Archive for the ‘Gert Hofmann’ Category

Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl

November 30, 2022

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.


November 18, 2021

Though many of Gert Hofmann’s novels explore the Nazism which for any German writer born in 1931 must have felt both important and urgent – whether its rise (The Film Explainer), its dominance (Veilchenfeld) or its aftermath (Before the Rainy Season) – others, such as The Parable of the Blind, demonstrate a writer capable of embracing a variety of topics. Luck is another such novel which turns away from the 30s and 40s to pursue a solidly domestic focus, the divorce of a couple with two young children. Luck, like the recently published in English Veilchenfeld, is translated by the author’s son, Michael Hofmann, and is also from the character of the son’s point of view. One difference, however, is the extensive presence of the other characters in the narrative through direct speech, particularly the Father. We are told at the beginning:

“As he didn’t know how things would develop with Mother, he often assembled us in his study when he wanted to talk to us, and locked the door.”

The father’s tendency to speechifying is a characteristic of his profession (“Being a writer of a kind, he was given to poetic tuns of phrase, so we often couldn’t understand him”) and his preference for talk over action. One of his most treasured possession is a postcard from Thomas Mann, but, he explains, the correspondence ended there as he never got around to replying. Faced with the prospect of divorce, his reaction is inaction:

“For days now, Father had been crouched in his corner wondering: What am I going to take with me into my new life?”

The novel opens on the day he will leave, taking his son with him and leaving his daughter behind. His wife, we learn, has already found a replacement in Herr Herkenrath. Yet there is so little urgency in his manner the reader might begin to doubt whether this will happen, particularly as Hofmann is also in no hurry with the narrative – in almost 300 pages we will not go beyond these 24 hours. Little will happen but our understanding of the characters will deepen, and our sympathies may change. Initially the Mother appears cruel and unfeeling – it’s clear that she is the force behind the Father’s expulsion, and Herr Herkenrath’s imminent arrival (the same day – with a planned crossover where they can have tea together!). When she is heard laughing, the son tells us:

“She was making fun of him and his plight as a writer.”

His loyalty, and to some extent the younger sister’s, seems to be with the Father. Yet, as the novel progresses, the Father’s faults become clearer. Hofmann does not portray him as an artist down on his luck, but as a man whose ambitions far outrun his capabilities. He is writer who rarely writes, and produces little in the way of income (he tutors as a side-line, but at times will ignore his pupils when they arrive at the door). He also has a tendency to self-pity: when asked why he thinks no-one will read his articles, he replies, “Because the world is against me,” and later:

“That was the last thing I’ll ever write…I’m through with writing!”

Rather than packing he takes the time to walk around ten time telling those he meets that he is separating for his wife, although on each occasion suggesting that he is heading for a different place. He compulsion to stray from the truth is not new as his son is well aware, worrying when he points to a mourning ribbon he is wearing that he “was about to fabricate some lie about it,” and stating baldly:

“I’m writing something at the moment, he lied.”

The son also has his own farewells to make, particular to his friend Hutsche. The friendship has homo-erotic undertones, with an emphasis on physical intimacy such as, “That day, we brushed against each other many times,” and:

“I opened my mouth as wide as could, and Hutsche stuck a piece of chocolate between my lips.”

Given that he must now leave, there is not time to develop this relationship, either for Hofmann or for the narrator, and that is surely the point: the Father is so absorbed in what he might lose he gives no consideration to what his son might be leaving behind. Similarly, the Mother’s focus on what she hopes to gain blinds her to the damage she may be causing her children. His bad luck, her good luck is, for the children, simply luck – chance, events over which they have no control.

Luck is another example of Hofmann’s skill with child narrators, and his great empathy for child characters (not only the son but his sister too). It also shows that he does not need the grand drama of history in the background to write a novel which possesses the same tension, albeit in a domestic setting. But then, Hofmann’s work frequently focuses on the small personal tragedies no matter what the wider circumstances as he casts a dispassionate eye over humanity with all its flaws.


November 6, 2020

Originally published in 1986, Veilchenfeld appeared towards the end of Gert Hofmann’s career as a novelist, though it lies in the middle of what has been translated into English, the earliest of which is Balzac’s Horse and Other Stories from 1981. Veilchenfeld, which has only just been translated by Eric Mace-Tessler this year, deals explicitly with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. It is told from the point of view of a young boy – perhaps unsurprising as Hofmann was born in 1931 – but the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher (though it is never specifically mentioned that he is Jewish). In the novel we see Veilchenfeld’s increasing persecution through the innocent and bewildered eyes of the narrator.

The novel opens with Veilchenfeld’s death, denying the reader hope of any other escape from the cruelty he is subjected to, and making later scenes in the novel when Veilchenfeld attempts to get a passport, and therefore permission to leave the country, even more affecting. Aspects of Veilchenfeld’s treatment are immediately illustrated, for example when the narrator’s Mother wishes he had moved into a house with a larger garden, and his Father replies;

“And how was he supposed to know that one day he would not dare leave his garden when he wanted to have some exercise?”

At the same time the narrator and his sister are told not to speak to him if they meet him in the street. Hofmann uses the child’s perspective to highlight the absurdity of Veilchenfeld’s persecution: when the narrator asks his Mother why Veilchenfled is to be relocated she tells him, “Because of what he thinks,” but when he asks her what he thinks she cannot answer. The irony is that, being a philosopher, it is unlikely anyone in the town would understand what he thinks should they be interested enough to find out. Her reply is more pointed when his sister asks how they think: “Like everyone.” It is not accurate – his Father has remained sympathetic to Veilchenfled – but it does identify the central danger faced by the other characters, that of non-conformity. The Mother’s frequent illnesses, we are led to assume, are of a nervous kind, caused by having to ‘fit in’.

The novel then rewinds to its earliest scene when the family invite Veilchenfeld to dinner. After the meal, however, one of their windows is smashed:

“Wherever I go, I bring misfortune in the form of brutal violence.”

Hofmann’s child’s eye view allows him to focus on the most poignant details, such as Veilchenfeld trying to drink his too hot coffee before he leaves at his hosts’ insistence. The narrator’s innocence is also reflected in his speech. When he visits Veilchenfeld – he has been allowed to go for drawing lessons – he tells him he can be seen from the street and Veilchenfeld “turned a little pale.” This ability to see him, even his shadow, will be important later, when a mob arrives outside his door. The narrator is also excited at being one of the few people allowed to see round Veilchenfeld’s flat, a scene that will be repeated at the end when he takes his sister there to see Veilchenfeld’s body. On this first visit Veilchenfeld tells him that his earliest work was his most important:

“The older one then becomes, the less courage one has and also the less one succeeds.”

Although he is referring to his life as an intellectual, the comment equally applies to the people of the town who are sympathetic to his position but who slowly retreat from him in the course of the novel.

Much of what the narrator tells us is overheard and not fully understood (“It’s not that I don’t hear their sentences, it’s simply that I don’t grasp their meaning”). For example, the attack on Veilchenfeld which soon follows, is relayed as a conversation between his Mother and Father and the Laubes. This allows Hofmann to do more than simply arouse the reader’s sympathy by describing the attack; more importantly, he reveals attitudes in the town even among those who are not overtly anti-Semitic. Herr Laube questions why Veilchenfeld would walk passed a particular pub:

“And he wonders if it were not even perhaps an unconscious provocation.”

Hofmann is not interested only in the violence or the overt cruelty (as when, after weeks of attempting to get a passport, one is produced in front of him only to be torn into pieces), but also the reactions of those citizens who might be termed ‘neutral’. Later, when a crowd gathers outside Veilchenfeld’s house a neighbour, Hindenburg, tells them that despite the light being out, Veilchenfeld is probably in:

“And having said this, he stops himself, with his fist in front of his mouth, because it’s suddenly clear to him that he should not have said this, because now they won’t go away anymore. I should have warned old Veilchenfeld about them instead, he thinks.”

Each of these small choices creates the atmosphere of persecution in which Veilchenfeld lives, and dies.

Veilchenfeld is a powerful and affecting examination of the way in which ordinary people collaborate with violent oppression, and CB Editions and Eric Mace-Tessler should be congratulated for this timely translation. Its gentle pace and child narrator make it even more chilling. It is often argued that fascism must be resisted before it is too late; Veilchenfeld exists in that moment when it is too late.

The Parable of the Blind

November 21, 2017

A couple of years ago I read Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995, during German Literature Month, an experience which left me intrigued to explore his work further. As luck would have it, I came across a copy of The Parable of the Blind earlier this year (Hofmann’s work is largely out of print – though, unknown to me, this particular novel was reprinted by Verba Mundi in March). The novel, translated by poet Christopher Middleton (one of three Hofmann novels he translated), not only shares its title with that of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder but seeks to describe the origins of that particular artwork, narrated entirely by the blind men who have been assembled by Bruegel to model for him.

As the novel opens the blind men are awakened by a knocking. The communal voice which narrates the novel describes a dream of burial:

“Good, it’s over now, we say, and we’ve been buried. First as far as others are concerned, then as far as we ourselves are. We’re beginning to be forgotten.”

The knocking is a summoning back to existence in the world –a world largely confirmed by sight. The initial conversation suggests that the blind men remember little of where they are or why. Once awake they must confirm their own presence as well as that of their comrades:

“Then we pass our hands over our bodies. Yes, we’re still the same people as yesterday.”

Their daily returning to being echoes the work of the painter’s more permanent creation and Hofmann is clearly interested in the irony of the painting which its models cannot see. Hofmann presents the world entirely from their viewpoint, one which is excessively focussed on dialogue. When actions do occur, for example when a child touches their faces, only what they experience is described:

“Then through the morning breeze the child’s warm hand comes and strokes our cheeks, right and left, and creeps into our ears.”

This scene also illustrates the curiosity of the villagers and the vulnerability of the blind men. After they are fed they are taken to relieve themselves, but the promised privacy is a deception:

“But when we’re crouching in the cold and tickly grass we sense that we’re not alone at all, there’s breathing and gasping and giggling in front of us and behind us.”

Throughout the novel they remain reliant on others to lead them, not always honestly or successfully, to the painter. That help is rarely offered and they must first of all discover if there is any other person there:

“But probably there’s nobody there, it’s the same as ever.”

Bruegel is famed for his powers of observation with this particular painting often being cited as evidence, not only in the detail of the clothing but in the way in which each of the men’s blindness can be seen to have its own cause. In the novel, however, the men tell the villagers a common story:

“One evening in the summertime when it was very hot they were sitting under a cherry tree and birds came. The birds sat in their shoulders and pecked their eyes out.”

The blind men themselves know this isn’t the case – one of their number, for example (Slit Man) has had his eyes removed as a punishment – yet they frequently ask if there are crows following them. Bruegel’s accuracy is a refutation of superstition, just as Hofmann’s fiction has often tackled history with a view to seeing accurately in the face of assumed narratives. Bruegel also paints so that his subjects can be seen. When the child tells the blind men that people can’t always be seen he gives this explanation:

“Because one day they die, the child says, then they can’t be seen anymore, and that’s why he paints them. And that’s why he also paints himself, so that he’ll always be seen.”

Yet if blindness is a misfortune, so is sight. Bruegel is tormented by the pictures he must paint:

“More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liege, the pictures are of people dying and dead.”

When the blind men finally arrive he asks for them to be described to him:

“No, I don’t want to look at them, the painter says after hesitating a bit, not yet. The mere sight of people like that had a devastating effect on him in his present state because he at once put himself in their place. He couldn’t see people who’ve been broken without being broken himself.”

The Parable of the Blind is an impressively sustained exercise in limited viewpoint, and also interesting simply in its portrayal of the immortalised but forgotten models of the painting. However, it can also be read as a parable itself, a tortured Pilgrim’s Progress, where we are the blind leading the blind with death hovering above us, shouting our questions into the darkness.

The Film Explainer

November 20, 2015


As the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is absorbed into the Man Booker International Prize, it seems an opportune time to take a look at a past IFFP winner, Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, translated by his son Michael. Coincidentally, this German novel was the last to win the prize in 1995 before it became dormant for five years; this year’s second German winner sees it disappear (in name anyway) again. Both novels deal with Germany’s problematic twentieth century (cynics would say that an IFFP jury loves anything connected to the Second World War), though Hofmann’s take on it is more traditional. Dispiritingly, the novel, like most of Hofmann’s work, is now out of print: yesterday’s prize-winners, it seems, are tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.

The novel tells the story of the author’s grandfather, Karl Hofmann; we can assume the autobiographical element from the novel’s dedication and introductory sentence:

“My grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873 – 1944) worked for many years in the Apollo cinema on the Helenenstrasse in Limbach / Saxony.”

Hofmann goes on to describe the role of the film explainer, an occupation of which I had been entirely ignorant:

“My grandfather was the film explainer and piano player in Limbach. They still had those back then… In the cinema they wore red or blue tail coats with gold or silver buttons, a white bow tie, white trousers, sometimes top-boots…
“Watch out, don’t nod off, here comes a wonderful sequence, maybe the most wonderful in the whole, film, cried Grandfather, reaching for his pointer.”

(You can hear more about film explainers in general here). It would be fair to say that Grandfather regards his role as a vocation rather than a job. On the long walks he often goes with his grandson he carries a notebook in case inspiration strikes; when at home he is often found leafing through newspapers and a school encyclopaedia in search of vocabulary:

“The words he wanted to use in the evening in the Apollo he would jot down on pieces of paper in the morning.”

On any visit to another town, inspection of the cinema is mandatory. His job, however, is threatened both by diminishing audiences and the arrival of sound. The cinema’s owner believes the talkies can save his business; at the same time they will make Grandfather’s role redundant.

german lit month

The novel generally has a light, comic tone. Grandfather is, in many ways, a ridiculous character, pompous when it comes to his ‘art’ and otherwise of little use. That his ridiculousness is filtered through the eyes of his admiring grandson softens this, though the narrative is frequently interspersed with barbed comments for the Grandmother to compensate:

“In January, he had got a new hat. This hat…had, if anything, an even broader brim than its predecessor. ‘You could use it to sweep the streets with’ (Grandmother)”

However, this is 1930s Germany and the novel inevitably has its darker side. Though the role of film explainer and Grandfather’s attachment to it may seem foolishly Luddite to the contemporary reader, the novel reveals the way in which technology advances regardless of the human cost – an issue society continues to grapple with. When Grandfather loses his job, he also loses his sense of self:

“I used to think, he said, that as an artist I was something special. But it isn’t true. I’m on the street, same as millions of other, and all of us treading on each other. Soon I’ll be reduced to begging, artist or not!”

It is during this time that attends his first political meeting:

“If people weren’t so desperate there wouldn’t be so many meetings in the world! Every meeting is a kind of last straw that they try to clutch.”

Hofmann shows us, in miniature, the way in which individuals can be attracted to extremism: when everything else is taken away from them. Luckily his love of film ultimately saves Grandfather: when on a rally, he abandons the flag to visit the nearest cinema.

The Film Explainer uses its provincial, unimportant characters to reveal a little of the process by which a country can lose itself. Perhaps its greatest achievement, though, is its wonderful three-layered narrative voice in which the Grandfather, the Grandmother and the grandson unite to tell their story.