Hofmann, Gert 1931-1993
HOFMANN, Gert 1931-1993
PERSONAL: Born January 29, 1931, in Limbach, Germany; died July 1, 1993; children: Michael. Education: University of Freiburg/Breisgau, Ph.D., 1957.
CAREER: Writer. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, lecturer in modern German literature, 1965–68.
MEMBER: German Writers Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Harkness Award, 1965; International Radio Play Prize from Radio Prague, 1968; Yugoslavian Radio Prize, 1973; Ingeborg Bachmann prize, 1979; Prix Italia, 1980; Alfred Doeblin prize, 1982, for The Spectacle at the Tower; Independent Foreign Fiction Award, c. 1996, for The Film Explainer.
Der Bürgermeister (play), S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Mein, Germany), 1963, translated by Donald Watson and Hofmann as The Burgomaster, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1968.
Kündigungen (two one-act plays; contains Unser Mann in Madras and Tod in Miami), S. Fischer (Frankfurt am Mein, Germany), 1968.
Die Denunziation (novel), Residenz (Salzburg, Austria), 1979.
Die Fistelstimme (novel), Residenz (Salzburg, Austria), 1980.
Gesprächüber Balzacs Pferd (short stories), Residenz (Salzburg, Austria), 1981, translated by Christopher Middleton as Balzac's Horse, and Other Stories, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1988.
Auf dem Turm (novel), Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1982, translated by Christopher Middleton as The Spectacle at the Tower, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1984.
Unsere Eroberung (novel), Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1984, translated by Christopher Middleton as Our Conquest, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1985.
Der Blindensturz (novel), Luchterhand (Darmstadt, Germany), 1985, translated by Christopher Middleton as The Parable of the Blind, Fromm International (New York, NY), 1986.
Before the Rainy Season (originally published in Germany as Vor der Regenzeit), translated by Edna McCown, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1991.
Der Kinoerzähler, [Germany], 1991, translation by Michael Hofmann published as The Film Explainer Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1996.
Tolstois Kopf: Erzählungen (short stories), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1991.
Das Glück (novel), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1992, translated by Michael Hofmann as Luck, New Directions (New York, NY), 2002.
Die kleine Stechardin (novel), C. Hanser (Munich, Germany), 1994, translated by Michael Hofmann as Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, New Directions (New York, NY), 2004.
Dionysos Archemythos: Hölderlins transzendentale Poiesis, Francke (Tübingen, Germany), 1996.
(Compiler, with Esther Kilian) Alles is nicht es selbst: das kairotische Geächtnis der Dichtung: Festschrift für Gisela Dischner, Shaker (Aachen, Germany), 2001.
Also author of novelette Der Austritt, 1978. Contributor to periodicals, including Die Neue Rundschau.
SIDELIGHTS: Though relatively unknown in the United States, the late German author Gert Hofmann was praised by many critics for finding the humor in tragedy, and the tragedy in humor. Comparing him to such writers as Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, reviewers have appreciatively observed the desperate pathos Hofmann reveals in his seemingly ordinary characters. Hofmann began writing fiction in his late forties, having previously devoted himself to essays and plays, and he has become best known in the United States for his novels, several of which were translated after his death by his son, Michael Hofmann.
The Spectacle at the Tower, Hofmann's first work to appear in English translation, is a grim, satiric parable about the tedium and despair of modern life. At the beginning of this novel, a German couple are vacationing in Sicily. The husband, who serves as the narrator, is obnoxiously domineering, and his wife is weak and compliant. When their automobile falters in the afternoon heat, the quarreling couple find themselves in a dismal village called Dikaiardeia (which means "city of the just"). After passing through a ravaged entranceway and into the actual village, the couple are repulsed by the sordid conditions of Dikaiardeia, where nearly all inhabitants seem to suffer from starvation. The couple eventually secure temporary quarters in a bleak and empty hotel, whereupon they are visited by a despicable bureaucrat who refers to himself as the Supervisor. He escorts them on a tour of the village and introduces them to various horrors, including a dilapidated house full of catatonic women and a Foundlings' Home of undesired children who enter by being shoved headfirst through a small hole.
The Supervisor completes his tour by escorting the couple to the community's chief monument, a filthy water tower. Situated at the base of the tower is a similarly seedy cafe populated by tourists awaiting the evening's spectacle. Soon a child appears at the edge of the tower and, to fulfill expectations, willingly plunges to his death before appreciative spectators. Horrified, the couple retire to their hotel room and engage in crude sexual activities. The next morning the wife, who had ignored her husband's arguments for aborting their expected child, suffers a miscarriage. Still aghast by the tower spectacle, the husband determines to record it in complete, present-tense detail. But he eventually produces a report that he finds merely dull and trivial. As a critic noted in the Chicago Tribune Book World, the reader is left wondering whether the couple will succumb to the "security of apathy, or be forever altered" by the suicide show.
Reviewers of The Spectacle at the Tower commended the novel as gripping and disturbing. The contributor for the Chicago Tribune Book World described Hofmann's novel as an "unnerving fable, clearly allegorical yet just as clearly grounded in uncomfortably realistic detail." The same critic added that The Spectacle at the Tower "speaks powerfully indeed to the human wish to look away from what is worst in all of us." A New Statesman reviewer was similarly impressed with Hofmann's work, deeming it "an extraordinarily striking novel' that is "almost embarrassingly honest and frank." Harriett Watts, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was impressed with the novel's "sustained, furious detail." Watts also commended Hofmann's handling of the present-tense, first-person narrative. "The barrage of trivia," she wrote, "demands sentences which can order and transmit detail at the same speed with which the narrator perceives his situation and wants to convey it. Here Mr. Hofmann succeeds brilliantly. The telling of every moment is a tour de force."
Another allegorical effort can be found in Hofmann's novel The Parable of the Blind, which expounds upon Flemish master Pieter Bruegel's famous painting of six blind men struggling across a field. The novel is narrated by the painting's two central figures—unnamed men who refer to themselves as "we." The narrators and four companions are gradually succumbing to life's complexities and losing their sense of order. Their perspective is further diminished by their work for Bruegel, who is so obsessed with realistically capturing the men's plight that he has them rehearse their stumbling and groping in the field. This paradox has grueling repercussions, as when he compels the men to pitch into a cold stream.
Leigh Hafrey, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that the paradox of Bruegel's attempt to obtain realism through rehearsal "conveys the paradox of Gert Hofmann's own work." She explained that when Hofmann "chooses to talk … about a failure of perception and the evanescence of language, he does so with an acuity worthy of the Flemish master himself." Hafrey added that The Parable of the Blind possesses "an earthiness …, an immediacy of sensory impression that is enhanced by the continuing, very cerebral meditation on the contradictions of art, and that comes through in the smallest details." Hofmann, according to Hafrey, "displays the linguistic concision of a poet" in this novel.
The bleak history of Germany's Nazi era is the subject of some of Hofmann's writings. In Our Conquest Hofmann examines Germany's Nazi past in the wake of the Allied triumph in World War II. The novel's chief characters are two young brothers—narrating the tale as "we"—who examine the remnants of Nazi culture during a daylong trek to obtain unused fat from a slaughterhouse. During their adventure the brothers encounter individuals representing various aspects of Germany. Among the more bizarre characters is Edgar, a starving orphan whose untreated brain tumor causes him headaches, myopia, and a lack of balance. This youth assists the brothers as they uncover the disturbing effects of Nazism. One critic, in a brief appraisal of Our Conquest in the Chicago Tribune Book World, wrote, "In its subtle and understated way, this is as devastating an indictment of German nationalism and self-righteousness as has ever appeared in fiction."
Hofmann also addresses Nazism in The Film Explainer. Translated by his son Michael and published posthumously, it is a character study about how a decent man can become reprehensible in the wrong environment. Narrated by a young boy who critics have noted resembles the author in some ways, the story centers on the boy's grandfather, who works at a theater in a Saxony village. A little behind the times, the theater is still showing silent movies after talkies have already premiered in other areas. It is the grandfather's job to help explain to the audience what is happening in the movie, as well as provide some piano accompaniment. In the beginning of the book, the loving relationship between grandfather and grandson is readily apparent as they go to the theater each day. But life becomes more difficult for the grandfather as talking films start to be shown in the theater. His hours are cut dramatically, until he is eventually demoted to usher. The accompanying loss of pay, not to mention social status makes it impossible for him to support his family. Eventually, the grandfather is lured by Nazi rallies, which seem to offer a better future; he comes to hate the theater owner, who is a Jew, and descends into a personal abyss. The Film Explainer "artfully invites us to watch a character we've liked subtly become one we don't," as Kenneth Turan summarized the book in his Los Angeles Times assessment. Reviewing The Film Explainer in the New Statesman, Martin Chalmers described the novel this way: "By turns humorous and icy, passionate and compassionate, it bears the weightiest themes with ease. It is wholly convincing as a case-study of how petty quarrels could feed into an indifference to the persecution of Nazism." "Hofmann's background theme of his grandfather's retreat into semi-fantasy during Germany's darkest hours is a tantalizing one," concluded a Publishers Weekly critic.
The viewpoint of a young boy is also used in Hofmann's Luck, the story of a family falling apart in 1960s Germany. Covering a single day in the lives of his subject family, the author created "a grimly comic romp through domestic misery [that is] immensely readable and immensely unsettling," according to Lynne Sharon Schwartz in her New Leader review. The teenaged boy's parents are divorcing, and while his mother makes plans to bring a new man into the house his father does everything he can to delay the inevitable. The boy will be accompanying his father, while his sister will stay with their mother. As the boy prepares to leave, Hofmann describes his day in great detail, including his last visit to the town and his school. Although the author relates the boy's inner struggles in having to say goodbye to his former life, "Hofmann is not interested in bittersweet nostalgia," explained Schwartz; "he is striking a deeper and more discordant note." The underlying theme considers how unattainable happiness can be in a marriage, a notion Schwartz called a "dark picture, but as in Beckett, there is laughter all the way." And a Publishers Weekly contributor similarly described the story as one of "desolate emotional landscapes and darkly comic observations." London Guardian reviewer Eva Figes concluded that Luck "is a wonderful book, combining a light touch with underlying pathos, ironic humour with real empathy for the heartbreak of ordinary lives."
Unattainable love and heartbreak are also clearly evident in Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, the author's final novel. Based on a real event in the life of eighteenth-century professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the story is elaborated upon by the author. Hofmann fills in the details of middle-aged Lichtenberg's relationship with a poor teenaged flower girl, Maria Dorothea Stechard. Lichtenberg helps her by letting her live in his home, and the arrangement slowly blossoms into love before the girl dies unexpectedly. As a Kirkus Reviews critic explained, however, their love is described "in a way wholly captivating in its charm and utterly lacking in any prurience whatsoever." Hofmann based his story on passing references made by Lichtenberg to the girl in some of his letters, yet, as Christian Grawe wrote in World Literature Today, "Hofmann fills … [the blanks] convincingly, and with considerable sensitivity and charm." Because Lichtenberg had a hunchback and was largely estranged from society, the story becomes one of "an unfortunate outsider who finds, however briefly, happiness through love—and loses it," explained Grawe.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, summer, 1991, Gerda Oldham, review of Before the Rainy Season, p. 468.
Booklist, January 15, 1995, review of Die kleine Stechardin, p. 902.
Chicago Review, spring, 2003, Ihor Junyk, review of Luck, p. 127.
Chicago Tribune Book World, June 17, 1984, review of The Spectacle of the Tower; December 29, 1985, review of Our Conquest.
Guardian (Manchester, England), July 13, 2002, Eva Figes, "Running out of Words," review of Luck, p. 28.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2004, review of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, p. 413.
Library Journal, April 15, 1985, Ulrike S. Rettig, review of Our Conquest, p. 86; February 15, 1986, Carol J. Lichtenberg, review of The Parable of the Blind, p. 194.
Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1984, Richard Eder, review of The Spectacle of the Tower, p. 18; July 28, 1996, Kenneth Turan, review of The Film Explainer.
National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1986, Timothy J. Tankard, review of The Parable of the Blind, p. 18.
New Leader, May-June, 2002, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "Running Out of Luck," review of Luck, p. 33.
New Statesman, August 9, 1985, review of The Spectacle of the Tower; February 17, 1995, Martin Chalmers, review of The Film Explainer, p. 38.
New Statesman & Society, May 12, 1989, review of Balzac's Horse, and Other Stories, p. 38.
New Yorker, May 20, 1985, review of Our Conquest, p. 125; February 17, 1986, review of The Parable of the Blind, p. 103.
New York Review of Books, August 14, 1986, D. J. Enright, review of The Parable of the Blind, p. 37; August 12, 2004, Gabriele Annan, "Lichtenberg in Love," review of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, p. 43.
New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1984, Harriett Watts, review of The Spectacle of the Tower, p. 41; April 14, 1985, James A Snead, review of Our Conquest, p. 26; January 26, 1986, Leigh Hafrey, review of The Parable of the Blind, p. 27; May 8, 1988, Phillip Lopate, review of Balzac's Horse, and Other Stories, p. 9; November 19, 1989, reviews of The Spectacle of the Tower and The Parable of the Blind, p. 42; April 28, 1991, Suzanne Ruta, review of Before the Rainy Season, p. 20; September 1, 1996, Iain Bamforth, review of The Film Explainer, p. 11; September 8, 2002, Noah Isenberg, "Breaking Up," review of Luck, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, February 8, 1985, review of Our Conquest, p. 70; November 29, 1985, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Parable of the Blind, p. 36; March 4, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Balzac's Horse, and Other Stories, p. 100; June 16, 1989, reviews of The Spectacle of the Tower and The Parable of the Blind, p. 67; April 29, 1996, review of The Film Explainer, p. 54; April 1, 2002, review of Luck, p. 49.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1991, Irving Malin, review of Before the Rainy Season, p. 238.
Spectator, March 4, 1995, Michael Hulse, review of The Film Explainer, p. 40.
Times (London, England), July 17, 2002, Anthea Lawson, review of Luck, p. 20.
Times Literary Supplement, February 22, 1991, Peter Graves, review of Before the Rainy Season, p. 18; November 20, 1992, Michael Butler, reviews of Tolstois Kopf and Das Glück, p. 24; December 3, 1993, review of Der Blindensturz, p. 10; January 20, 1995, Gabriele Annan, review of The Film Explainer, p. 21; April 28, 1995, Michael Butler, review of Die kleine Stechardin, p. 20; July 12, 2002, Michael Butler, "A Family Affair," review of Luck; December 6, 2002, review of Luck, p. 10; July 23, 2004, Sam Thompson, "Small in Gottingen," review of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, p. 22.
Washington Post Book World, May 30, 2004, Michael Dirda, review of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, p. 15.
World Literature Today, summer, 1989, Ernest Schlant, review of Vor der Regenzeit, p. 468; summer, 1991, Stella P. Rosenfeld, review of Der Kinoerzähler, p. 477; autumn, 1992, Robert Schwartz, review of Tolstois Kopf, p. 709; autumn, 1993, Robert Acker, review of Das Glück, p. 822; autumn, 1994, Christian Grawe, review of Die kleine Stechardin, p. 799.
Times (London, England), August 3, 1993, p. 17.