THE LITERARY TRADITION I feel most at home in, or into which I’d most like to wedge myself, is in a language I don’t speak. Thank god, then, for Michael Hofmann, not only one of the great translators of our time, but a great translator in precisely the right direction: from German to English. Hofmann is also one of our great critics and poets, and in July he’ll come out stateside with his fifth collection of poems, his first in 20 years, One Lark, One Horse. I’m tempted to pick out in these poems the same qualities Hofmann picked out in the work of another writer: their abruptness, their comedy, their bathos.
The writer Hofmann characterized that way was his father, Gert Hofmann, a novelist who dwells near the center of my canon, and who ought to dwell nearer the center of the canon. Gert Hofmann came to prose fairly late in life, and died fairly young, but in a little more than a decade he wrote a shelfful of books that airily, obsessively, hysterically, and through the inspired misuse of history, ask what it is we think we’re doing here. These books mean a great deal to me and lurk behind my new novel, The Organs of Sense. And for many of them I have his son to thank. In the 1980s and ’90s, the younger Hofmann wrote exquisite, sometimes queasily exact poetry about his relationship with his father; from the ’90s on, he became his father’s principal and best translator. In recent weeks, we exchanged emails about writing and the influence of his father.
ADAM EHRLICH SACHS: You once noted that you and your father share a sensibility, a bleakness that “swings into a kind of exhilaration.” Could you say a word about his influence on a more prosaic level, sonically, syntactically? Are there phrasings or cadences in your writing that you identify as his? I wonder how it is that even across years and a language gap, I worry I’m writing in his shadow — or in his shadow in your English — while you, though you grew up under his roof, seem to have escaped that fate.
MICHAEL HOFMANN: It’s very gracious of you to invite me to spread myself like an odalisque. Where to begin? It’s probably not what you mean, but there are many moments when I’ve felt an absolute identity with my father. That’s both a myth and a principle with me. He would say something or read something aloud, and in the whole room two people are laughing, and it would be him and me. One wavelength, one humor. I’ve often had the weird and completely physical sense that I was looking out at the world from behind his brows. Not least since his death (in 1993). His frontal bone. My candle inside his pumpkin. I get him from the inside. It’s less resemblance than identity. And not influence, much less anxiety. Because it’s also a fact that in my formative years he wasn’t yet the writer. He thought about it endlessly, we both thought about it. But I couldn’t read him in my teens, he didn’t write in my teens, I didn’t write in my teens either, I began when I was 19. His first novel came out in 1979, when he was 48, and I was 22. We were both beginners at the same time. And I have only a patchy record of reading him after that. I felt I could easily have spent my life reading his books, because he then started putting them out very quickly, at the rate of almost one a year, and there’s something rebellious/ornery in me that would never agree to do that. It would be like picking up after someone. My life would be over.
Your wonderful stories, Inherited Disorders, are full of configurations like that. Nothing else is worth doing, it’s the only show in town — the philosophers, the astronomers, the scientists, all the gorgeous abstract-idealist callings — and yet the son is damned if he carries on the father’s business. Anxious to, and anxious not to — both. It’s like the cross weave in a plaid: briefly the one corroborates and darkens the other, but the rest of the time they’re separate and are warp and weft. Alternatively, as German says, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it likes to have the feeling it’s striking out on its own! Of course, it’s an endless comedy, or tragicomedy.
Also, I wasn’t under his roof. Effectively, I left when I was 14. The family returned to Germany, I stayed in the United Kingdom. I was a lost outpost and became detached. Like the Athenians in Sicily, or a stockade fort out West. My language and identity became English. When I started reading, I followed my own lights. The first writer I loved was Malcolm Lowry. Later, I read Stevens and Lowell and Brodsky, and they brought me to poetry. I tried to write prose (of course!) but couldn’t manage anything that didn’t break off after half a page. I don’t have my father’s stamina or persistence. I never had his dialogic gift: he used to say, when I get people talking, I’m away. His writing is scene-based, and dialogue-based. He’s interested in shifts of power and shifts in reality; I’m static and monological (a word and an idea I was delighted to come across in Gottfried Benn, and in Durs Grünbein). It never occurs to me to have people talking! What would they say to each other?!
How else do you see the difference between his writing and yours?
My father liked the invention, the classic falsification of fiction, composing characters knocked together from different aspects of real people; I liked to be as accurate or straightforward or truthful as possible. I liked Flaubert’s idea (which my father told me about) of choosing three adjectives that would distinguish one particular Parisian coachman from all the other Parisian coachmen. I think there was probably a more general separation, because even when we shared a liking for something, it was for different aspects of it. He liked syntax; I liked vocabulary. He liked the continuity and drift in Kafka, while I was stuck on the agonizing description of the little dessert apples decaying in the cracks in Gregor’s carapace, or Karl with his finger tapping on the scales in the captain’s room in Amerika. That’s part of a more general divvying-up, whereby he got to have prose and German, and I took poetry and English. Like the New World, partitioned between Portugal and Spain. (That’s ironic, of course, not grandiose!)
I said “syntax.” My father’s early books, the first six or eight, were governed by that syntax, which I think he got from Bernhard, whom I didn’t then read either. Those Russian doll sentences and story constructions, with speech and reported speech and writing. A long, long sentence that ends, “he shouted, he said, he wrote.” I am moved to see you do that: “I am quoting the Emperor here, the Court Chamberlain said, the astronomer told Leibniz.”
It’s like the survival of a threatened species! At the time, the ’80s, I must confess, it drove me mad! Might I ask you: How did you come across Gert Hofmann?
Yes, that’s a pretty blatant Bernhardism! And it was by way of Bernhard (with an assist, I think, from Stephen Mitchelmore’s blog) that I came across Gert Hofmann. Bernhard’s imitability is infamous — in your afterword to a recent reissue of Concrete you itemize it superbly — and it’s become a truism for all of us writing in his shadow that we have to shield ourselves against his influence: close the books, walk away. But I find that I can’t really close the books, and I don’t want to. And it felt dishonest to try to deny or conceal the fascination his writing holds for me. I realized that I would have to bash my head against the Bernhard style and hope that it’d be not only my head but his style, too, that is deformed by this. Since resigning myself to that strategy, probably not the advisable one, I’ve assembled a little pantheon of writers who seem to have done something similar and done it successfully: who risked epigonism by going straight at Bernhard, rather than around or away from him, yet managed to emerge from this confrontation with his style with a style of their own.
Your father, for me, stands out as the exemplar. I began at the end, with your beautiful translation of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, where what remains of Bernhard seems to have been fully sublimated into your father’s own sound and syntax: simple, exclamatory, somehow both knowing and naïve. (There’s four adjectives and I’m sure I still haven’t distinguished it properly; I suppose put me down for syntax, not vocabulary.) Reading him in reverse order, the Bernhardian bits that were later expunged or metabolized seem to emerge in a less digested form — the grammatical complications, the first lines like, “Slowly the poet with the long beard approaches the apartment house he lives in now, Arno writes…” His debut novel, Die Denunziation, hasn’t been translated into English, but I gather that it has a consummately Bernhardian premise: one of two twins reconstructs a years-old trauma by means of the writings bequeathed to him by the other. This isn’t to diminish this earlier work; The Parable of the Blind is one of my favorite novels, and my own novel takes its frame and impetus from the early story “Casanova and the Extra.” But I think that in addition to the direct pleasure I get from your father’s fiction there’s also the ancillary pleasure (or reassurance) of watching him enter the ring with Bernhard and come out at the end not only on his own two feet but with his own style.
And what brought you to writing in the first place? Because to me, inevitably, it seems such a hereditary business!
To do economics, the family business in my case, felt impossible, for the reasons I tried to reckon with in my story collection. (Though the logic of the stories dictates that it’s abundantly clear to everyone but me that I’m still doing economics, nothing but economics, I’m an economist, no matter how many Moleskines I carry around or how much I mention Molloy.) In any case, I had to rebel wrongly a couple of times before I found my way to writing, first into science, when in fact that was the half of social science I liked least, then into the history of science, which was closer but still not right. There I realized I didn’t have the kind of intelligence I’d need to do anything creative in the humanities: I was okay at cutting down arguments, but I couldn’t summon the sort of delusion required to put forward an argument of my own, knowing that it (like all arguments) would be either correct but boring or interesting but wrong. The solution turned out to be more delusion, not less — that is, fiction. Of course, I also have some primitive psychoanalytic theories for why I write, chief among them that my father looms as large in my family life as yours did in yours. There’s a line in your poem “Author, Author” about dinner with your father: “(My own part of the conversation, thin, witty, inaudible, as though I’d spoken in asides for twenty-five years.)” I felt entomologically pinned to the page when I read that. Probably I can trace everything back to my own barely audible mealtime asides.
You say you read him patchily; did he read you? That same great poem refers to his single “vestigial phrase of English,” so presumably it would have required some linguistic assistance on your part. (There’s that advice about writing as if your parents were dead. Does writing in a language they can’t read have the same effect?)
I love the idea of my father as an enabling being. I think it was about the last of his concerns … Starting to publish at 50, he must have worried if he’d live to produce anything like an oeuvre, hence the insane drive of those last years. Everything was focused on him and his production — I compare it somewhere to living with a small factory. There’s a line of Rilke, in one of his poems about Narcissus (who is an important subject for Rilke, and to some extent for all of us): “und hob sich auf und konnte nicht mehr sein” — and reserved or preserved or conserved himself and could no longer be. That was the case with my father, or how it looked to me, certainly. But then, unlike with Narcissus, the books, the conserves, the reflections are there to be found afterward. To a writer, Narcissus looks like solid practice and a good citizen. In that way, I think my father was something like passively enabling, or with hindsight, or retrospect he became enabling — and I’m delighted that you could find him and use him and profit from his tacit My Encounter with Thomas Bernhard: Confessions of a Survivor. You’re the afterlife, you’re an impossible late flowering!
He was heroic to me, and the circumstance of his death, on Lichtenberg’s birthday, and with the completed manuscript of his umpteenth novel, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, on his desk, is unimprovable. It makes me shiver. My first thought, even then, wasn’t for myself, because I was grown up, and had sons (!), but for the fact that there wouldn’t be any more books … He suffered a stroke five years before he died and was unable to read. He taught himself to read again, haltingly. He wrote his last three novels like that: The Film Explainer, Luck, and Lichtenberg. That’s when his books lost their viscosity and became particulate, granular. He would give dictation to my mother, and she would read him back his drafts. It’s not a way of making or keeping a complicated style! I loved those books and asked to translate them (as I hadn’t before, as I said: it would have been a way of losing my life). When he died, I still had two to do: how could he have died?!
Stevens says something like: We say we perfect a style; we just get tired. I think there’s something tremendously appealing about the wreckage or the bones of a great style, or a strong style. That’s what I like about Lowell, about Benn, about Heaney.
Did he read me? No, not much. It’s a little bit about English, and his deliberately turning his back on it (I was appalled when he started reading Faulkner in German!), but mostly it was about me, and his justified feeling that there wasn’t much there for him. Nichts gutes or nichts erbauliches. He knew how to protect himself from whatever he needed to protect himself from. He was vaguely proud of me, but it was for somewhat marginal things like having taught myself to cook, or persisting in England, not my writing. (It’s no end of tragicomedy.) I sent him a proof of Acrimony, and the upshot was that things were over between us for a few years. I imagined he’d read it as writing and see tenderness or fear, but he read it as hurt or with hurt. It’s so strange, because it’s more or less the situation he describes in his J. M. R. Lenz story, where the bishop father has no use for the Sturm und Drang son. I think the directness, the unmediatedness of it upset him. No phantasmagoria, as Yeats calls for. Possibly — this is my own amateur psycho-theory — we were both competing for the role of the son, and he felt usurped. There is something soft in the poems, the sensitive 25-year-old’s horror of masculinity, which morphs into a feeling for age and decay. Someone else said our fathers are there to teach us how to die, which I’m bound to say mine did. The things I used to see in him I now see in myself.
But enough of all this morbidity! I’m thinking there isn’t enough wisdom in current writing. I can remember the thrill, the draw of retailing a generalization for the first time in a poem. I think I even remember which line it was: “Familiarity breeds mostly the fear of its loss.” The daring of that! The terrifying maturity! It’s like writing “O!” or “Ah!” for the first time. May I say that I admire not just the quality of thought but the sheer fact of thought in your books? In and out of physics and metaphysics. The caps of the fathers. The equestrian fathers, but three-fourths scale! You say — or you have someone say, or someone say someone else says — “It is not the relationship between subjects and subjects that makes one weep most but the relationship between subjects and objects, that’s insufficiently understood!”
To which I can only say, “Ah!”
Thank you — it’s nice to think I seem to be thinking! I have to admit I feel uneasy about those parts, sometimes. I. J. Singer told I. B. Singer to stick to images and incidents, to give the facts, not the thoughts, because facts last longer than thoughts do, and I’m tempted, or chastened, by that advice. I wouldn’t know how to do it, but I think I might like for a novel to do its thinking only through the arrangement of fact, of incident. For another, more perverse reason, too: I find that if I’m capable of expressing a thought, I begin to doubt it, or downgrade it. I see the wisdom in the opposing view, or I figure that someone else must have said it before me and better. I’m sure that’s part of the appeal of all this reported speech: I never have to assert what I’m saying, neither that it’s true nor that it’s original, I only have to assert that some character said it, or (even better) that some character asserts that some other character said it. (This begins to sound a lot less daring!)
I suppose my hope is that a lot of nonsense, artfully arranged, might not only make sense but also convey something I’m not able to put epigrammatically. I think of Maggie Nelson’s paraphrase of Wittgenstein: “[T]he inexpressible is contained, albeit inexpressibly, in the expressed.” For that to be a consoling notion I don’t need the mystical idea of an “inexpressible” in general; I just need things to be inexpressible by me. And lots of things are inexpressible by me.
Still, watching you in your poems get right to the point does make me wonder why I need all these complications, all this excess phantasmagoria. Why I have to orchestrate a pretend conversation between Leibniz and an invented astronomer in the 17th century just to say a few things about myself and my family …
Returning to your poems: In “Venice Beach,” one of the funniest poems in your new collection, you generously imagine the masses roaming along that boardwalk to be thinking thoughts. “Imprudent combover thoughts, rigid and proud eye-catching false thoughts, little jiggling thoughts,” “pushing a baby in a three-wheeled stroller whilst running very hard in no shirt and six pack thoughts.” It’s a slightly scathing but mainly, I think, joyous rant. (Though I always think there’s something joyous in a rant, in its form, no matter what it’s about.) You say you go for vocabulary over syntax, but throughout this volume joy (or mania?) seems to have you opt for syntactical play over lexical exactitude. Then there’s the lark in the title, and the joke it comes from. Is this a new mode in your poetry, a new mood?
I tend to see continuity — I’ve often been drawn to drollery — but perhaps you’re right. The late editor of the London Review of Books, Karl Miller, said two words to me, years apart, about my stuff, that weighed with me enormously: “reportage” and “music.” Perhaps there is a third one, mockery, drollery, call it what you will. Both my lark and my horse are humor-words. Besides, you do change; I think if you don’t, you’re not a poet. You’re like a figure on a music box, and you think you stand still, but your view continually changes. A sentence for me used to be six words without a verb in it; now they’re unending, with semicolons in them. Of course, I still parade my standpoints of that time, but they’ve quietly become inapplicable. So you’re absolutely right, even that much-dissed-by-me “syntax” plays an increasing role in these now sometimes torrential structures. (And I love what you said about structure, and about the joyfulness of rants!)
Because, as I was saying, my father took fiction in the sense of invention, I was left with poetry in the sense of truth, or unhappy or uncomfortable truth. That was “my Penelope,” as Pound says. But that’s not to say that I’m deaf to the claims of fiction, and especially that humorous — yes, phantasmagoric! — re-amalgamating of the world that you pursue in The Organs of Sense, or my father did in his sort of cod-historical fiction (the Brueghel book called The Parable of the Blind), or the series of novellas about writers (Lenz, Walser, Casanova, and Balzac), or Penelope Fitzgerald in The Blue Flower, about the Romantic-era writer Novalis, and a wild proliferation of thoughts on all kinds of things. “Comedy of ideas” is I’m sure an unloved label (zum Fürchten, we say!), but it can be a wonderful and powerful and coherent thing. Your 17th century, with its endless religious wars, its vain and moody potentates, and its emulous, single-minded scientists, is a wonderful invention. And all I. J. Singer–ishly grounded: the feathers, the telescopes, the mystery sound, the clockwork head, the Vltava, the countdown.
In a way, everything says, with Archimedes, “don’t disturb my circles.”
“‘Twenty-two minutes,’ said the astronomer, according to Leibniz. ‘It is getting darker and darker.’ And he picked up his quill and wrote something down.”
I’m with you in yours!
Adam Ehrlich Sachs is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the author of Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems (Regan Arts, 2016) and The Organs of Sense. In 2018, he was honored as a NEA Literature Fellow and in 2019, as a Berlin Prize Fellow.