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Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann is a poet, critic, translator and writer. Born in Freiburg in 1957, son of the German novelist Gert Hofmann, Michael read English Literature and Classics at Magdalene College, Oxford. Michael lives in London and Hamburg, and teaches in Florida. He is the author of four books of poems, a book of criticism, and the translator of many books from the German. Here he kindly answers my questions.

Mark Thwaite: Acrimony was a wonderful collection of poems, much of it about your relationship with your father.Was that book important to you? Do you still write poetry?

Michael Hofmann: I haven’t written so many poetry books – four – that they aren’t all important to me, if that doesn’t sound a little plaintive. But with its two-part organization, and the clutch of poems about my father and growing up and so on, I suppose Acrimony packs the most punch. It seems like a book I might have written on purpose, and not like the others, which contain more or less whatever I managed to write over a certain period. I still feel close to the poems in it – especially in the first, non-father, part – which is a little alarming, after almost twenty years. Somewhere in there is the clue too to why I haven’t written more, and why I’m hardly writing anything now. There doesn’t seem to me much wrong with what I have written, but at the same time I don’t want to write any more of it; I’m looking – or waiting – for some kind of new orientation. I’m not sure to what extent I’ve failed – dried up or gone away – and to what extent I’m doing what I always did and always wanted to do, which is a mix of things. That archaic designation, “man of letters”. Though of course I never imagined I’d be reduced to a poem every other year, or whatever it is! A friendly critic – I’m thinking of Dennis O’Driscoll – told me my poems must have taken a lot of living, and that a hiatus in production was not unexpected, and possibly a good thing. I’d like to find some way of writing that was less exorbitant, less antagonistic, less cannibalistic…

MT: I'm guessing from books like The Faber Berryman and Robert Lowell: Poems Selected by Michael Hofmann and your new The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems that poetry is still important to you!?

MH: Yes, it is. Never in the exclusive way it’s supposed to be important to poets – I’ve always read other things, and held them in higher regard than most poetry – but it’s part of my furniture. Fierce furniture. Those books are projections if you like, or shadows, of the vast time I’ve spent on their authors: Berryman I first wrote about as an undergraduate; Lowell I was supposed to write a PhD on (though I didn’t come close), and I continually re-read; and I’m a sort of autodidact in German poetry. The German anthology is about one-third translated by me, for what that’s worth.

MT: Of late you seem to have been focussing on translation. Is translating the dayjob whilst you concentrate your artistic energy on your own writing or do you see translating itself as a creative endeavour?

MH: I started translating only shortly after my “debut” as poet (1979, in London Magazine) and as reviewer (1980, in the TLS). My first translation from – my native language – German came out in 1985. A novel by Kurt Tucholsky, called Castle Gripsholm, and I did a few odds and ends before that. I expected to translate a novel a year, or every other year, to stay busy, and to make a little money. It’s rather run away with me. I’ve even lost count of how many books I’ve done. I suppose Joseph Roth is the main culprit (I’m working on my tenth book of his, an annotated selection of his letters), but there are others too whom I couldn’t stand not to do: Wolfgang Koeppen (four titles), Wim Wenders (three), my father (three again). I’m translating my second Kafka (the short stories), my second Brecht (Mother Courage). I don’t really know what it is. An expression of my fealty to German? Or to prose? Something Macchiavellian, a practical identification of a type of work that’s always there to do, and that’s endlessly portable? Or something altogether more sinister: a kind of driven self-obliteration? Am I pushing myself forward, or holding myself back? I dislike the process and the work, but I love the results, the finished books. Perhaps poetry, at my rate of output, just doesn’t seem enough to show for a life. “A slim bundle of dead writs,” Ian Hamilton puts it; he forced himself to do these big editing jobs (the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Literature, etc.) and these big biographies (Lowell, Salinger, Hollywood writers, etc.). Perhaps my translations are my equivalent, a partial self-industrialisation that leaves my poetry – like his, I would say – home-made? As to whether it’s creative or not, I think it’s not for me to say. It takes every last word out of me, that’s for sure, and I do have the highest hopes and ambitions for it. I don’t fool myself that the translations are “by” me, but they are “my books”, and carry my imprimatur. I like to think there is something in them that sets them apart, that they wouldn’t have been exactly the same if someone else had done them. Or a machine…

MT: You've recently translated Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, Party in the Blitz by Elias Canetti, The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth and written the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. A diverse list! Are they all books you have a passion for?

MH: That’s exactly it! It’s a bit of a relief being confronted with something like that, because I think of myself often as being a rather carping and dissatisfied and negative sort of person. But I’m very enthusiastic about those books, however mutually incompatible they and their authors probably are. To take the Junger for an example: Simon Winder at Penguin read the existing English version, from around 1930, and straightaway wanted to bring the book into Penguin Classics. I hadn’t read any Junger, beyond a few nauseating pages from Battle As Inner Experience, a revolting screed he wrote later, in the 1920s; plus I was aware of his German reputation, as a kind of unrepentant red rag to the Left. And not just that, as a German growing up in England in the 1960s, I hadn’t read anything about the War or Wars. Anyway, I thought In Stahlgewittern was great, and also surprisingly unproblematical, very clear and vivid and unconstructed. Really, an undesigning book, but as close as I could ever come to war, the great, defining experience of most human generations. In other words, I’m happy to take things as and where I find them.

MT: You've translated many works by Joseph Roth. Indeed you (and Granta) must be congratulated for making Roth's name known again (to those who read English). What makes Roth so worthy of our - and your - attention.

MH: I think Roth comes into the category of a great, but still under-rated and under-read writer. His reputation is still unsettled, and still inadequate to the man. You can open any book of his and start reading, and find something to repay you for your trouble. As Joseph Brodsky put it to me at a time when I was reading Roth, but hadn’t progressed to translating him: there’s a poem on every page of his. As for it being worth my attention, I don’t put a great premium on that. What else? Partly it’s what P.G. Wodehouse called “the series habit” – which, along with the growing of side whiskers, he claimed to find the besetting danger to the writer… If you’ve done five, you do a sixth. Or do you suddenly turn round and say he’s only worth five books of my time? They say fidelity is its own reward; I suppose a translator’s chances of getting noticed improve if he or she does a lot of books from the same author. Then the shadow or the numen or whatever rubs off still more. (Not that I’ve ever done anything from that kind of calculation! You must understand I don’t see myself as a card-carrying translator.)

MT: Your father Gert Hofmann is someone else you have translated. Is translating your father a more difficult task than your other translating work? Do you think via translating your father you have a greater appreciation of his work?

MH: I think actually it was easier. There was never to me any question, to me, of “not getting it”. Growing up with the man was – in ironic hindsight – a kind of preparation or training for translating him when he was gone. The oddity and the macabreness and the humour of it are all in me anyway. If you like I was able to read it in stereo. The appreciation was there, by the way, before I started translating it. It’s important to me that I agreed to – I wanted to – translate him in his lifetime. In other words, it wasn’t a stroke of belated piety on my part. I was working on The Film Explainer when he died, wholly unexpectedly and far too early, in 1993. Thereafter I determined to translate his two subsequent books as well, Luck and Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. To me they all go together.

MT: What would you say is your father's best work?

MH: I like Luck very much: the last day of a family, the father’s moving out, and taking his son with him, the mother stays behind with the daughter, to take receipt of an awful new man. It might have been our own story, I suppose I believe on some level. And I think The Parable of the Blind, about Breughel’s painting of the same name is very very good. From the point of view of the seven blind men, in the first person plural, a voice that arises from somewhere in the midst of them all.

MT: We are big fans of Thomas Bernhard here at RSB and, so, we were wondering: is his poetry any use!? Do you fancy translating it?

MH: I’ve read very little of Bernhard’s poetry, just the occasional piece in anthologies. But then I don’t think anyone much has. I like his evolution. Six books of poems and then something like “Sod this!” and a novel, and then many more novels and plays. I’ve only seen two of the plays, Elizabeth II and Heldenplatz, and I thought they were both wonderful. I’d love to translate plays of his. You might be interested to learn that I’ve recently handed in a translation of Frost, that first novel.

MT: Handke is another writer we'd love to see you working on. Do you admire his work?

MH: I’m rather mixed on Handke. The longer books seem not only to have, but to be longueurs. A book of journal entries that I reviewed once upon a time, The Weight of the World, My Year in No One’s Bay or whatever it was called. I think he is very different in German, and also very differently perceived: turgid, fussy, paranoid… A much more useful and interesting writer for export, I can see.  But on the other hand, I thought A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was terrific, and then there was another little book of short pieces, off-cuts really from one of the long books, called “Thucydides Once More”, which was just lovely. Pieces about Croatia or Slovenia, being in a harbour town, getting your shoes polished, concentrating on the few minutes in the evening between the last swallow and the first bat. Lovely things. I think even as a poet, I ask for a little more novel from a novel than he usually gives. But if you like Handke, then I would refer you to a book I came across and translated by a man called Peter Stephan Jungk (a friend of Handke’s, and now of mine as well): the book is called Tigor or The Snowflake Constant. That should have been a cult novel: an amazingly persuasive account of the strangeness of life.

MT: Do you read any literary websites!? What are your favourites?

MH: I have to disappoint you there. The vehemence and opinionatedness and lack of accountability of the online world worry me. I don’t know who is telling me something (and usually at the top of their voices). I’m sure you’re not like that, I must look you up. I’m very new to all this. (Good luck!)

MT: Who is your favourite writer/book? What is the best thing you have read recently?

MH: Probably Malcolm Lowry. I re-read Under the Volcano most years, having first been put on to it by a dead English teacher of mine. (Not dead at the time, you understand.) I think the best living English writer is James Buchan. I wish he would write another novel. I re-read him all the time as well. Especially Heart’s Journey in Winter. The poet who is closest to me, probably has been for the last five years or so, is James Schuyler, one of the New York School, friend of Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s.

MT: What are you working on now? More translations? teaching? your "own" work?

MH: All of the above! I usually teach one semester a year in the States, but sometimes two, as now. Usually creative writing – poetry workshops – but with a fair bit of latitude for reading and discussion. More translating, because if I don’t do it, someone else will, or perhaps worse, no one else will. As I mentioned, the Kafka stories, and a novel by a very good German writer of the Thirties and Forties, Irmgard Keun, about exile, then the Roth letters. Sometimes I give the whole enterprise just another five or ten years, so why bale out any sooner? And poems, well, as and when. I wish.

MT: Anything else you'd like to say?

MH: No, not really! Thanks for your questions, thanks for bearing with me, I’ve enjoyed myself.

-- Mark Thwaite (05/10/2005)

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