The Shunra and the Schmetterling by Yoel Hoffman, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole; The Heart is Katmandu by Yoel Hoffman, translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole; The Christ of Fish by Yoel Hoffman, translated from the Hebrew by Eddie Levenston; Bernhard by Yoel Hoffman, translated from the Hebrew by Alan Treister with Eddie Levenston; Katschen & The Book of Joseph by Yoel Hoffman, translated from the Hebrew by Eddie Levenston, David Kriss, and Alan Treister.
The urge to translate is akin to the critical urge—both are zealous expressions of the desire to read even more thoroughly, and both urges seize a reader, oddly, when she finds herself before what is intriguing and inscrutable. If I could somehow get under the skin of these words, she thinks, I could understand and become one with the splendid mystery of this. If I knew Hebrew, I’d be racked with the desire to translate Yoel Hoffmann—and I would also be driven to hide under the bed from the enormity of the challenge. “Help me,” I wrote to Hoffmann’s translator, the American poet Peter Cole. “I’m trying to articulate what it’s like to read Hoffmann. What is it like to translate him?”
“It calls for the purest sort of concentration,” Cole replied. “There is something about his work that seems to create in me precisely the sort of attention required to enter it. That’s perhaps why I find it so magical. In a similar respect, I love the way his Hebrew rides itself, as it were, even as it rides the reality it treats, revealing mysteries in both—the language and the reality—and taking one deeper into both.” And in Cole’s gentle, looping description, there is a hint of what it might be like to “more thoroughly” read The Shunra and the Schmetterling, Bernhard, The Christ of Fish, or Katschen and The Book of Joseph.
And yet I fear that some sort of description of the more prosaic variety is still in order. I use the word “fear” because, frankly, I am cowed by the obligation to describe it. I can describe him: A Romanian-born Israeli religious scholar whose specialty is Japanese Buddhism, Hoffmann didn’t start writing fiction until the late 1980s, when he was in his fifties (saving it all up until he was sure he had something to say). Mine is a sketchy predicament indeed for a reviewer: the reviewer’s conceit is, of course, that she can and will explain. I thumb through the marked-up pages of my copy of Hoffmann’s latest work, The Shunra and the Schmetterling, looking for illumination in the marginalia, and come across the sentence, “The Sabbath was the day of my life, because on that day, masculine and feminine, I was spun by two Guinea pigs whose eyes were like black buttons and whose wisdom was deeper than the infinite number of days.” The passage is marked and underlined—twice. Not because I know what it means—I don’t exactly—but because it is lovely. Cryptic, mysterious even, and lovely.
Welcome to the novel that reads like poetry—an endangered species now if it ever hasn’t been. Hoffmann tests the parameters of dramatic narrative in every conceivable way, the mind turns dizzy somersaults trying to identify plot, character, point of view, place. How can these be novels when they aren’t “about anything”? Or rather, if what they’re about comes down to plots such as the man who grieves (Bernhard), a child who sees (Katschen), the man who puts memories together (The Shunra and the Schmetterling), and the other man who puts memories of his aunt together (The Christ of Fish). Hoffmann’s novels sit best outside the classification system (no genre, no school of influence), five renegade embers, glowing still, curling the pages of neighboring novels and scorching the earth beneath them. A metaphorical image to describe novels that describe real life.
The world, our world, is Hoffmann’s subject. He makes art out of everything—death, religion, sex, childhood, madness, grief, memory—putting these weighty subjects under a microscope, treating them cannily, not metaphorically (as a more traditional novelist might), but as if one could write directly about such elusive matters. His brilliant, hermetic style is the result; he writes as if words held power—the power, yes to tell stories, but more, to reveal universes. The experience of reading Hoffmann is intense, urgent, slow, dreamy, because you are in effect being invited to observe the world alongside him as written art. “In spite of being a widower,” runs a line from Bernhard, “Bernhard is a work of art. No one can make a Bernhard. At times, Bernhard himself is seized with wonder. How, he asks himself, from a speck of matter the size of a mustard seed have I become what I am (a complex unique creature)?”
Hoffmann’s poetics explores gestures and exactitude (“He sits, dead, within a time that isn’t his, and points at a place that no longer exists. Something like the big blocks of ice we would wrap up in a white cloth and put in the bottom drawer of the icebox”); a collection of private symbols writ large (“How does one draw a veranda after two thousand years of exile?”); and observation of life slowed to an excruciating crawl (“I remember autumn. My right hand was in the Atlantic. Five fingers on the ocean floor. Ancient fish surrounded the hand, like extremely religious Jews. The trunk of the arm rising from the depths must have seemed in their eyes—which bulged from their sockets—like a divine revelation”). This isn’t a world you escape into as you might by way of the traditional reader’s trance but one that pulls you up into its suspension. “From oblivion there ascends,” run the opening lines of The Shunra and the Schmetterling, “like that legendary bird rising from its ashes, the veranda on which my father’s father, Isaac Emerich, sat, along with my grandmother Emma. The veranda of the world itself—whose heart is an electric light bulb.” This story begins in a state of suspension: The veranda is untethered to a place; it is inhabited by phantasms, conjured out of oblivion, and set in a world without end—a world of memories enlivened by the narrator. The mystical veranda is illuminated (its blood pumped) by the mundane light of an electric lightbulb. This image of a lightbulb—humble, banal, making and erasing shadows—recurs throughout Hoffmann’s fiction. It is one of his private symbols and as such seems to insist that illumination begins with and is a creation of man, like the light bulb itself. The writer stops time through observation.
The Shunra and the Schmetterling (the cat, in Yiddish, and the butterfly, in German), like The Christ of Fish before it, might best be described as a ghost story costumed as memoir (“Whoever sees him sees and enters the restaurant or cosmetics store and no one bothers to say, ‘I just saw a dead man on the street,’ since his life walks along beside him”). Each character seems dogged by his soul, as if there were always a double consciousness in play—that of the character and that of the narrator seeing and remembering the character. From that first grasping for the memory of an eternal veranda, we have surely left behind the gentile land of madeleines. The elements of memoir pile helter skelter: “Childhood, as it recedes, becomes . . . er. My mother in her various outlines and my father in his single outline are, trust me, sufficient.” The line seems to be a nod to both the subjectivity and the elusiveness of written memory, yet it also articulates a very real tension between otherwise spectral characters. The mother, however barely sketched, is multiform, the father, monolithic—in memory, if not in fact. Time, the protagonist of a memory story, shifts and slithers rather than moves forward: “Girls now have bras and cotton underpants have been replaced by silk.” The sexual awakening of adolescence—a cornerstone in any coming-of-age story—arrives swiftly: “The school is full of naked bodies (if one subtracts the clothes from the sum total) and sometimes, when there’s an assembly and everyone is gathered inside the gymnasium, apocalyptic visions take shape (on account of the myriad limbs).”
The “outlines” in this story trace a larger innocence than merely that of a boy, a cat chasing butterflies across the ceiling, and the dying of grandparents and parents. This is also the story of a young Israel, a country whose immigrant citizenry arrived on the wings of Zionist idealism and that was quickly flooded with European Jews fleeing for their lives. The landscape of early Israel that Hoffmann so carefully paints has its own childlike innocence, and that innocence itself joins the ranks of the ghosts who populate these tales. The Christ of Fish is very much the story of the first generation of Jewish arrivals: “In 1929 (actually on the eighth of May) Mr. Moskowitz came to Palestine, the Land of Israel. He was a young man at the time and the paraffin stove he saw in Jaffa took his fancy. He liked everything made of brass. But the white shoes he brought with him from Romania became covered with dust and the soles came apart from the soft leather of the uppers until there were gaping holes (where the toes were), like mouths.” It is tempting to see political messages embedded in the wistful portrait of Israel in its nascency. (Indeed, in this charged moment it would seem that any artwork from Israel about Israel must bear a political message.) Hoffmann’s writing runs the gamut from oblique to explicit; politics, per se, tends to be treated obliquely. There is room for the reader to indulge a nostalgic sentiment for a “purer” time, but it is always with the rejoinder that such sentiments belong to the past, to history at large.
But the past is purer only because it has been polished by time. “I know,” says the nameless narrator of The Shunra and the Schmetterling, “The earth turns like a carousel, and in this revolving everything is rinsed in the air. Autumn yields rain, and spring, the fragrance of grass, as in a banal song.” The rinsing revolutions of the seasons seem intent on canceling rather than cleansing—and the writer battles erasure by retrieving that past, all the while depending on elliptical imagery to emphasize its difference from a sullied present. The memories survive in all of their spellbinding specificity—as if they weren’t those of an adult but the real-time observations of the child he was. Innocence is a figment in the present, and there is no room left for mystery: “God is too much revealed,” the speaker complains. “You go into the supermarket and find him in the matzah meal.” God depends on mystery; that’s a central tenet of belief. The “present” carries irony—for while God is “too revealed” in the matzo meal, his mystery won’t necessarily be resurrected by the revolving seasons: “After April,” concludes the narrator on a threatening note, “May will come, and the large beetles of May will ascend from the ground like heavy bombers.”
The experience of loss abounds in Hoffmann’s memory novels, setting in early and steadfastly: “If I could sing to my mother as Allen Ginsberg sang to his, I would,” says Franz in The Shunra and the Schmetterling, continuing, “Her name. The dead babies she gave birth to like a blind typesetter who brings to light combinations of letters according to the smell of the lead. Her going toward death like a carpenter into an old piece of furniture he’d carved and planed without looking back even once.” This vision of the past isn’t nostalgic or solipsistic, but it is reverent— a subtlety that more than any other single aspect of Hoffmann’s work might be said to belong to a specifically Jewish fiction—looking backward is a process of honoring the dead. And yet the moments where Hoffmann’s fictions seem most strikingly religious belong not to the memorializing project of Judaism per se but to a larger religiosity of reconciliation. The Christ of Fish closes with the death of the principal character, Aunt Magda: “And through the power of that appeal (from out of her blindness. Two or three weeks before she died.) she saw a great vision and everything was in it. She saw the soul of the carp. And the soul of the birds. And the soul of her brooches. And of her porcelain cups. And of her iron. And her purse. And the soul of the ginger, the vanilla, and the playing cards. And she knew (oh, yes, she knew!) that this world continues into the next unchanged. There is no division. Only the directions are reversed.”
Novels like The Christ of Fish and The Shunra and the Schmetterling should probably be considered advanced Hoffmann, and there are less elusive books a new reader could begin with. My first love is Bernhard, the story of a young German Jewish widower in Jerusalem grieving his wife’s death from malaria as war breaks out across Europe. The novel is set in paragraphs, one to a page. The first phrase of each new paragraph is anticipated on the page before—a nod to the poetic line break as well as a tribute to how meaning builds through association and how stories depend on forward movement, all central ideas to this complicated tale. In this novel about mourning in the years of the Holocaust the personal tragedy at the center of the story trades beats with news of the war, so the reader is never far from the idea that lives have a backdrop, which is Life:
In that year the Atlantic Ocean fills up with an infinity of sounds. Igor Stravinsky sails across. Arnold Schoenberg sails across. And Paul Hindemith, and Béla Bartok, and Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill also cross (they are fleeing from Europe to the United States). And in December, the first Secretary of the Government (of Palestine) announces that the government will no longer allow rams’ horns, whose sound resembles the sound of an air-raid siren, to be blown in the synagogues. And Bernhard pictures to himself the Messiah coming (from Lisbon) to the sound of air-raid sirens.
Hoffmann’s stories are set mostly in prewar Germany and/or pre-statehood Israel—busy antediluvian landscapes populated by a panoply of races, nationalities, and languages. German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and occasionally Arabic words fly through the air. Ashkenazi war refugees struggle to speak Hebrew, argue about psychology and German philosophers, and congregate in the pastry shops and coffeehouses built in imitation of home. Bernhard paints this desert cityscape vividly. The Jerusalem that Bernhard inhabits is every bit a mishmash of cultures, and he wanders the city, going to movies, visiting with his friend Gustav the plumber, guiltily courting the widow Elvira, eating kefir with a long-necked spoon, marking the time with his grief, grasping for solace (or understanding). The effect is entropy. Here are some of the assorted lines that vie for primacy in Bernhard’s cataloguing consciousness at different moments: “The laces of Bernhard’s shoes are Bernhard’s shoelaces and nobody else’s”; “When Moscow went up in flames, a great bird was pictured in the clouds”; “For an infinite number of years earth and water and fire and air merged and separated and merged again until the complete form of Gustav materialized. Now that he has materialized, someone has to take care that he doesn’t die”; “On the sixth of August the Americans drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima”; “He thinks: ‘A man dies just like an elephant. All at once. The great body collapses and the earth trembles. Letters . . . and smells . . . and possessions.'” These apparently random historical and existential ruminations evoke the fractured structures of modernism (James Joyce, Virginia Woolf) as well as the fracturing experiences of the modern age (science, nationhood, creature comforts, man-made catastrophic destruction).
More labels spring to mind, formalism and symbolism among them. The strict shape of Bernhard makes a structure solid enough to dramatize the pathos of grief. The symbols of light bulbs and lizards and flight that recur throughout the novels build a distinct, encrypted vocabulary, rich enough to keep us curious (rather than keep us out). The slow, pitch-perfect descriptions of a gesture or a moment more than serve to make stones stony (exactly as the Russian formalists intended). Hoffmann himself eschews such labels, but if we return to Peter Cole’s earlier comment, we can begin to elaborate a description of Hoffmann’s work that is perhaps large enough to encompass it: This is literature of revelation, of epiphany—if epiphany is a ruthless, all-seeing, feral creature instead of the willowy Greek virgin in a nightgown I always and inexplicably imagine her as. “Description demands intense observation,” writes the poet Czeslaw Milosz, “so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.”
The novella Katschen is perhaps the most crystalline, the most intensely observed, of Hoffmann’s works. It is spare and quirky, depends exclusively on a child’s-eye view, and seems to encapsulate the writer’s most pressing recurrent themes—death and loss of innocence, extended family, and the community of early Israel. Katschen, our protagonist/visionary, is an orphan of sorts; his mother is dead, and his father is insane and has been institutionalized. Demonstrating a child’s exquisite ability to recognize and interpret but not quite judge, he describes his father’s illness:
Katschen’s father, who was krank [“sick”], leaned back against the armchair while Herr Druck leaned forward, with only half his bottom on the armchair. Katschen distinguished between those who were nicht krank and those who were krank. The bodies of the nicht krank were tense while the bodies of the krank were limp. The nicht krank’s shoes were black and their socks were pulled up tight, while the krank’s feet shone in shades of silver.
Left in the care of his elderly Uncle Arthur and his Aunt Oppenheim, Katschen spends his days tagging along. He’s clearly not living a “child’s life”—sitting under the table or walking along the boardwalk while old people talk politics—but he has a startling capacity not only to adapt but to appreciate. His imagination becomes his truest companion. Uncle Arthur thinks that Katschen is gifted and has no use for school, where the children spend the day drawing (“Stuff and nonsense”), and he determines to educate Katschen himself with his friend Max (“‘You think,’ continued Max, ‘that life is gas, and then amoeba, and then fish, and then fish which come out of the water with legs, and then monkey and then man. Life is not gas, not amoeba, not fish, not with legs, not monkey. Katschen hear the music of Liszt and understand life. Max with woman—Max understand. Life is secret'”). But Aunt Oppenheim intervenes and persuades Arthur to send the child to a kibbutz, which he escapes from within minutes—following a cow across a field.
But I said this was a story about seeing, and so it is. Crazy men, children, and Cyclopes have unique perspectives, and Katschen’s cast of characters includes all three. Before she died, Katschen’s mother told him about Cyclopes:
“He who sees with two eyes,” she said, “closes one eye when the sights he sees are painful. If he is also pained by the sights he sees with the eyes that remain open—he closes both eyes. But the Cyclops never closes his one and only eye.” On hearing this, Katschen closed one eye and saw that there was not a great deal of difference between the sights he saw with one eye and the sights he saw with two. Then he closed the eye that remained open and thought to himself, “Now I will never see anything ever again.” But then, when his eyes were closed, an eye in his forehead opened. The sight he saw with this eye was not clear, but it held a kind of transparency missing from the sights he saw with his other two eyes. When Katschen looked in the mirror he could not find the eye in his forehead, but when he closed his eyes again he knew for sure that the eye was there. Since that day, Katschen knew that he was a Cyclops and would look at people to see if they had an eye in their foreheads.
Katschen trails after the cow, gets lost in the forest, and is rescued by an Arab shepherd who shelters him for the night and brings him back to the Jews. Katschen contemplates crawling into a cabbage patch, hoping that way to be reunited with his mother, and a Yemenite Jew tries to teach him the story of Creation. Then the police come and get him and want to bring him back to the kibbutz, but Katschen resists because the cow isn’t there and they won’t let him keep his name (because it is an appropriate name for the street in Germany but inappropriate for a kibbutz). At the police station he is subjected to a hilarious round of psychological evaluations. Then he is told that his Uncle Arthur has passed away and his Aunt Oppenheim has gone back to Vienna, so they take him to his father, Ernst, in the asylum.
Ernst tells the boy, whom he barely recognizes, “You must choose. Small and important or big and worthless.” And when Katschen answers correctly, they escape together out a window. At first, as they wander the streets, Ernst is a Cyclops too. But as the story comes to a close, Katschen looks into Ernst’s eyes and realizes, “My father’s eyes can see!” Katschen “knew that a great disaster was at hand but his heart quivered with happiness. ‘Weist du wer ich bin?’ [Do you know who I am?] Katschen asked his father. ‘Ja,’ said Ernst, ‘Katschen.'”
The comparison has been drawn to Italo Calvino, and it is a telling one. Although Hoffmann’s absurdly all-seeing characters seem related to Calvino’s Palomar, it is Invisible Cities that would seem to have paved the way through our reader’s sensibility for these studied aphoristic forms and extended symbolic structures. But there is a critical difference between the fictions of Invisible Cities and those of Hoffmann. Calvino wrote from the arm’s length of a theorist. He poetically depicted ideas that he’d already formulated—ideas about narrative, subjectivity, consciousness. He wrote “puzzles” that were meant to be, and could be, deciphered by working backward from the words to the idea. He wrote largely about aesthetic ideas that could be comprehended. But Hoffmann’s subjects (death, love, memory) are too unwieldy to be easily parsed. Hoffmann writes from “within the web,” as Calvino described in his essay “Multiplicity,” where “the least thing is seen as the center of a network of relationships that the writer cannot restrain himself from following, multiplying the details so that his descriptions and digressions become infinite.” Hoffmann is our Arachne, weaving a continuous story that, despite its perfect, almost celestial order, has no beginning or end—like the universe itself.
There’s an apocryphal tale I heard about Yoel Hoffmann—that years ago he’d run off to become a monk in a Japanese monastery and that he would have stayed there had not an old teacher of his from Israel gone to Japan and persuaded him to come out, explaining that it was wrong to deprive the world of his writing. This seemed perfect to me. For how could we better understand Hoffmann’s work than by seeing it as the response to a higher calling? How else do you describe a writer who seems to be inventing writing as he goes, as if there were no rules in fiction, no tradition to embrace or reject, as if there were no other way to write his stories and no stories more urgent to tell? I asked Peter Cole about the anecdote. He seemed dubious but offered to check it out with Hoffmann—who enjoyed it thoroughly, every last fictitious word of it. But I’ll cling in the meantime to the notion that Hoffmann was called to this vocation, called to reveal to us life with all its small and grand transcendences. Reading, like writing, is an act of faith, a giant leap of faith. With Hoffmann that leap feels more like a dizzy tumble. Unencumbered by notions of what a novel should be or what things in a novel are supposed to mean, the reader lets go, free-falling into alertness. Is this perhaps what it means to read?
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Minna Proctor is the editor of The Literary Review. This essay originally appeared in Bookforum in the summer of 2004.