Friday, October 30, 2020

More and less: Veilchenfeld by Gert Hofmann

Gert Hofmann's Veilchenfeld is the latest of his novels to be published in English translation, and the first translated by Eric Mace-Tessler. Tom Conaghan at Review31 has given it an appreciative review, recognising that Hofmann's presentation of a civilisation's descent into barbarity is all the more powerful for being without the usual framing political context, without psychological comment, and without judgment. This is enabled by the child narrator, who is more or less innocent or incapable of all three. 

 
This is enough and I won't write another review but something more general instead.

Despite the quality of the review, there is no reference to any other of Hofmann's novels, which only emphasises the shame of their relative obscurity. Veilchenfeld is the eighth to be translated into English, and the first since Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl in 2004, also published by CB Editions. I don't know how many novels are left untranslated, as his Wikipedia page lists only Works. What the page does reveal, however, is that Hofmann began his career writing radio plays, which explains how the novels' disarming lightness and compression was developed.

Two other of the translated novels are narrated by a child: Our Conquest from 1991 and Luck from 2002, the latter being translated by his son, the poet Michael Hofmann, with whom he had an awkward relationship, as described in his 1986 collection Acrimony, which contains a poem describing how his father's career changed course:
After the age of fifty, a sudden flowering, half a dozen
                                                                                    novels
in as many years – dialogue by other means: his main
                                                                                    characters
maniacs, compulsive, virtuoso talkers, talkers for dear life,
talkers in soliloquies, notebooks, tape-recordings, last
                                                                                    wills

I'd add that many characters and/or narrators are also incapacitated in some way, setting them apart: as well as children lacking the knowledge and experience of adults, there is Lichtenberg, the hunchbacked intellectual dwarf, and the uneducated flower-selling girl, the blind men in The Parable of the Blind (a novel written in the first-person plural), the grandfather in The Film Explainer who has lost his beloved role because of the talkies, and perhaps also the bickering couples in The Spectacle at the Tower and Before the Rainy Season whose relationship issues are exposed when they are unable to escape each other as they tour a foreign land. Incapacity constrains the narrative and animates the various distances between characters, between narrators and their experience, and between words and their meaning. The blurb on the The Film Explainer best describes the effect: "makes you laugh and then burns holes in your head".

One reason for the novels' relative obscurity is that they don't conform to English-speaking assumptions about what German fiction should be like, and so are politely ignored, which I complained about in the golden age of blogging, first in 2006 and again in 2007. At the time, I was also frustrated by my own inability to explain why his novels are so atypically enjoyable. Tom Conaghan's review touches on the reason but, perhaps because he hasn't read the other novels (again, forgiveably so), focuses instead on the embedded moral lessons, whereas what stands out for me in his other novels is the experience of ambiguity; everything takes place in an indivisible, alarming now. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this is to present the opening sentence of Our Conquest, translated by Christopher Middleton, which is set during the collapse of the Third Reich:

One day our little town came to be conquered, or, as mother says, rolled up, from north to south, cut off from all surrounding towns and villages.

The fairy tale lightness of "one day our little town" and that curiously nonchalant phrase for what you’d assume is a threatening event, contains the whole, more or less. What does rolled up mean exactly, we ask? It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As readers, we're immediately thrown into the wonder of the child narrator’s world, which is also its potential for horror. In the first of several set pieces, mother sends her boy and his friend on a mission to the town’s slaughterhouse to find some butterschmalz, which sounds like a rich treat for people on the brink of starvation but, we ask again, if it’s found in the slaughterhouse, can it be so pleasant? And won't that be a dangerous place to visit, especially as it may stand for the condition of the wider world at that time and place in history? Little mysteries like these pile up and, in any regular novel, we would expect explanations to be part of the story, only for them to end up constituting the novel.

If I were to write a normal review, I'd say Veilchenfeld, while it is full of the Hofmann's dark humour, suffers from the absence of what sets the other two child-narrated novels apart, and this is because everything is also contained in the opening sentence, more or less: "Our philosopher has died suddenly." This removes wonder and ambiguity and replaces it with the relentless pursuit of a foregone conclusion. Perhaps this is inevitable given the subject matter, as Prof. Veilchenfeld, though it's not stated explicitly, is jewish, and his fate given the setting is a foregone conclusion, more or less, and his pre-mortem persecution can only distress and depress; there is no now, only then. The narrator says Veilchenfeld's house is owned by Frau Belling who is in an institution and will never leave, which his father knows because he bumped into the institution's doctor in Klemm's pastry shop. Father says the doctor says:

she can no longer hold her water, but that would not be so bad, if she did not also trickle away in the head, and no longer know who she is or who others are and in what year we are all living. (When she is asked, she simply says it is too late.)
This is why, at least in the context of the seven others, the novel disappoints.

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