Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann
Gert Hofmann's work is little known here in the UK. Translated by his son Michael, a noted writer in his own right of course, (and RSB interviewee), Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is the last thing that Gert Hofmann wrote before his untimely death in 1993, aged just 62. Astonishingly, the book has yet to be released in the UK (and release doesn't look likely); so we must thank Norton imprint New Directions for its release, as yet only in hardback, in the US.
In his excellent afterword, Michael Hofmann suggests that his father's last three books (The Film Explainer, Luck and Lichtenberg) represent a loose trilogy: "novelists have one novel they keep writing over and over. My father had two ... [Each of his last books] managed to harness both [his key] tropes, art and childhood ... to me they are ... his apotheosis." As much as anything, these works are bound by a working method: in 1988, Gert Hofmann had suffered a stroke which left him unable to read; his last three books were dictated to his wife.
The last words of Lichtenberg remind me of the disputed ending to Joyce's Ulysses: without a full-stop, one can argue that Joyce's text opens unendingly beyond itself. Lichtenberg does the same, ending with "And then?" (Und dann?) which is the very interpolation so often used throughout the novel to move the action along. We know, at the end of novel, that what we have read was merely an episode in Lichtenberg's life; a collection of paragraphs, and not a life. We know as readers that we must get on with our own life now the pleasure of this text is over.
It is misleading to invoke Joyce, here, however. Whilst Lichtenberg is a profoundly intelligent book its principal pleasure lies in Hofmann's lightness of touch (for which his son, our translator, must be warmly congratulated). Michael Hofmann wonders, in his afterword, if readers will have ever come across a zanier, gloomier and funnier book. I haven't, not for a long time. Nor have I come across a warmer, odder book. Nor one with so many exclamation marks!
It is testament to the anti-intellectualism of British culture that intelligence has been equated with what is dour, dreary, turgid and pretentious. A fairy-tale, for that is what it is, like Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, may not seem to offer the brain-food that more ostensibly difficult works offer up, but this novel is just as important as Hofmann's other books (Our Conquest, The Parable of the Blind [excellently reviewed by Edmund Hardy here]), and just as intellectually satisfying. Aesthetically, it is a triumph. Hofmann's sweet, ebullient, tender work hints at something darker, without explicitly stating anything beyond its surface.
Professor Lichtenberg is short, humpbacked, and losing his hair. He writes about mathematics, electricity, philosophy, but his dreams are more lascivious. He wants someone to warm his bed and fill his heart. Hofmann presents to us this winning, eccentric character, and his unconventional love affair with the little Stechardess, Maria Stechard, a flower seller and daughter of one of his neighbours, via a series of clipped conversational fragments and precious little description. The narrative moves along at a formidable pace because Hofmann never delves into what is driving Lichtenberg. Resolutely remaining on the surface of things, Hofmann refuses to psychologise: Lichtenberg is not made real by the creation of a rounded character, filled out with credible motivations; he garners our sympathy and empathy whilst remaining unknowable and unjudgeable.
Whilst Lichtenberg himself may be inscrutable, Hofmann's book certainly is not. Or, perhaps it is. Simplicity is an underrated virtue in fiction, too often it is assumed that plainness and restraint are artless and Spartan. It is presumed that explanation and elaborate backstory create a fully rounded character. But such mimetics do not always make for satisfying art: the elaborate can be merely ornate: motivation can be imposed without a real feeling for the characters' true selves. Allowing a character to not have his/her motivations pinned down and explained away can give a story wings. In Hofmann's short, sturdy, pointed paragraphs, Lichtenberg is presented to us as he presents himself to the uncomprehending citizens of Göttingen: a dandy, an eccentric, a naïve, a learned fool; a flawed man, a good friend, an amateur. All this, and more, without crass psychology and with much humour.