Fiction / The pearls of Hoffmann
In writing that is both playful and poignant, an Israeli novelist finds power and meaning in the smallest gestures and phrases, and at the same time reminds us of the inadequacy of words.
Curriculum Vitae by Yoel Hoffmann (translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole)New Directions; 128 pages, $14.95 (paperback)
The Israeli writer Yoel Hoffmann is often called "experimental." Hoffmann, 72, was born in Transylvania, in Romania, and came to Palestine as an infant with his Austrian-Jewish parents. After earning his doctorate in Japan, he became a professor of Japanese poetry and Buddhism at the University of Haifa. He started writing fiction only in his late forties.
In his nine books of fiction (six of which have appeared in English), Hoffmann's style is consistently spare, fragmentary and oblique - poetry in the guise of fiction, full of cryptic non-sequiturs. Because he aims to recover shards of memory, his fiction eludes narrative, dissolving the continuity that storytelling usually requires into a series of brief impressionistic images. ("History decays into images," the critic Walter Benjamin once said, "not into stories.")
But to allude to Hoffmann's "experimental" style is only the beginning of wisdom when it comes to this unorthodox artist. Another dimension of the matter is that Hoffmann is a literary extremist; nothing exists in his novels between the infinite and the infinitesimal, the transcendent macro and the prosaic micro, satellite imagery and the extreme close-up.
On the one hand, Hoffmann's writing exhibits a fascination with heavenly bodies - the moon, the sun, the stars, the sky itself - and a detached preoccupation with the insignificance of man's actions within the galactic vastness of the cosmos. On the other hand, it lavishes attention - a kind of sustained concentration - on the tiny and the banal: dust gathering on kitchen utensils, a man crossing the street. Hoffmann's characteristic gesture, in fact, is a sudden shift in register - sometimes in a single sentence: "Suddenly he is thirsty, but Batya's on the balcony and it's dark in the kitchen and the spirit of God is hovering over the face of the waters." Not even a comma separates the holy from the mundane.
Child's sense of mystery
Although more overtly autobiographical than its predecessors, Hoffmann's latest book proves no exception to his distinct style. Part novel and part memoir, "Curriculum Vitae," sensitively rendered into English by Peter Cole, illuminates scenes from the author's life. Beneath a careful veneer of simplicity, almost like the short sentences of a child, its 100 fragments offer descriptions of Hoffmann's father Andreas and stepmother Ursula; a childhood in Ramat Gan (an attempt to capture something of the child's sense of the mystery of things); studies in Paris and Amsterdam; raising a family in Safed; and cold winters in Osaka and Kyoto.
In one of these fragments, Hoffmann compares himself to "a praying mantis inclined to melancholy." The image is apt, for his book evokes two moods. The first is one of delicate sorrow, which begins when Hoffmann circles around his mother's early death, and in due course permeates his entire perception. One night in Kyoto, for example, Hoffmann notices that streetlights "stand inside the fog like candles burning for the dead."
This book's other, newer mood is that of prayer. In a previous novel, "The Heart is Katmandu" (2001), Hoffmann's main character offers up a blessing: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God who is good for nothing." In "The Shunra and the Schmetterling" (2004), Hoffmann mocks man's capacity to create God in his own image by considering the case of a dumb animal: "The donkey's heart most likely went out toward another donkey, one larger and stripped of all corporeality." In "Curriculum Vitae," however, a tone of reverence holds sway. The narrator mentions his forefathers, for instance, who knew "outpourings of the soul," and "held the books of the Law to their heart." He tells of taking two visitors from Japan - master Hirano and a priest of the Kegon sect - to the Bratslav synagogue in Safed, where "the worshippers swayed like trees in the wind." As his guests leave the synagogue, they say: "There is no doubt. They know what devotion is."
But the sweetest pleasure of reading his latest book comes in listening to Hoffmann create a language with which to remember the past as it felt when it was present. "The movements are jumpy, here and there," he explains to the reader, "because the memory film is interrupted by leaps." And in fact Hoffmann's sentences, as they attempt to follow the disjointed memories that flicker through the narrator's mind, are full of abrupt turns of phrase, riddles, aphorisms, misdirections (like a magician's sleight of hand) and phrases that break off. This is a prose that interrupts itself; it does the unexpected. Hoffmann sometimes hides behind the plural, for instance, and refers to himself as "we," or starts sentences with: "We (which is to say, I)." At other times he refers to himself in the third-person, as when he mischievously refers to Yoel Hoffmann, "who eludes me continuously and whose nature it is hard to grasp."
As in his other books, this is also a prose designed to catch juxtapositions of the meaningful and mundane, or to discover meaning in the mundane. (In "The Heart Is Katmandu," Hoffmann set forth a simple credo: "All sorts of signs bear witness that things which only seem to be small, and in fact every gesture, even of the little finger, can overturn worlds.") In "Curriculum Vitae," alongside flights of surrealist fantasy - he imagines his elementary school had wings, which would unfurl when students sang the Adon Olam hymn - is the characteristic attentiveness to the banal: a dog pees on the principal's leg; peas fly off a plate when a steak knife slips; someone changes the water in a vase. In these inventories of the mundane, Hoffmann brings out the oddness of the ordinary. "Stairwells makes us weep," he writes. "And small kitchens. Sometime you see a fork and you just want to die. There is no limit to the beauty of things. Stooped people. Trees. All sorts of things in the courtyard (an old motorbike, for instance)."
Besotted with language
Most of all, the language of "Curriculum Vitae" is besotted with language. In previous books, Hoffmann asked readers to listen to words as sounds. In one scene, a character hears the clickity-clack of a waitress' heels striking the floor as the Aramaic words derabbanan, derabbanan(of our rabbis). Here he pursues the theme further, sprinkling "Curriculum Vitae" with French, German, Aramaic, Arabic and Japanese words. Some of them astound him, like Minderwertigkeitsgefuehle, the German term for ?feelings of inferiority.? Others delight him, like the German word nie (never). "Such a short word, for eternity," he remarks. He remembers how in Parisian cafes, Sorbonne-words like proces dialectique used to feel like an aphrodisiac.
In one fragment, Hoffmann suggests that human obsession with naming is a result of original sin: "And you shall see a bird and say Bird. See a man and say Man. And so, disastrously, a world of signs will cover all things like those enormous sheets in which that nut (what's his name - Christo?) wraps everything."
And so, dreaming of a purer, less wordy world, Hoffmann playfully imagines the language of geese, which consists of only two words: "One that was more or less equivalent to what we call 'the sky,' and the other for everything else."
Gradually, "Curriculum Vitae" yields to an ambivalence toward writing itself, which Hoffmann insists cannot enter the deepest regions of the heart. In part, this has to do with the inadequacy of words. Some things, he suggests, "are impossible to say because words are made of materials resembling cut sheets of tin, and man doesn't have the tools to bring great spirit into them."
In another sense, Hoffman's ambivalence comes from a recognition of the power of words. Thus the author forbids the deepest memories - the birth of his first daughter, for example - from fully entering his writing. "Life is a sacred gift, and literature a profane one. If my first wife had brought a catfish up on her hook, and the catfish had crawled across the ground and gotten under her dress, then the catfish and the dress would be here now. But not the woman within the dress. I won't condemn her to a life on paper."
Yet Hoffmann locates the starkest limit to literature in another, more profound moral constraint, one which brings us to the book's most powerful passage.
"If you want to tell a story, you'll have to deny the Holocaust. Imagine for a moment a story that someone is writing in Berlin, about Kurt and Brigitta. Something about an office and difficulties with what they call relationships .... Now, unless you introduce red air and red earth into this story, Brigitta and Kurt ... will only be thin lines drawn by a pencil .... Only the blood of the dead can give them life. Therefore Brigitta (even if the story takes place in 1992) is red and Kurt is red, and the air is red, and they need (in the true story) to speak within this air as one might speak under water. For instance, when Kurt says What did you do yesterday bubbles of blood emerge from his mouth."
However one understands Theodor Adorno's much-quoted teaching that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," Hoffmann's point is clear: Even if they are beautiful, stories must not betray the most precious things (the danger of accuracy), but they must also not evade the most difficult things (the danger of glibness). In observing both of these constraints - and herein lies the heart of his humane art - Hoffmann shows that a great deal can happen between ruthless candor and evasion.
At the end of his book, Hoffmann describes a dream. "A string on which pearls are strung is snapped (from whose neck had the necklace hung?) and an infinite number of pearls scatter across the floor. Beneath the chairs and under the bed and the closet I gather them up one by one. But how many can I gather? At most a hundred."
It is tempting to say that the hundred fragments of "Curriculum Vitae" are Hoffmann's pearls - mysterious in origin, scattered, but in the end beautifully retrieved.
Benjamin Balint is a writer living in Jerusalem.
Haaretz Books, October 2009
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