus Amelung (1742 – 1800).  “Just imagine,” he wrote, “something has happened, all of a sudden!  I’ve met a girl, a girl, a girl, a girl! — the daughter of someone in the town. [Here he was lying through his teeth, she wasn’t a burgher’s daughter at all, she was way below!]  She is thirteen, and, I have to say, beautiful.  I have never seen such a picture of beauty and gentleness.  She was in a group of five or six others, doing what children do here, selling flowers up on the wall to passersby. [. . .]”
And then?
Well, said Lichtenberg, and then indeed.
Soon the little flower girl, Maria Stechard (Hofmann often calls her the Stechardess) has moved in with Lichtenberg, to Lichtenberg’s absolute joy, and he becomes a subject of gossip (as, we are assured, were many others in that day):
In Göttingen — pop. 10,000 — there were no secrets.  One person yanked another around the corner, and the whispering began.  Often enough, the subject was Dr. Lichtenberg and the beautiful child.
For some time, the Stechardess and Lichtenberg live together in innocence.  She is an object of contemplation for him, and he is just a kind malformed man for her.  Nevertheless, we know Lichtenberg’s heart, and the seduction begins.  Though it is clumsy and, for all its shamefulness to us today, funny, it is an ugly moment.  Here sit Lichtenberg and the Stechardess one quiet evening:
When the sun’s gone down, he said, I don’t know if you’ve observed this too, the world is changed.  Even the people are different.  In their houses they move closer together and speak more quietly, as though they don’t want to be heard.  They sit by the stove.  The old women cross themselves and sigh a lot.  All because of the darkness, better termed blackness, said Lichtenberg, and the pair of them ate.  He looked towards the Stechardess and had sinful thoughts, his face turning red.  The Stechardess lowered her eyes.  Ah yes, he said. There’s some marvelous control and pacing in that passage.  We can feel night dropping in the silence as the evening becomes much more grave for both Lichtenberg and the Stechardess.  It serves to note, also, the lack of the exlamation point, used so often elsewhere.  And then, in one simple paragraph, this:
Don’t hurt me, she said.
The entire book, though it is funny — and charming, don’t forget charming — throughout, contains such grave undercurrents.  Lichtenberg is practically a failure and he’s already contemplating the fact that when he is swallowed up by the grave so are his memories (making his deceased parents, he thinks, truly dead).  He’s already fairly certain that he has achieved nothing of note that will merit remembrance.  And death is all around.  Good healthy friends and students are absent the next day, death having visited them inexplicably in the night.
And Hofmann keeps the flow of time ambiguous, despite the consistent “And then?” that moves the story from one scene to the next:  “It was summer again — or was it still summer?”  A great book, worthy of remembrance. -

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is the first novel I have read from independent publishers CB Editions, and I think I can understand what the Guardian means in saying that this publisher specialises in “works which might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers”. The British publishing scene is so dominated by commercial considerations that countless good works of fiction are ignored in favour of endless rows of celebrity biographies and other genre categories.  At least CB Editions don’t try to outdo other publishers in the garishness of their covers – I find the minimalist jacket design refreshing, if perhaps making one think of “brown paper covers” from 1950s Soho bookshops (no, I wasn’t there!).
I’d never heard of this book before reading John Self’s and Mark Thwaite’s reviews, but evidently its author, Gert Hofmann, is a quite well-known German writer, although with a rather sparse Wikipedia entry.  The book is translated by his son Michael, who has an impressive bibliography of published works.  Michael Hofmann provides a very useful Afterword to this novel, and I wish in some ways I’d read it first, because it explains something of his father’s writing style.  Apparently Gert Hofmann’s first successes were in writing radio plays, and then when he had a stroke at age 57 he began to write his novels in a much more direct, speech-based style, heavily based on dialogue with random interjections and diversions.  The resultant liveliness of the writing is quite unique and gives this novel a freshness and directness which I for one found quite beguiling.
The novel imagines scenes from the life of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist, scribbler and Anglophile, who takes a new housekeeper into his home (the erstwhile “little flower girl”).  We are treated to a lengthy introduction to the life of Lictenburg by means of several cameo portraits from his daily life in the university city of Gottingen.  He walks to the library with a friend and lectures to students at the univerity.  He digresses about his hunchback and wonders if it is growing bigger, while local people ask if they can touch it to bring them luck.  On returning home he conducts scientific experiments into the nature of electricity.  We are treated to his inmost thoughts as he jots down in his “waste book”, some of the many aphorisms for which he was famous.  Lichtenberg is full of what might be called “character”, and Gert Hofmann perfectly captures the hopping about of this agile mind which takes an equal interest in everything that comes its way, whether trivial or profound.
But Lichtenberg is love-sick (or rather sick through the absence of love in his life).  Women take an interest in him and are amused by him, but he feels that it is for his curiosity value rather than for any romantic reasons.  His hunchback does not deter him from trying to find love, but somehow he is not taken seriously.  He thinks about women intently, moving on from one to another as they occupy his non-scientific thinking time.  Soon he encounters the little flower girl, whose parents are poor and only too pleased to offer her as a sort of assistant house-keeper (much to the chagrin of his current house-keeper who does not last long under the new regime!).
The relationship flourishes, but lets get it clear, this book is in not seedy or salacious. These were very different times, and it was not unusual for young teenagers to be given in marriage (or less formal arrangements in this case!), and Hofmann is more concerned with the relationship between these two oddly matched people than their physical encounters.  The writing is witty and ironic, and constantly surprising.  The flower girl blossoms under Lichtenberg’s tutelage, learning to read and to assist with the scientific experiments.  Lichtenberg has a child-like curiosity in the things around him and this is shared by the flower-girl who follows him around, watching his experiments and offering her assistance at every opportunity.
But it is the style of writing which makes this book sparkle.  English speakers without facility in German cannot verify for themselves whether Hofmann has created an accurate picture of Lichtenberg, but nevertheless, the picture is entirely credible.  Hofmann’s lightness of touch has some of the qualities of a fairy-tale (as Mark Thwaite points out in his review).
I enjoyed reading about 18th century science, its eclecticism and its amateurism.  The wide range of topics covered by Lichtenberg is impressive, despite his special interest in electricity.  Scientists were not specialised as they are today, and took an interest in the whole of the natural world, while throwing in a bit of philosophy too.  In Lichtenberg this resulted in a vast collection of aphorisms, not alas currently published in an English translation.
I am grateful to CB Editions for publishing this fine novel. In some ways it reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s much under-rated book According to Queeney, which provides similar fictional but well-researched insights into the life of Samuel Johnston.  In the words of booksellers the world over, if you enjoyed this then you’ll enjoy that! - acommonreader.org/lichtenberg-and-the-little-flower-girl-gert-hofmann/

Gert Hofmann's work is little known here in the UK. Translated by his son Michael, a noted writer in his own right of course, (and RSB interviewee), Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is the last thing that Gert Hofmann wrote before his untimely death in 1993, aged just 62. Astonishingly, the book has yet to be released in the UK (and release doesn't look likely); so we must thank Norton imprint New Directions for its release, as yet only in hardback, in the US.
In his excellent afterword, Michael Hofmann suggests that his father's last three books (The Film Explainer, Luck and Lichtenberg) represent a loose trilogy: "novelists have one novel they keep writing over and over. My father had two ... [Each of his last books] managed to harness both [his key] tropes, art and childhood ... to me they are ... his apotheosis." As much as anything, these works are bound by a working method: in 1988, Gert Hofmann had suffered a stroke which left him unable to read; his last three books were dictated to his wife.
The last words of Lichtenberg remind me of the disputed ending to Joyce's Ulysses: without a full-stop, one can argue that Joyce's text opens unendingly beyond itself. Lichtenberg does the same, ending with "And then?" (Und dann?) which is the very interpolation so often used throughout the novel to move the action along. We know, at the end of novel, that what we have read was merely an episode in Lichtenberg's life; a collection of paragraphs, and not a life. We know as readers that we must get on with our own life now the pleasure of this text is over.
It is misleading to invoke Joyce, here, however. Whilst Lichtenberg is a profoundly intelligent book its principal pleasure lies in Hofmann's lightness of touch (for which his son, our translator, must be warmly congratulated). Michael Hofmann wonders, in his afterword, if readers will have ever come across a zanier, gloomier and funnier book. I haven't, not for a long time. Nor have I come across a warmer, odder book. Nor one with so many exclamation marks!
It is testament to the anti-intellectualism of British culture that intelligence has been equated with what is dour, dreary, turgid and pretentious. A fairy-tale, for that is what it is, like Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, may not seem to offer the brain-food that more ostensibly difficult works offer up, but this novel is just as important as Hofmann's other books (Our Conquest, The Parable of the Blind [excellently reviewed by Edmund Hardy here]), and just as intellectually satisfying. Aesthetically, it is a triumph. Hofmann's sweet, ebullient, tender work hints at something darker, without explicitly stating anything beyond its surface.
Professor Lichtenberg is short, humpbacked, and losing his hair. He writes about mathematics, electricity, philosophy, but his dreams are more lascivious. He wants someone to warm his bed and fill his heart. Hofmann presents to us this winning, eccentric character, and his unconventional love affair with the little Stechardess, Maria Stechard, a flower seller and daughter of one of his neighbours, via a series of clipped conversational fragments and precious little description. The narrative moves along at a formidable pace because Hofmann never delves into what is driving Lichtenberg. Resolutely remaining on the surface of things, Hofmann refuses to psychologise: Lichtenberg is not made real by the creation of a rounded character, filled out with credible motivations; he garners our sympathy and empathy whilst remaining unknowable and unjudgeable.
Whilst Lichtenberg himself may be inscrutable, Hofmann's book certainly is not. Or, perhaps it is. Simplicity is an underrated virtue in fiction, too often it is assumed that plainness and restraint are artless and Spartan. It is presumed that explanation and elaborate backstory create a fully rounded character. But such mimetics do not always make for satisfying art: the elaborate can be merely ornate: motivation can be imposed without a real feeling for the characters' true selves. Allowing a character to not have his/her motivations pinned down and explained away can give a story wings. In Hofmann's short, sturdy, pointed paragraphs, Lichtenberg is presented to us as he presents himself to the uncomprehending citizens of Göttingen: a dandy, an eccentric, a naïve, a learned fool; a flawed man, a good friend, an amateur. All this, and more, without crass psychology and with much humour.
Mark Thwaite

Gert Hofmann’s last novel, faithfully translated by his son, Michael Hofmann, takes up a subject rich in intellectual history. Working during the high age of Enlightenment science and German Romantic philosophy, George Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799) was a physicist, mathematician and astronomer, the first Professor of Physics at Göttingen University, remembered for his pioneering experiments in electricity. His work prefigured copy machine technology, plasma physics and modern work on fractals. Lichtenberg was one of the first scientists to teach students in laboratory conditions. A heavyweight figure for historical fiction then?
Not exactly—at least, not here. Gert Hofmann’s novel is a jeu d’esprit. Sidestepping most of the physics, it centres on a comic-erotic presentation of Lichtenberg’s passion for “the Stechardess”, a thirteen-year-old weaver’s daughter. Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl is a divertimento, a bagatelle, a spree of ebullience, life-writing as a melancholy joke about a jester with curvature of the spine and consciousness of being something of a freak within his community. The novel’s constant and rather relentless manner is that of a fairy or folk tale, a nursery story, told in implied dialogue, such as one might conduct with a child being read to at bed time. “What do you think they’re doing? … they’re making googlemosh,” observes one of the townsfolk when the flower girl joins the hunch back.
   Perhaps one might think of it as a waste book, a Sudelbuch. After Lichtenberg’s death, the notebooks he called his “waste books” were discovered. He’d kept them from his student days until the day of his death. They were published as Lichtenberg’s Vermischte Schriften in the early years of the nineteenth century: they contain odds and ends, bits and bobs. But bits and bobs in the Romantic era were the equivalent of wisdom literature. We remember Schlegel and Novalis for their extraordinary fragments, epigrams and paradoxes. Thus Lichtenberg: “The proof that man is the noblest of all creatures is that no other creature has ever denied it”; “A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.” Lichtenberg’s waste books were kept for extempore musings: in part commonplace books for quotations and book titles, they also consist of autobiographical sketches. What is caught there is thought on the wing, warm with the speaker’s breath, the improvisations of the moment.
   The waste books are the fragmented record of a subjectivity, a spirit in flighty dialogue with itself, sipping deliciously from its own ironies. Tantalising, evocative and fugitive, they are a gift to the novelist. Gert Hofmann does not seek to reconstruct Lichtenberg precisely as he was, from the ghost on the page. Rather he creates a toy version of the man, winds him up and sets him going. His characterisation reminds me of a Kleistian marionette, its dance describing what Kleist in his celebrated essay, On The Marionette Theatre, calls “the path of the dancer’s soul”, created by the puppet master’s sharing of the centre of gravity of the marionette, “dancing himself”. If the waste books are essentially dialoguic, product of that “colloquy with self … this internal dialogue” that Schlegel saw as representing the essential dualism of human consciousness, Hofmann’s Lichtenberg is a composite of author and subject. The novel’s comic mode exhibits endless gusto, a tiring virtue in its pure form, a version perhaps of Schlegel’s “transcendental buffoonery”. Novels, wrote Schlegel, are “the Socratic dialogues of our time”. In them, everything must be “jest and yet seriousness, artless openness and yet deep dissimulation … constant self-parody”.
Yes, you say, but excuse our mentioning it: this is the twenty-first century and we have lost the taste for transcendental buffoonery. And this fellow Lichtenberg, what was he doing playing around with a thirteen year old girl? Isn’t that pederasty? Don’t you take this seriously? Why the innocent, folksy tone? Are you colluding with a claim that being small and disabled compensates for sexual abuse? Or that, because such behaviour was common in this culture, it is excusable?
   You have a point: more than a point. Lichtenberg and The Little Flower Girl is a strange, in sundry respects anachronistic and embarrassing, coyly told tale. It dandles the figure of the “manikin”, “cripple”, “little hunchback”, before us on its author’s knee in a way that, to the modern ear, grates badly. “He was always on the lookout for … a mistress. Eh? The little cripple? Why ever not?” … “Towards midnight, the little manikin was back on the street, setting off on its little legs.” Where are we? In Lichtenberg’s head? Sharing the townsfolk’s gossip? In his fascinating Afterword Michael Hofmann tells us that his father’s prose is based on “the scenes of dialogue he learned to write in his radio decades”and, crucially, that it is layered with reported speech. I can imagine that for the translator this problematises translation into English. Erlebte Rede in German creates an ambivalence that is clearly, subtly visible on the page through the veiling subjunctive; in English, free indirect style cannot be clearly marked.
Lichtenberg and The Little Flower Girl is full of questions and exclamations. It fondly indulges its hero, as he and his lover “hoke and hunker together so tightly. How beside themselves they were.” But the act of love between them reads like a rape: “She was terrified of his hunchback, which she stroked, and of the brutal thing he had between his legs and kept attacking her with. It went on for a long time.” The narrator relishes every detail of their amorous play. I found this troubling.
   What impresses is the novel’s irreverent perspectivism. “Quick, let’s write about it!” Lichtenberg’s great contemporaries—Kästner, Amelung, Herschel—make impromptu visits, focused as comic, folksy versions of themselves: the novel sees all faces reflected in the same spoon. It presents an improvisational mimesis of the inner life, taking off from and dipping back into the strange deposits of self in Lichtenberg’s waste books, adding new aphorisms and cartoonish character sketches, an experiment in creative afflatus. - Stevie Davies

Sometimes, when you read a lot of fiction, it all begins to feel much the same. A monotony sets in: sentence follows sentence, chapter follows chapter, book follows book, all trudging past like prisoners on a death march across a blasted winter landscape. The prose does what it must in order to survive, plodding ever forwards, and once in a while a book misses its step, falls, and receives a shot to the back of the head. (I mean that it gets put down unfinished. Bear with me.)
Then a book comes along that’s filled with such vital, remarkable prose, that it reminds you what fiction is capable of. Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is such a book, an explosion of language that leaves the reader wondering, as the publisher might say, How did he do that? This is the kind of prose that makes you want to get up and run around the room, and it’s another feather in the cap of CB Editions, who’ve finally given it a UK publication.
Originally published in Germany in 1994, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is Gert Hofmann’s final book, and like the two before it, has been translated by his son Michael Hofmann, who also contributes an afterword to this edition.
The story is a fictional account of (eighteenth century German scientist) Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s love affair with Maria Stechard, who is thirteen when they first meet. As a result of both the subject matter and Hofmann’s playful use of language, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl has drawn comparisons with Lolita. A difference though is that in Lichtenberg’s time, this kind of relationship wouldn’t have been so unusual. So, where Lolita is a study of morality and self-deceit and voice, Hofmann’s focus here is much more on the voices: throughout the novel, the author’s voice, Lichtenberg’s, the flower girl’s, and those of the people around them, all flow together, intertwining and providing context for each other.
People as far away as Osnabrück now knew “what went on” in Lichtenberg’s quiet house. They just expressed it in different ways. They talked about how he and the girl “were doing it together” or “shared beddy-byes,” “went snogging and licking each other,” that “they ate out of each other’s hands,” etc. At the university, everyone stared at him. The looks he got! When he had gone past with his stack of books, they shook their heads. Then they winked at each other and sucked their teeth: tsk tsk tsk! There wasn’t much left of the sympathy he had once enjoyed as a cripple. The men were envious of him and asked: Wonder how he managed to catch her? or: Did he make her climb up on his hump, the little chit! He’s got to have something!
Yes, said someone else, and I know where he keeps it too!
If you’re talking about what he’s got between his legs, well I’ve got one of those as well!
Me too, said a third.
The momentum keeps up throughout the book: ideas and speech tumble over each other. The language on every page is alive and fluid and gripping.
Perhaps this style was partly a result of the fact that Hofmann, who had suffered a stroke, was no longer able to read at this point: his wife would read his writing back to him and he would edit it orally. It’s easy to believe that this prose was edited with the tongue rather than the eyes, but I’d need to read Hofmann’s other work to find out whether this is specific to his later work, or whether the fascination with voices was always there.
And Lichtenberg?
It’s not often that I quote Wikipedia, but this epitaph is taken from the entry for Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Lichtenberg was prone to procrastination. He failed to launch the first ever hydrogen balloon, and although he always dreamed of writing a novel à la Fielding’s Tom Jones, he never finished more than a few pages. He died at the age of 56, after a short illness. - www.thefictiondesk.com/blog/lichtenberg-and-the-little-flower-girl-by-gert-hofmann/

Gert Hofmann, Luck, Tans. by Michael Hofmann, New Directions, 2004.

A heartwrenching tale of a family's dissolution told from a child's crystalline perspective.
Luck is the beautiful, bittersweet, and very funny novel about a nuclear family living in a small German town—wonderfully translated by Gert Hofmann's son, acclaimed translator and poet Michael Hofmann. It begins and ends on the same day, the "last day" of the narrator's childhood as he prepares to leave home with Father, because Mother is waiting for her new man to arrive, and his sister will stay behind. Or will they really leave? Mother sits in her room, squirting herself with perfume. Father endlessly postpones his packing, hoping for a magical conversation that will mend his marriage. His little sister spits on her new dress, and asks....

The late Hofmann (The Parable of the Blind) explores the dissolution of a family from the viewpoint of an adolescent German boy in 1960 in this frank, affecting novel. Mother has asked Father to move out, and the story unfolds over a single morning while the family waits for the moving van that will take Father and the nameless narrator to new lodgings. Trying to gather fragments of his childhood "so that some of it might stick later," the boy wanders through the house and around the town with his sister trailing behind, spilling an endless stream of questions in a child's attempt to understand an adult's decision. Stripped, spare prose creates the impression that the boy is merely a detached witness to his parents' separation, but subtle clues belie his neutrality: an almost imperceptible impatience with his bumbling father; a muted desire to be noticed by his self-absorbed mother. As the day progresses, Father, a failed novelist, vacillates between confronting Mother and pretending that nothing is wrong, while Mother preens in a separate bedroom, awaiting the new, steadily employed lover who will take Father's place. As the clock winds down, the boy anxiously waits for a last-minute reprieve from Mother or some show of spirit from Father that will keep the family intact, however unhappy they might be together. While Hofmann's desolate emotional landscapes and darkly comic observations are not for those seeking a literary lark, readers will appreciate his deft handling of the minimalist plot and his authentic rendering of a precociously perceptive boy baffled by his elders. - Publishers Weekly

A grimly comic romp through domestic misery, immensely readable and immensely unsettling. -- Lynne Sharon Schwartz

A wonderful book, combining a light touch with underlying pathos, ironic humor with real empathy for heartbreak of ordinary lives. -- Eva Figes

This affecting final novel by Hofmann explores the bitter end of a marriage and a German family's dissolution. -- Ihsan Taylor

Wonderfully reinforced by the younger Hofmann's attention to his father's work. -- Noah Isenberg

The late Hofmann (The Parable of the Blind) explores the dissolution of a family from the viewpoint of an adolescent German boy in 1960 in this frank, affecting novel. Mother has asked Father to move out, and the story unfolds over a single morning while the family waits for the moving van that will take Father and the nameless narrator to new lodgings. Trying to gather fragments of his childhood "so that some of it might stick later," the boy wanders through the house and around the town with his sister trailing behind, spilling an endless stream of questions in a child's attempt to understand an adult's decision. Stripped, spare prose creates the impression that the boy is merely a detached witness to his parents' separation, but subtle clues belie his neutrality: an almost imperceptible impatience with his bumbling father; a muted desire to be noticed by his self-absorbed mother. As the day progresses, Father, a failed novelist, vacillates between confronting Mother and pretending that nothing is wrong, while Mother preens in a separate bedroom, awaiting the new, steadily employed lover who will take Father's place. As the clock winds down, the boy anxiously waits for a last-minute reprieve from Mother or some show of spirit from Father that will keep the family intact, however unhappy they might be together. While Hofmann's desolate emotional landscapes and darkly comic observations are not for those seeking a literary lark, readers will appreciate his deft handling of the minimalist plot and his authentic rendering of a precociously perceptive boy baffled by his elders. - Publishers Weekly

Gert Hofmann was a master of deadpan humour which revealed not merely pain but an existential void at the heart of human ex-perience. His 1985 novel, The Parable of the Blind, was an outstanding Beckettian take on Pieter Bruegel's painting of blind beggars. Luck, published in German in 1992 a year before his death, also has overtones of Samuel Beckett, but Hofmann has a lighter touch and the world he describes is all too recognisable.
This is a story of family and marital breakdown in small-town Germany, as seen from the unhappy children's viewpoint, with the son as the narrator and his kid sister, in her innocence, asking all the most pertinent questions. Father is fat and 50, not only a failed writer but an unable one, a thinker bereft of thoughts. Even words no longer enter his head, and when they occasionally do he cannot fit them into a wider context. But Father has not given up; he is still trying to live up to his chosen identity. Giving up would be the final humiliation. His hero is Thomas Mann, and long ago he had it in mind to write "something like" The Magic Mountain (considered the apex of literary achievement by generations of Germans), but far from producing a mountain, all he brings forth is the occasional mouse.
Meanwhile Mother, a practical German Hausfrau and sole breadwinner, has long since moved out of the marital bedroom, lost patience with Father and found herself a new admirer. Herr Herkenrath may also be fat and 50, but at least he has a steady wage and makes her feel like a woman. Mother has now decided that Father and son should move out, and Herr Herkenrath should move in. The action, such as it is, all takes place on the final day. The new man and a removal van are due to arrive later. Meanwhile Father endlessly postpones his packing, hoping for a proper conversation with his wife that will magically reverse the situation. Only he lacks the words, and his wife stopped listening long ago. The children are helpless bystanders in this situation, knowing that their own lives will be changed for ever, but also touchingly aware of their father's vulnerability, a loyalty grounded in both love and anxiety.
Both parents are very clearly delineated. Father has sunk into physical self-neglect: unwashed, smelling of tobacco, with a mouth full of rotting teeth. Overweight Mother, trying on new clothes in the first flush of love, is a practical, no-nonsense woman. But it is the children who give the book its poignancy. In what the boy describes as the last day of his childhood, he tries to come to grips with the world he is about to lose. A final visit to a favourite teacher turns into disaster, as the man is viciously sarcastic about his father's failed ambition, and almost as harsh about the boy's own scholastic ability. Meanwhile the kid sister - one of the most memorable depictions of early childhood it has ever been my pleasure to read - vacillates between tears and rage, argumentative, persistent, direct. Tenaciously she tags along with her brother, who wants to be alone with his best friend for one last time. Harsh truth and telling questions come out of her young mouth. She spits on her best dress, put on for the hated Herr Herkenrath, but is won over by the image of herself in the mirror. Cakes also mollify her.
Time and again Hofmann uses the notion of running out of words as a central metaphor. Father as a writer has nothing to say. Husband and wife have nothing left to say to each other. When the boy visits his best friend Hutsche, with whom he is clearly in love, Hutsche tells him: "At birth, everyone is allotted a certain number of words to say in the course of their life." He adds that his mother, impoverished, abandoned by her husband, had "said all the words that were given to her to say". It is as though ageing, loss of hope and speechlessness are bound up with each other. Again one is reminded of Beckett.
Translated by Gert Hofmann's son, Michael, this is a wonderful book, combining a light touch with underlying pathos, ironic humour with real empathy for the heartbreak of ordinary lives. I am also amazed at Hofmann's subtle narrative skill. We seem to be going nowhere in particular, covering the same ground, but the sense of freshness never fades. Read it. - Eva Figes

review at academia.edu

Gert Hofmann, The Film Explainer, Tans. by Michael Hofmann, Northwestern University Press, 1996.    

read it at Google Books                    

The Film Explainer was first released in Germany in 1990, hailed as a work of comic genius. In it, a boy tells of the life of his grandfather, Karl Hofmann, who worked in the Apollo theater in Limbach/Saxony as a film explainer and piano player. As the Nazis rise in power, Grandfather goes along until a bomb falls on the Apollo. Beneath the surface of this seemingly simple tale are complex undercurrents--the folly of Grandfather's life, the grandson's memoir, the glory of the cinema, the choices of the German war generation--all told in Hofmann's quick, comic dialogue that earned him critical praise for both his novels and radio plays. - Amazon.com Review  

Though this work does not read as smoothly as Hoffman's previous novels (Spectacle of the Tower, Before the Rainy Season), it shows, without sentiment or accusation, how one man loses his soul in Nazi Germany. Hofmann merges novelized biography and submerged history in the character of his grandfather, an elderly Saxony cinephile caught between the twilight of Germany's silent film golden age and the Nazi regime. With dozens of movie plots committed to memory (and dominating his conversation), Karl, the ne'er-do-well grandfather, survives, financially and spiritually, as a "film explainer"-a combination of barker, storyteller and piano accompanist-for a cinema in an economically depressed provincial town. His muddled artistic aspirations and dismal home life are palliated only by Leni Riefenstahl in Alpine dramas, Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh, Dr. Mabuse's plans for world domination and Greta Garbo in Joyless Street. When The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, announces the end of "film explaining," Karl looks for another outlet for his bombast and fantasizing, sinisterly finding it in the buffoonish local Nazi party. Recounted from the perspective of his younger, adoring self, Hofmann's background theme of his grandfather's retreat into semi-fantasy during Germany's darkest hours is a tantalizing one, as readers know that, just outside the cinema, Hitler lies in wait. But despite some tellingly contrasted ironies, Hofmann's flat, somber narrative never fully comes into focus, since the author chooses to sidestep the issue of the degree to which Karl is responsible for his complicity with the Nazis. - Publishers Weekly

 A political fable, set in Saxony in the early 1930s, whose narrator--identified as the author--describes his grandfather's job ``explaining'' silent movies to their audiences at a rundown local theater. But when ``talkies'' arrive on the scene, the proud, somewhat vainglorious Karl Hofmann finds the only available outlet for his pedagogical, domineering sensibility in membership in the emergent Nazi party. It's a superb premise, unfortunately developed with only middling success in an oddly muted tale that never fully engages the reader's emotions. - Kirkus Reviews

Though few people know it existed, the craft of the film explainer, sometimes known as a film narrator or lecturer, was one of the more intriguing aspects of the silent film world.
Mostly in vogue before the circa 1910 appearance of inter-titles, the explainer would stand in front of an audience and talk viewers through the picture on the screen. These performers were especially popular in Japan, where they were known as benshi, and, according to Robert Sklar's "Film: An International History of the Medium," "some became more famous than screen stars and interpreted narratives and dialogue as it suited them."
Creators of fictional material have from time to time found this profession irresistible. Toshiro Mifune had a cameo as a benshi in the American independent film "Picture Bride," and a European narrator appeared in Israel Rabon's striking Yiddish language novel, "The Street." And now, in Gert Hofmann's "The Film Explainer," such a character comes out of the shadows and takes center stage.
We encounter Karl Hofmann in the early 1930s, when, as the film explainer for the city of Limbach's Apollo cinema in the Saxony region of Germany, he is at the height of his powers and confident of the respect with which he's treated in town.
"An audience needs someone to explain a film to them, at least its finer points," he insists. "They have no idea what is contained in a film if you look at it closely, in every single shot. . . . That must be explained. Otherwise, it would be lost."
Though his wife scoffs that "he's not just an artist without any bread, he's an artist without any art," this film explainer is ideally suited to his profession. "Without cinema," he says, "I would find life unendurable." More than that, the explainer has no use for either nature or reality, fearing the latter and rejecting the former as "not sufficiently artificial for me."
All this is seen and heard through the explainer's grandson, who lives with the old gentleman and feels so close to him they often share the same thoughts as they walk side by side through town. (The explainer is called Grandfather throughout the book, and author Hofmann had a grandfather Karl who was a film explainer, adding a twist of memoir to the novel's texture.)
Also factual are the dozens of silent films, complete with casts and years of release, that are mentioned as having been taken on by Grandfather Hofmann. Some are familiar, while others, like "The Indian Tomb," "The Oyster Princess" and "The Eyes of the Mummy Ma," are notable more for their evocative titles and their exotic scenarios.
Those story lines turn out to be the closest thing to a gripping plot "The Film Explainer" has. An extended character study, this lucid yet elusive novel collects the moments in one man's life and then stands back to allow them to be added up.
Critical to this process is the period the story covers, a time when not only the Apollo cinema but society itself begin to tatter and disintegrate. Always somewhere in the background are Adolf Hitler and the collapse of the Weimar Republic, visible in thrown-away lines like the note that the price of an outfit of clothes was "reduced to 39 billion marks."
That backdrop becomes foreground at roughly the same time as sound finally comes to Limbach in the guise of "The Jazz Singer." Insisting that "people want to see film actors who do their own talking," the Apollo's Jewish owner cuts the explainer's work week down to two days, then one day, then to nothing at all.
Grandfather takes this demotion hard at first, collapsing and wasting away. What finally revives him is a sudden interest in the doings of the Nazi Party, and "The Film Explainer" artfully invites us to watch a character we've liked subtly become one we don't.
Gert Hofmann died in 1993 but, continuing the novel's family connection, "The Film Explainer" was translated from the German by Gert's son Michael Hofmann, himself a respected writer. The translation was well-reviewed in England, where it won the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Award and was interpreted by critics as a parable of Germany between the wars. - Kenneth Turan

Gert Hofmann, Before the Rainy Season, Trans. by Edna McCown, Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

«Gert Hofmann's latest novel could be titled "Twenty Years of Solitude." Before the Rainy Season, in Edna McCown's readable translation, is about an old German soldier living on the edge of the Bolivian rain forest. Mr. Hofmann, who was born in 1932, is one of those German writers who wear the weight of history on their shoulders. Most of the time, it doesn't keep him from dancing. His novels and stories refine ugly episodes of recent history into lucid parables. Here he examines the psychic process known as dissociation, the ability to seal off compartments in the mind. Psychiatrists say it is what makes survival possible for victims of child abuse and also for perpetrators of crimes against humanity. But lying to oneself is hard work. At the age of 54, the old soldier is so exhausted by the effort of denying his ugly past that, when a young visitor from Germany arrives to tell him it's safe to go home again, he doesn't have the energy to pack. Instead, he delivers his life story to this young man, in a long, convoluted monologue in which the need to confess and the need to conceal alternately propel and delay the inevitable conclusion of an artfully paced narrative.
Heinrich von Hartung, the old soldier, did something unspeakable on the Russian front during World War II. In 1948 he came to Bolivia and bought an estate in the remote province where several other "kindred spirits" from the Third Reich have also found refuge. (Mr. Hofmann coyly avoids the term "Nazi" throughout.) Here the exiled German proceeds to re-create his homeland, a mixture of lower-middle-class Gemutlichkeit and concentration camp discipline: rose gardens, bird sanctuaries, barbed wire and guard towers. Even those little iron dwarfs, Gartenzwerge, that epitomize house-proud German kitsch are re-created in flesh and blood; "garden dwarves" are what the nasty old coot, a racist to the end, calls the Aymara peasants who work for him.
In Bolivia, Hartung marries into the local elite and brings over his family from Germany -- his father, a general who remains a rather nebulous figure, and a brother who is 20 years younger than Hartung. This brother is the most original figure in the book. Unlike Peter Schneider, whose unsettling novel "Vati" ("Dad") stuck close to the known facts of Josef Mengele's life, Mr. Hofmann plays fast and loose with history. What he does, in effect, is to put Klaus Barbie and Che Guevara into the same family. The old soldier's younger brother, raised in Bolivia, joins a group of revolutionaries while still in his teens. He helps them kidnap a local politician. The rest of his companions are caught and executed. He goes to prison for most of his adult life. It's his escape in November 1968 (a year after the historical death of Che), and his murder in front of his brother, that set the older man to talking at last.
From Kafka Mr. Hofmann has learned how to fix on a single detail and backlight it so that it casts mythic shadows. The scene in which the brother is arrested, with his childhood toys in a corner, is a powerful allusion to the hundreds of Latin American teen-agers who have paid for their idealism with their lives in recent decades. ("A child's room deserted in haste, there are several others like it in this country.") The passage is all the more moving for being told in the cold, sarcastic voice of the older brother.
The two brothers, born a generation apart, are both historically plausible but also -- another device Mr. Hofmann has learned from Kafka and from fairy tales -- two halves of a dissociated psyche. When they start to swap clothes, it's a sign that defenses are crumbling. As individuals, the older one is all denial, refusing to admit either past crimes or current ones -- such as his exploitation of dirt-poor peasants; the younger brother is all pity and guilt and ineffectiveness. "Basically I'm good for only one thing: to take the blame," he says in summing up his life. In the realistic-mythic connection between the brothers, Mr. Hofmann has again recast history as disturbing parable. The notion of one generation growing up to assume the blame for another's unacknowledged crimes has relevance well beyond German history.
Mr. Hofmann is less adroit with the Latin American setting. On the allegorical level, Hartung's rundown hacienda in the jungle is a correlative of the old man's moral decay, a Bolivia of the mind. On the travelogue level, Mr. Hofmann is glad to remind his readers how foreign and how poor Bolivia is. But his tone is so unrelievedly grim (although picturesque) that it irritates, like those third world documentaries on German television in which the locals are laughing and mugging for the camera while an earnest voice-over tells you how wretched they are. Mr. Hofmann doesn't even give his Bolivians a chance to mug for the camera.
On the other hand, he can be very funny about Germans. The generation gap between the old soldier, obsessed with historical crimes, and the young visitor from a 1960's Germany, who is obsessed with his sex life, is telling and comic. This naive visitor has unwittingly found the perfect gift for a mass murderer in hiding: an electric bread knife made by -- who else? -- the munitions maker Krupp. The old soldier reminisces about the names of mopping-up actions on the Russian front: "Hedgerose," "Chopped Meat," "Sausage Broth." An American reader still gagging on Pentagon euphemisms used during the Persian Gulf war is grateful for this direct black humor and the solid legacy of second-generation guilt that inspired it.

The fight took place here, says Uncle... My brother appeared from behind this mulberry tree... Billig, he thought, would soon appear. When he did appear my brother hit him in the mouth. He came from over there, says Uncle, he wanted to put the handcuffs on him, he was taken totally unawares by the blow... Billig followed my brother with his one eye... Billig had just stabbed him again, in the thigh, I think, but my brother... stood here, says Uncle, and screamed in Spanish: "In a few years, if you're not dead, you'll be sitting in a gutter begging for a few coins, totally blind." ...At that, Billig stabs him again, of course, we stand there looking on... Then my brother hits him again. "Ow," Billig screams, "ow!" And takes out an even longer blade and stabs my brother through his other hand. . . . My people took off their hats and... formed a line for him to pass through. Billig, he says, before stabbing him for the last time, genuflects with the knife. Only twenty-four hours have passed, but they're already saying that my brother looked over at me beseechingly before that stabbing, and that I refused to help him, but that's not true. Not once in his life did my brother look at me beseechingly, that's why I could never have "refused" him anything, says Uncle.» - Suzanne Ruta

«Born in 1931, Gert Hofmann belonged to a generation of postwar German writers who grew up during the Nazi period and, because of their age, were spared direct participation in the war at the fronts or in the concentration camps. Yet as children, Hofmann and his contemporaries were inadvertently witnesses to various horrors, from denunciations, murder, and suicides to ostracism and persecution that affected mostly Jews but also members of their own families. As with Christa Wolf's 1976 novel Kindheitsmuster, a major part of Hofmann's literary work was focused intensely on buried childhood memories of life in the family and in his hometown between the late 1930s and 1945. Many of his novels not only dwell upon dramatic events dating to these years but also reflect on the very process of unearthing and reassessing the bits and pieces of memories. In his work the author reveals the cognitive, psychological, and aesthetic problems associated with the endeavor to retrieve the past.
Hofmann started in the 1960s as an author of radio dramas and as a playwright for television, but his indisputable literary breakthrough came in 1979 with the publication of the novella Die Denunziation (The Denunciation). Die Denunziation marked the beginning of his serious interest in the subject of the Holocaust and the German Nazi past. Hofmann surprised the public with the originality of his selection of historical themes as well as with the rich palette of narrative techniques and strategies. Characteristic of Hofmann's prose are the peculiar restlessness and unreliability of the narrative voice. The narrator switches perspectives, cruises freely between past and present, and often shades into an unidentifiable presence as if to underscore the idea that the "truth" about the past has become practically inaccessible.
Most of Hofmann's works touching upon themes of persecution, racism, and murder during the Nazi period are set in the microworld of a sleepy provincial town in Germany. Often the author uses his own birthplace in Saxony, Limbach, as the background for the historical events. With almost ethnographic accuracy Hofmann describes the life of the family—with its predictable dynamics, power plays, and idiosyncracies—set within a small network of friends, neighbors, and relatives. Yet at the same time, he transforms the family into the stage where private attitudes, petty habits, and routine behavior resound with the big moral dilemmas of the time and can be fatally related to ruptures and tragedies of historic proportions. In Die Denunziation, for example, it is the Hecht family that disintegrates in the most dramatic way after an anonymous betrayer reports the half-Jewish tailor L. Silberstein to the authorities. After Silberstein is rounded up in 1944, his wife commits suicide, and thereupon the mother of the Hecht family drowns herself, the father is sent to the retreating Eastern Front, where he is killed, and the twin brothers, Karl and Wilhelm Hecht, are separated for life at age 14.
In other short novels, such as Unsere Eroberung (1984; Our Conquest) and Veilchenfeld (1986), the narrator's voice assumes the identity and naive directness of children who have inadvertently become witnesses to historical tragedies. Sent on an errand on 8 May 1945, two brothers from Unsere Eroberung run into various adults whom the children suspect of participation in unimaginable horrors. It is again a child, their cousin Edgar, who unearths the nasty truth, namely that a Czech slave laborer has been murdered in the family factory. In the novel Velichenfeld the complex conjunction between the quiet and unremarkable everyday life of the small community of Limbach and the cruel political persecution of its only Jewish member, Professor Veilchenfeld, in the course of 1938 is seen again through the eyes of a child.
The theme of the Nazi past is handled with subtlety and humor in Hofmann's most overtly autobiographical text, Der Kinoerzähler (1990; The Film Explainer"). Once again, the book presents a meticulous study of one community's petty quarrels surrounding the "Aryanization" of a Jewish-owned cinema, and it goes on to reveal the subtle mechanisms leading to collaboration in the horrors of Nazism.
Hofmann's approach to the Holocaust and the Nazi past lacks the self-righteous pathos of other contemporaries who became known as the creators of the so-called Väterliteratur. While these authors have explored the past of their authoritarian parents only to assess the psychological injuries that were sustained, Hofmann is interested in the broader impact of the atrocities of the Holocaust, on Germans and Jews as well. In his works he manages to maintain a masterful balance between realistic autobiographical details and a modernist sense of rupture, incompleteness, and the impossibility of a consistent account of the experience. At the same time, his novels avoid the traps of sentimentality and philo-Semitism and offer no ready condemnations or absolutions.» - Mila Ganeva

Gert Hofmann, Our Conquest, Methuen Publishing, 1991.

A novel seen from the perspective of a German child. Starting at the end of World War II with a family hiding in a cellar from the Allies, it proceeds backwards, through memories, to reveal their town's shameful history. The author won the Alfred Doblin Prize for "The Spectacle at the Tower".   

          A German town is overrun at the end of World War II by once-conquered and now victorious Czechs--and the children of the lmbach family narrate the consequences. Their father, the owner of a small whip factory, is missing and presumed dead; the mother is beside herself with worry; and the children, sent out with their orphaned friend, ""our Edgar,"" to obtain some bacon-fat from the local slaughterhouse, go off instead on an allegorical journey through destruction. They are chased and almost tortured in the slaughterhouse; a widow gives them her dead husband's suit; they visit the bombed-out church and the nightmarish remains of the theater. And throughout, in chapter-length paragraphs, Hofmann seems to be building a parable of Germany's WW II guilt--with the children representing the German people and ""our Edgar"" (an intentional echo, perhaps, of Syberberg's mythologizing film ""Our Hitler"") representing the inquisition, a Nuremberg-like tribunal. ""Briefly: while our Edgar, who wants to have a good look and share our experience, raises his head a little, we stab last February's scars on our thighs four times, then it's five, then six. Briefly: we're wounding ourselves now. Briefly: it's more than a whim, for we know why we're doing it. Briefly: it's because of father, who has never been punished, whereas Edgar's father and mother are buried, have disappeared."" Exaggeratedly symbolic, in a nowhere fog-zone like that found in today's neo-Expressionist German painting, Hofmann's new novel is murky and uninviting, mannered in its narration--without the balance between the casual and the cryptic that made his The Spectacle at the Tower (1984) modestly intriguing. - Kirkus Reviews    

Gert Hofmann, The Parable of the Blind, Trans. by Christopher Middleton. Fromm Intl, 1986.

       The idea behind this implacably bleak fable is deeply engrossing, if not wholly original. The inspiration is the elder Breughel's harrowing painting, The Parable of the Blind. Yet the Flemish master is not the central figure; the six blind men of the picture dominate the canvas. They occupy our attention as they move toward their historic destiny on that day in the late 16th century when they served as models for the painter. Who are these men, the novel asks, and what were they like? What did they do, say, feel, think, sufferthose pariahs whose eyes were pecked out by ravens, as they stumbled, fell, screamed and clawed at each other? Why did they cry out to the coarse, taunting peasants: "You're beasts; we're the Lord's elect"? Imagining backward from the great painting to its subjects and themes, the German novelist's "parable" may numb us with its brutal repetition, but it also provides a plausible explanation of what Breughel might have seen as he took up his brushes. - Publishers Weekly

Hofmann (The Spectacle A t The Tower, Our Conquest) has written a spare, surprisingly electric novella whose chief narrator is one of the 16th-century blind subjects from Breughel's masterpiece, The Parable of the Blind. Everything happens in a single day: the blind beggars waking, entering the village where Breughel is to paint them; the curiosity and cruelty of the townspeople; the actual posing. Which involves--recall the painting--falling, tripping headlong into a stream. And screaming--in fright, outrage, utter disadvantage. The blind man who narrates speaks in the first-person plural (""So that's us, being seen and becoming smaller or bigger. Anyway, nobody comes to us in the hollow, also nobody calls to us, but probably people can see us walking with soft uncertain footsteps out of the hollow and vanishing over the horizon. Then people will soon have seen enough and told themselves: O, it's only them!""). Brueghel himself is the only other narrative participant, awash in doubts and passions (""And when he wants to paint the scream, he also wants to paint the terror, what can be seen of the terror""). There's a curious Barthelme-like exteriority to the blind man's narration, while to Breughel nothing could be more interior than these poor wretches, bringing up as they do the questions of art's manipulation, exploitation. The contrast is done very intelligently--as is the whole theological parable the painting represents, after all: Are we all blind? Is God the painter? Lean, effective, and subtle work, the best by Hofmann to be translated here so far. - Kirkus Reviews

On the surface this deceptively simple narrative is the story of how the blind beggars came to be painted by Pieter Brueghel. His painting was also called "The Parable of the Blind." Cast in prose, the parable evokes an even more distressing picture of the fate of man. The words more variously and pathetically image the condition of humanity, which lives "in darkness, so to speak, forever." Hofmann, a German writer, manifests an essential skepticism of the "ways of the world" and how people interact and communicate with one another. In this most understated of satires he has created an eloquent allegory of the modern age, a spare but revealing picture of alienation, confusion, and insensitivity. Recommended for all literature collections. - Carol J. Lichtenberg

THE prizewinning West German playwright and essayist Gert Hofmann began publishing fiction in 1979, at the age of 47. He is so far known in this country by two novels, ''The Spectacle at the Tower'' (for which he won the coveted Alfred Doblin Prize in 1982) and ''Our Conquest'' (1984). They are long, grotesque studies in man's inhumanity to man, the former set in a desolate corner of modern Sicily, the latter in Germany on the spring day in 1945 that saw the end of the Nazi Reich.
In these, as in the rest of his fiction, Mr. Hofmann's characters - particularly his narrators - seem ready to sink beneath the weight of the gruesome, often ambiguous information they are asked to convey. The action suggests frenzy even when the motive for such a state is not evident; the dialogues are a mass of sentences broken and then fleshed out by environmental noise, like the soundtrack of a Robert Altman film in transcription. Mr. Hofmann's narration becomes an explication of the unsayable as he fills the gaps left by these failed attempts at communication.
So it is a pleasure to pick up his most recent work, ''The Parable of the Blind,'' and find it not only short, like the best of Mr. Hofmann's fiction to date, but written in deliberately short and yet complete sentences that invite the reader's confidence. The subject is Bruegel's painting of the same name: in the Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Pictures From Brueghel and Other Poems'' (1962), William Carlos Williams called the canvas ''this horrible but superb painting,'' a laconic gloss on an equally laconic pictorial reading of Matthew 15:14 -''Let [ the Pharisees ] alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.''
For Bruegel there were six blind men, winding their way across a sere landscape dominated by a village church and a stream into which they topple one after another. Mr. Hofmann gives four of them names: Ripolus, the leader, who can see just well enough to tell light from darkness; Slit Man, blinded for stealing; Bellejambe, once a soldier; and Malente, who at odd moments begins to sing the praises of the Lord who allowed him to go blind. In the middle are two unnamed figures, the narrative ''we'' of the story, who are at once themselves and all six blind men and - in the universalizing style of parables - mankind at large.
For if Bruegel's blind men are alone in the landscape, Gert Hofmann's canvas is crowded with people. His six figures are not on an abstract journey; they are roused from sleep on the day they are to be painted by the artist, who wants, as we learn late in the book, to have one last try at putting ''everything he had to say about the world'' into a single picture. The six men are fetched from the barn where they've been dreaming by a man called ''the knocker,'' led to breakfast by ''the child,'' cleaned up after their meal by ''the woman'' Lise, and watched off and on throughout the day by a host of others, named and unnamed, whom the blind men cannot see but of whom they are always uncomfortably aware.
The human community is to them a fading reality, a world that demands too much of them in their handicapped state. They want to let go, as the narrator indicates in his discussion of Ripolus's leadership skills: ''Many of the words he once knew, the words from before, as he calls them, he's already forgotten, at least half of them, no wonder his sentences (and ours) are getting shorter and shorter. Compared with the sentences from before they aren't even sentences. But none of this disturbs him, because he believes that when all the words have been forgotten, then there'll be nothing above, beneath, before, or inside us. And if he does (or we do) still remember an old sort of word, or if somebody speaks such a word, he doesn't know if the thing is still behind the word and how he's to think about it. A larch tree clearing? Good, but how? A twilight? Fine, but what's that?''
In the interim, though, Bruegel wants to paint them. Intent on realism, he has them practice walking to the creek that runs by his house and, as they begin crossing the bridge, has them fall, screaming, into the water, still icy from the winter. Eager to catch the desolation he sees as intrinsic to the human condition, he has them go through the motions over and over until he gets the pink of their distended mouths just right. THE paradox is evident, and conveys the paradox of Gert Hofmann's own work. If he chooses to talk, in ''The Parable of the Blind,'' about a failure of perception and the evanescence of language, he does so with an acuity worthy of the Flemish master himself. There is an earthiness to this book, an immediacy of sensory impression that is enhanced by the continuing, very cerebral meditation on the contradictions of art, and that comes through in the smallest details: the squealing of a stuck pig, the saltpeter sweating from the walls of Bruegel's house in the spring floods. All are rendered in a fluent translation by Christopher Middleton, who did the English versions of the author's two earlier American releases.
Mr. Hofmann displays the linguistic concision of a poet here, and develops a dramatic tension lacking in his other novels. But if this short book marks a turning point in his fiction - the blind men speak at one point of standing where ''one region of the world ends and goes over into another'' - it is not merely a stylistic change. The ''we'' so freely used by the narrator includes the reader, after all, as well as the artist, a kind of deity who presides both in and beyond the work. Within this community (at its worst called complicity), the grotesque turns spiritual, revealing the oxymoronic potential of the phrase ''blind faith." - Leigh Hafrey

The more I think about Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (my review here), the more sure I am that it will be on my year-end best list.  I loved that charming and yet dark book.  Consequently, I’ve been slowly getting my hands on more of Hofmann’s work, which has been translated sporadically by various publishers over the past thirty years.  In this quest, I was excited to see that one of Hofmann’s books was inspired by a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting The Blind Leading the Blind.  Thanks in part to Michael Frayn’s fantastic Headlong, which was on my year-end best list last year (my review of Headlong here; my 2010 year-end best list here), I couldn’t resist reading Hofmann’s The Parable of the Blind (Der Blindensturz, 1985; tr. from the German by Christopher Middleton, 1986).
First things first:
On the day when we’re to be painted — yet another new day! — a knocking on the barn door drags us out of our sleep.
Just reading that simple opening sentence about “the knocker” reminded me of one of the things I liked best about Hofmann’s style in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl: there’s an unabashed use of exclamation marks that lightens to the point of exuberance the tone of what might otherwise be very depressing.  It’s an emotional mix of humor and seriousness that makes that book transcendent, and this first sentence in this book had me hoping for much the same thing here.  I wasn’t disappointed.
The speaker — that “we” — is a group of blind men who wander from town to town.  Hofmann establishes their blind perspective right away: 
Around us thick soft flakes of snow, clearly remembered, are falling into the gentle folds of the countryside and burying everything: the plow, the weeds, the trees, as well as all the other things we gave up long ago, but which probably still exist.
The word “probably” gets repeated over and over, much as “And then?” did in Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl.  It’s a constant reminder that even while we are reading about what’s happening in the physical world, the person speaking is seeing complete blackness.  Neither we readers nor the speakers are actually seeing what’s going on, but somehow it is being conveyed.  Or, at least, something is being conveyed.
In fact, these blind men aren’t sure of much of anything (though I’m not saying this is the conventional “unreliable narrator”; it’s much more about the transfer through words or images than about the reliability of the speaker).  For example, these men aren’t even sure of each other.  They are led by one who, probably, can see well enough to distinguish light from dark.  We have reason to suspect otherwise.  One among them was blinded unnaturally, probably for punishment, and has taken the place of one who died — they figure they will probably push him in a ditch and leave him some day.
One of the biggest questions they have is why the painter would be interested in painting them.  No one really knows.  Even the beloved knocker (the kind-ish man who woke them up and eventually took them to a rather humiliating breakfast) cannot fathom why anyone would want to paint them.  Others are downright mean and dismissive:
And then the man who isn’t the knocker suddenly flies into a rage and jumps around on the ground in front of us.  Perhaps because we mistook him for the knocker, perhaps for another reason.  And he shouts that it’s wrong to talk with us and to be concerned with us and to let us run around because we bring disorder into everything, thoughts, people, the air.  And that we trample down everything that’s in our way.  Look at them, he exclaims, and probably he’s pointing at us.
At once we think we might be standing among flowers and we step back, but aren’t certain if we’re stepping out of one lot of flowers into another.
The story progresses as these blind men try to find the painter’s house.  As you might imagine, it’s not a pleasant journey.  Of course, Hofmann’s prose style leavens the seriousness of what’s going on as these men are subjected to one humiliation after another.  That’s not to say the tone is always comic: “How often we tell ourselves: Let’s just go to sleep! — and forget that we’re already asleep.”  And the best is when the comic and the dark come together in fine long passages, like this one when they finally get to the painter’s:
The painter, who probably noticed us at once and is probably striding up and down by the probably wide-open window of his house, says — we can’t hear it all — that he’s always been surrounded by whole spaces full of pictures, afflicted by them.  These spaces, he says, come to me, they come into my house.  These are the spaces in which he lives, though of course there are also the other ones.  How many times he’s sat, especially on the long winter evenings, in the middle of those spaces and the pictures have shown him the world.  More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liège, the pictures are of people dying and dead.  The pictures in these spaces, now without a sky, with a high horizon, are all filled, to the limit of the frame, gold, my good friend, with images of people and things dying, perishing, or dead already.  All in extremis, he says.  Like these here, he adds and probably points out through the window, thus probably at us.
Asking the blind men to practice stumbling and then falling into a ditch (over and over again) so he can get the interior of their mouths correct, even the master, who offers them this great honor, is cruel and then dismissive. 
This is a strange book filled with a bleak outlook on these outwardly jovial men who live in total darkness and alienation.  Certainly, the terror is expressed as well here as it is in the visual art by Bruegel himself.  
That said, I liked it much less than Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl, which in general I found to be both more vivacious and more bleak.  This is certainly a good read, though, and I recommend it.

The Knocker knocks on the barn door and six men stumble around, trying to get up. The novel opens: “On the day when we’re to be painted – yet another new day! – a knocking on the barn door drags us out of our sleep. No, the knocking isn’t inside us, it’s outside, where the other people are.” The six men narrate as “we”, although one of them, Ripolus, is also guide, because he can reportedly see a little. “Ripolus, what can you see? Simply describe for us what you can see?” The answer is usually, “Not much.”
The novel covers the day when these six men are to be painted by Pieter Breughel, “the Painter”, who wants them to follow each other and fall down into a ditch, the image familiar to us as “The Parable of the Blind”, a rural recreation of Matthew XV, 14: “If the Blind lead the Blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
In the painting, the blind men are about to fall. The painting is tense, as the eye follows the chain of men towards the ditch. What we see is about to collapse. Hofmann’s novel is also tense; not because the six narrators may collapse but because the novel as viable form may do so. It doesn’t.
The novel’s frame is this: The six men speak a strangely unified monologue, wandering around the village, on the green, in the woods, eating lunch. Each man has a story about how he came to be blind. As readers, we are never given more information than the six possess nor any hints with which to see out of the monologue; there are times when the six may be the subject of practical jokes – being told they are in a secluded toilet when they may be on the village green – but we don’t laugh, because we don’t know if it’s funny. We don’t see from the outside. We read thoughts and speech. We are blind because we’re stuck like narrative threads in the novel’s mass, just as the blind men seem trapped in the telling of their own story.
This is why worries over the inaccurate presentation of blindness are beside the point. Do blind people feel themselves all over to work out who they are, first thing in the morning, as these do? No. But this is ‘The Parable of the Blind’, and the parables are multiple. Imagine a page with six tiny figures stumbling around in it; they can’t see the perimeter of the page, and they can’t see out into the world. The page is a room, or a village, and we, the reader, are there too, wondering what room, what enclosed world we are in. The six men remember the past. They wonder where they are. They have banal conversations with strangers about food and the weather and which is the best way to go. They argue with each other and nearly fight. Hofmann’s prose is so concentrated and unrelenting that claustrophobia turns to terrible awareness. There is no need to explicate. No need for laboured, “author’s message” moments, because we begin to read everything into the parable; the leaner in description or the more a narrative moves in circles or repetition the greater the force accumulated. How does a book like this pierce through to us, when there was no vivid description of something we recognised, no witty or psychologically fascinating dialogue, no grand sweep of history, no denouement?
One answer is that those very elements begin to seem ornamental to literature’s work, part of which (let’s be reductive!) is to wonder how communication in language might be possible and, if it isn’t, to fail instructively. How can six blind men stumbling around, speak to us? Do they speak for anyone else as well? They are six men in a painting, here made to fall into the ditch over and over for the Painter to make his sketches.
Sight is most often the sense connected to knowledge, as in, “I see it”, “I can’t see round it”, “in this light”, and also the various distinctions between the visible and invisible. Sight is also linked to reason; if we can see it properly, we can be rational about it. These traditions find their dissection in the contemporary philosophies of “the gaze”. In ‘The Parable of the Blind’, it is hearing that relates the realistic details of interaction, that is, speech. Without sight, the most pushy of senses, one of the things the novel does is to bring sound and touch back to a narrative, to embody a world not predicated on the eyes, as Aristotle seemed to think was necessary when he wrote ‘On Sense and Sensible Objects’, “of those who have been deprived of one sense or the other from birth, the blind are more intelligent than the deaf and the dumb.” Hofmann’s novel is a joke on metaphor – which, classically, bridges the inward mental activity to the world of appearances, left in this novel as a swing bridge hanging over the water – making the parable, ‘in this light’, a parable of the parables.
Standing before a painting, we may well ask a work to speak to us, and a number of novelists have taken up the extra-critical task of elaborating this speech or else making up a story – one thinks of a pearl earring – following the irritating trope that we might “walk inside” a painting. Hofmann has taken this thought and actually pushed our faces so far into the oil and brush-strokes that we cannot see back out, and we cannot see within. The prose, inhabiting a world of sound and intuited objects, is spare and clear, like a radio transmission which has been tuned in after an interfering hiss.
Christopher Middleton’s translation is excellent – by no means a given in translations from the German, see Michael Henry Heim’s ruination of Günter Grass’s My Century – in that he replicates this sparse quality in English without falling into a Beckettese, which it might have been easy to do. Middleton is a poet – recommended is his new and selected poems, The Word Pavilion as well as the extraordinary prose pieces in such volumes as Crypto-Topographia – and translator of Canetti (his letters), Robert Walser and Nietzsche. His is not a workman-like translation. Hofmann’s forward-drive is here, the unaccountable tension, the use of sentence on sentence like brick and timber.
The narrator (unusual for being six people and one person simultaneously) often says “probably”, probably we are here, probably there is a man with a stick, probably we are being painted by the Painter. Surface is not given to us for our delight, as in a Quiet novel (Edgar Allen Poe’s term for the mainstream, “official literary culture” of his time, the work he hated and wanted to tear down), but is constantly in doubt – what would otherwise be a world is here only conjecture: “What’s going on? we call. And it’s hard to find the way back. We’re in a dream. Lying in a fresh furrow, in a boundless field, half on the surface, half below ground, clouds probably overhead.” - Edmund Hardy


Gert Hofmann, Balzacs Horse and Other Stories, Trans. by Christopher Middleton, Fromm Intl, 1988.

The longest of these stories read like excerpts from works in progress; the shortest are not much more than sketches. Yet Hofmann, one of Germany's most respected postwar authors, addresses philosophical questions often ignored by his American contemporaries. What is reality? What is the purpose of art? Of life? The title story consists of a running dialogue between Balzac and Brissot, the inspector of the cloacas (sewers) of Paris, on the nature of the theater. Balzac's detailed lament about the arduous process of getting a play produced is topped in a macabre twist by Brissot as he describes a spectacular, real-life drama that occurs in the Parisian sewers. In "Casanova and the Extra," an aging philanderer meets up with a woman who is (probably) his mother, and the thin link between reality and fantasy is crossed. In "Arno," a failed writer lives vicariously through his neighbor, a decrepit, once-famous poet. This collection of seven stories should be viewed as a companion piece to such distinguished novels as Our Conquest and The Parable of the Blind. - Publishers Weekly

Some of these stories by German writer Hofmann (Our Conquest, The Parable of the Blind) are stylized and invariably surreal historical re-creations: Casanova in decline; Tolstoy's son joining the circus (his act an impersonation of his father); Balzac secretly attending the opening night of his first play in the company of the Parisian sewer inspector. And others are elliptical, emblematic pieces: a mad young man spying on the poet living across the street; a villager forced to institutionalize his mad daughter as the Nazis are beginning to devour Europe. In any event, the allegorical is never far from Hofmann's concerns: maybe the best story here is ""The Cramp,"" about a German industrialist aboard a Vancouver ferry with his wife and associates, two of whom he's preparing to fire--a story whose meaning is elusive but shimmering in a halo around every word. Hofmann is artful enough to promote real questioning in a reader as to the significance of his oblique fictions. But at the same time nearly every piece wears out its welcome by being far too long--and the developed suspense droops before it can be satisfied (or satisfyingly stymied). Intriguing, concentrated work, but with a tendency to overextend. - Kirkus Reviews


Gert Hofmann, The Spectacle at the Tower, Fromm Intl, 1984.

An unhappily married German couple is on vacation in Sicily--"a meticulously detailed journey through a hell the reader may often be anxious to leave." In a dusty, desolate town, the couple's car breaks down, and they witness the spectacle of a beautiful boy's suicide from a tower. PW likened this tale to the sun at midday: "harsh, pitiless, burning and relentless." - Publishers Weekly

With echoes of Kafka, Beckett, and others, Hofmann takes his middle-class German narrator through a surreal--yet understated and ironic--nightmare-episode: encounters with Death, Eros, and Violence in the world's most barren tourist-trap. Vacationing in Sicily, the narrator and wife Maria are at a bitter marital dead-end: he's furious with her for having gotten pregnant again (there's a small daughter back home); she's furious with him--after learning that he has an illegitimate son. Appropriately, then, they wind up in the dead village of Dikaiarcheia--""small, ruined, dustblanketed. . . poverty-stricken, horrible, and repulsive."" They're the only guests at a vile inn. The only signs of life are young boys slaughtering goats. But the couple is suddenly approached by the village ""supervisor""--who insists on leading the hot, tired Germans on a tour of Dikaiarcheia's historic sites, culminating (he promises) in a ""spectacle at the tower."" The first attraction? A one-room house containing--as viewed through the window--old, dead women ""on an iron rod built into the wall. . . like rare birds in a darkened cage."" Next comes the deserted Foundlings' Home, where ""superfluous children"" (an echo of Maria's controversial pregnancy) were systematically mutilated. Then the marketplace, site of bygone political tortures. (""Well, I say. . . for our taste, he's going too far, much too far. Also that his account is far too precise, with too many details. Do we, as tourists, have no right to a touristic relationship with the market of D.? Can't we, as visitors, be allowed here, as elsewhere, to stop at the surface of things?"") And finally comes the disappointing water tower--a 19th-century eyesore--followed by a very grim spectacle indeed: the German couple, along with a magically-appearing crowd of fellow tourists, is treated to a grisly hunger march (""a demonstration against death'). . . and the death-leap of a handsome goat-boy from that phallic-symbol/tower. Hofmann's network of themes here often threatens to become a murky muddle: existential angst; social conscience (rich tourists vs. poor, desperate-to-please Sicilians); and sexual tension (the narrator's bygone, reawakening homosexuality). But, through most of this short, resonant novel, the dreamlike bizarreness and ominous atmosphere are firmly maintained--thanks to elegantly rhythmic narration (masterfully translated) and a shrewd balance between horror and comedy. - Kirkus Reviews

AMONG German writers of the 1980s Gert Hofmann had the unusual distinction of being at once acclaimed and invisible.
Reviewers attempting a summary verdict often resorted to the untranslatable 'Geheimtip', a word that suggests distinctive merit known only to a select few. Not that Hofmann's achievements were inaccessible or esoteric - he was unusually productive; he won high critical praise and many prizes, but he followed no trends and set none. In a country prone to make public figures of its writers he never became a public figure. This withdrawn, undemonstrative man was indeed wary in public, unwilling to make speeches and loath to talk about the writing to which he was so singlemindedly committed.
Why Hofmann acquired no readily identifiable place on the German literary scene is in part explained by the fact that there had been none of the steady lifelong development that attracts labels.
Born in 1932 near Chemnitz, Hofmann took a doctorate in 1957 on Thomas Mann and Henry James, lectured in universities from Berkeley to Edinburgh and looked set on a university career. But he lacked, as he put it, the necessary placidity and pedantry, preferring a life that he saw as rootless and experimental.
Experiment was not Hofmann's aim as a writer, even though his first choice - the radio-play - had become at least in Germany an obvious field for experiment. From the early 1960s Hofmann began to establish a considerable reputation as a prolific writer of radio-plays which - typically - stand aside from fashions and rely not at all on electronic wizardry. By 1980 he had written over 30 radio-plays, winning prizes in the United States, in Prague and - in that year - the Prix Italia. But in 1980 Hofmann, seeking, he claimed, a less transient link with his audience, published his first novel. And it is on his novels that his reputation rests.
In one respect that first novel, Die Fistelstimme, sets a pattern: when a fraught German Lektor (univeristy lecturer) recalls 24 disabling, threatening hours in Ljubljana, autobiography and fiction seem to overlap - Hofmann was Lektor to that same town. But the overlaps are more deceptive than real, the narrator is distanced, more inclined to question experience than simply to report it.
For his second novel, The Spectacle at the Tower (the first to be translated into English), Hofmann won the 1982 Doblin Prize. The location is exotic - a parched Sicilian landscape - and the atmosphere nightmarishly vivid to a couple at the Strindbergian end of their marital tether, journeying through a death-ridden landscape to a strangely unreal tower. The colours are hectic, the symbolism extreme - Hofmann has moved a long way from his disoriented Lektor. But neither this highly charged novel, nor its more reflective predecessor, prepared the ground for the very different novels that followed.
With his third novel, first published in 1984 and translated as Our Conquest, Hofmann's theme changed. The time is 1945, the perspective that of a child. Again it is tempting to invoke biographical fact - Hofmann was a child in 1945 - but this is to misrepresent the variety and the complexity of this and subsequent novels. In Our Conquest two, perhaps three, children traverse their home town on the day of surrender. The children, unaware yet knowing keep the horrors at a distance and yet explore a haunted landscape.
Hofmann's children are strangely anonymous, half-seen presences, but Hofmann seems to have found a kind of security in the child's perspective on grim events. It is children who experience at a distance the hounding of a Jew (Veichenfeld, 1986), childhood haunts an adult 30 years on in Our Forgetfulness (1987) - a title that itself speaks volumes. And it is a child's view of his vivid, comic, film-mad grandfather (Der Kinoerzahler, 1990) that enriches one of Hofmann's most memorable portrayals, a man whose calling in a small-town cinema has left him addicted to the silent screen at a time when there is no silence either on screen or off it.
The past that haunted Germany had plainly come to haunt, indeed to obsess Hofmann. As a character in one of his radio-plays puts it: 'Obviously since the end of the war I've never been able to clear the bomb-damage out of my head.' No German writer has in recent years found so many angles on that damage. - PHILIP BRADY  

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