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.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

A rare sort of writer

Today is Gabriel Josipovici's 80th birthday. To mark the occasion, I'll link to various posts I've written over the years – after a brief interlude.

I read him first in July 1988 after borrowing The Lessons of Modernism from the second floor of Portsmouth Central Library because it had essays on Kafka and Saul Bellow. The link explains how significant that brutalist building was for me and how vital is to keep such libraries open. After that, I borrowed the collection In the Fertile Land, which was in the fiction section on the ground floor, and was knocked out by the first story Death of the word, and then by Distances, the short novel that concludes the collection. 'Knocked out' is an appropriate cliché, not only because those were the words I would have used then but because, without being to articulate it at the time, they displaced my assumptions about what could be moving in fiction – not, as first assumed, ornate language, big ideas and big events, though they played their part in other books, but rhythm, repetition, pattern and reticence.

The final word there is discussed in his latest non-fiction book, Forgetting, which he says "once had great prestige in English culture but which...has now fallen into abeyance" because it is understood as a form of concealment, suggesting someone has something to hide, and that its opposite, expression (or 'brutal honesty' as it's often called now), is always a good thing. This may explain why his fiction has been neglected in a culture that values sensation and revelation so highly.

His most high-profile publication is What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which I wrote about at length. In an interview last month on the Unsound Methods podcast, he says he was unhappy to write polemically like this, but I would say such unhappiness only emphasises the problem with the wider culture that demanded such a response.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, I recommend reading Victoria Best's superb interview The Mind of the Modern. She says his novels "have such extraordinary elasticity" and "open up new spaces in [her] mind", which is exactly my experience, and this is important for anyone coming to his fiction for the first time to appreciate; forget keywords like 'modernism' and 'experimental' and just read. The novel Victoria is talking about in particular is Migrations, which deserves to be reissued and which I wrote about it five years ago following a revelatory chance re-reading.

A passage in an earlier interview develops a little more about this elasticity: 

I don’t know if what I write are novels, and names don’t seem to matter. I quicken at the apprehension of some human drama that is affected by time, and feel the need to find words for what would otherwise remain wordless. [...] This has something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.

This sums up what I found so powerful when re-reading In a Hotel Garden a couple of years later. It's a challenge to write about this experience without reaching for familiar terms, which explains why I'm less content with other pieces about other novels such as:


In recent months I have posted similar lists of blogposts I have written about Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, two other writers who have been important for me and this blog. Fortunately, the third marks a happier anniversary and reminds me of Josipovici's review of the third volume of Beckett's letters, which he says reveal "that rare sort of writer who grows younger as he ages". While it is fair to say that of Josipovici too, I want to say also that, as a reader, I grow younger reading his sort of books.

 

For more information about Josipovici's novels and critical books, visit the website dedicated to his work.

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