Archive for the ‘Gert Hofmann’ Category

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.

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The Film Explainer

November 20, 2015

the-film-explainer

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.