Poet and translator Michael Hofmann has been cited before on this blog as a reliable source of reading – he wouldn’t waste his time, so I won’t be wasting mine – but I wondered if his judgement might be clouded when it comes to his father. Gert Hofmann has had his final three novels translated by his son: this, published in 1994 following Hofmann’s early death at the age of 62, was the last. Until now we’ve had to rely on an (admittedly handsome) US edition from New Directions. This month, the book is finally published in the UK by CB Editions. Its cover is elegant if plain, but might have an austere 1950s charm appropriate to these credit-crunched times.
The book itself is a fancy and a beauty. We are prepared for – or forewarned of – what to expect from the opening paragraph.
Once, many many years ago, Professor Lichtenberg pulled on his lecture coat and headed out. He wanted to see what the weather was doing. Because he was a vain fellow, he had silver buttons on his lecture coat. From time to time, he would lose one. Then he would go crawling around his apartment in the wing of the house on the Gotmarstrasse, crying: Where has it got to now? As he scrabbled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let’s write about it!
The hunchback was enormous!
At once we are in a conspiracy where the narrator shares the skittish, disarming charm of the character of Lichtenberg, and the boundaries between author and character – and even reader – are blurred. And why not, since Lichtenberg was a real person (though the only place I had seen his name before was in the catalogue of NYRB Classics): an 18th century polymath who is depicted by Hofmann as having the childish curiosity of great genius. Around him the world is flooded with Enlightenment discoveries:
How quickly progress was being made all over the world! In England they were assessing the effect of electricity on the growth of plants and animals. How it made everything shoot up! Only cats failed to thrive and shrivelled up!
Lichtenberg himself investigates: “He made some extraordinary discoveries that later all turned out to be wrong.” Yet for all his interest in the outside world, it is Lichtenberg’s ability to look in on himself which gives the book balance. He has self-awareness enough to know his physical limitations: four feet nine inches, hunchbacked, with “awful teeth,” lying about his age (“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel”). However he lacks understanding of social mores and falls in love with a thirteen-year-old flower seller (22 years his junior): “a girl had ‘crawled into him, and was spreading out’.”
Hofmann’s task here is to prevent Lichtenberg from seeming like a sexual predator, to maintain the reader’s compact with this charming man. This is as significant an achievement as Nabokov’s ability to gain sympathy for Humbert in the closing chapters of Lolita. In fact it is more significant: Hofmann has balanced the tone of the story delicately so far largely through a wild overuse of exclamation marks, which results in an inversion of the usual rules. Now a full stop, relatively rare, seems to be making a dramatic point, and when Lichtenberg’s lover, ‘the Stechardess’, makes a plain plea as they consummate their relationship –
Don’t hurt me, she said.
– it brings back Isaac Babel’s dictum that “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” Thereafter, in this exceptional central scene, even the formerly charming exclamation marks have a chilly, seductive horror to them:
When she was finally naked, and he pulled her to him, he saw she was still a child. She got quite beside herself, throwing her little head from side to side and and crying: No! No! He said: Wait! and blew out the last candle.
What happened next was the laborious, brutal and bloody business!
And then? as the Stechardess would say, to drive Lichtenberg to tell her more of his life. Then we have an acute understanding of the contradictory impulses of the human heart and brain. “Ideas are … the backdrop to the world. Everything takes place in front of a prospect of ideas.” But Lichtenberg finds that, once admired for the beauty of his lover, “there wasn’t much left of the sympathy he had once enjoyed as a cripple.”
When comic novels are rarely done, and even more rarely done well, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is a breath of air, a carefully chaotic representation of real life through the prism of a fictionalised historical character, complete with cheeky bracketed birth and death dates for its secondary characters. “The times were, like all times, extraordinary,” observes Hofmann. And his book, unlike many others, is too. The only problem lies in the question you ask when you want to find something else to read that’s as lively, charming and cheering.