Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl

In the Afterward to his translation of his father’s novel, Michael Hofmann makes the claim that Hofmann senior had two main subjects: art and childhood, and that his later novels (of which Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl is an example) touched, to some extent, on both. Its title character, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, is not a work of fiction, but a German physicist of the eighteenth century. Although a scientist, his fame perhaps mainly rests on his writing. Known as a satirist, he also kept ‘scrap’ books of quotations, sketches, reflections and so on, some of which were published after his death giving him a reputation as an aphorist. (Hofmann also reveals that many of these aphorisms are featured in the novel, though not all of them are genuine). The ‘little flower girl’, too, was a real person, Maria Stechard, whom Lichtenberg met when she was a child of thirteen. She soon moved in with him, and it is this relationship which lies at the centre of the novel.

Lichtenberg is already a focus of curiosity in Gottenberg as he was born with a hunchback:

“Stop, little chappie, they cried, and reached out their hands towards his hunchback.”

Hofmann returns to his treatment repeatedly – people turning round to look at him after they pass, discussing whether his hump is getting bigger or smaller – but the writer’s aim is not simply to elicit sympathy for his character. He is portrayed as vain, particularly in the way he dresses, and he is always on the look-out for attractive women:

“It lifted up the women’s skirts, that was the best thing about the wind. Lichtenberg went out onto the street to keek under a skirt or two. To see the odd ankle and calf, and maybe even a knee.”

When Lichtenberg first sees Maria she is selling flowers and he is immediately besotted:

“She is thirteen, and, I have to say, beautiful. I have never seen such a picture of beauty and gentleness.”

Certainly, his affection for her is genuine, but it is also physical. How should the reader fell about this? Maria’s age has led to comparisons with Lolita, though this rather ignores the very different settings and intentions, but one similarity is the way in which the style to some extent neutralises the predatory nature of the relationship. There is a lightness and liveliness to the narrative which we instinctively associate with Lichtenberg’s character. We see it in colloquial language such as ‘chappie’ and ‘keek’, but also in the short linking paragraphs (“And then?”) and the often exclamatory dialogue. When Maria moves in, this is at first relayed by the choral (and prurient) voice of the town:

“Lucky so and so! It must be the hunchback that does it! But what will he do with that little slip of a thing?”

Far from presenting Maria as a woman, or even an adolescent, Hofmann is clear she is a child:

“The child thanked him for her food and drink, and then she ran off into her room.”

Even when he first sees her naked, Hofmann is at pains to point out her physical immaturity:

“Her breasts were hardly worth mentioning. They hadn’t yet begun.”

The development of their relationship into a sexual one, however, is a slow process – it is a few weeks before “When they happened to touch now she didn’t straightaway shrink back.” In some ways, Lichtenberg is as innocent as she is:

“He had never yet undressed a girl, he needed to learn how it was done.”

These different versions of innocence bring them together. Lichtenberg is also careful to keep his home life separate from his professional life. Always aware of his deformity, he can be jealous, and Maria remains hidden for others in the early part of their relationship. While he thinks of traveling together (“We’ll go out into the world, she’d be happy with that.”) it never happens, in part because he has all the happiness he needs at home. The novel covers only their relationship – it is not a biography of Lichtenberg. Its tone both manages to suggest a lightness in which all such relationships need not be taken too seriously, while at the same time insisting on the depth of feeling involved. It is an unusual book but one which it is difficult not to be moved by.


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5 Responses to “Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    You’re right, it is a difficult relationship to consider… I do not like the idea that predators today would enjoy reading this book for salacious reasons.
    But whatever we think about it now, values were different then.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    My goodness, this does sound unusual Grant, and very uncomfortable to consider. The subject is such a complex one, because although at 13 you’re a child, I remember feeling very grown up at that age and interested in adult subjects. But you are vulnerable and that has to be protected. As Lisa says, values were very different in the past, and I think we always need to remember that when reading older books.

  3. German Literature Month XII Author Index – Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume 2) Says:

    […] Pot 1 The Life and Opinions of The Tomcat Murr 1 2 Hofmann Lichtenberg and The Little Flower Girl 1 Hofmannsthal The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Stories 1 Huch The Last Summer 1 Inokai Ein Simpler […]

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