Like all good Enlightenment brains, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's rode roughshod over academic boundaries. Nominally a mathematician, he made pioneering studies in electricity, introduced Germany to Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod, wrote passionately about British theatre and Hogarth's etchings, and coined some of the wittiest aphorisms of his age.
This short novel by Gert Hofmann – written shortly before his death in 1992 and translated by his son Michael – zooms in on a less cerebral chapter of the man's story. Lichtenberg is born with a hunchback and, at 36, has yet to meet a woman who can see the man behind the outgrowth. In his empty bachelor's bed, "there was a space next to him, but it was impossible to find a woman to occupy it". Surplus emotional energy is redirected to his astronomical instruments, which he cradles like babies.
Then he meets Maria Dorothea Stechard, affectionately known as "the little Stechardess": a 14-year-old flower girl who becomes first his pupil and housekeeper, then his lover. For three years, they live together in secret – hidden from the eyes of the burghers of Göttingen, though not from their suspicions – until the Stechardess falls ill and Lichtenberg's life is shrouded in darkness once more.
It's hard to read Hofmann's last novel without thinking of at least two others with prepubescent objects of desire at their centre: the German poet Novalis's 12-year-old wife Sophie, as imagined by Penelope Fitzgerald in The Blue Flower; and, inevitably, Nabokov's Dolores Haze in Lolita. But it's not easy to make these comparisons count in Hofmann's favour. Colloquial interjections punctuate Hofmann's tale, hinting at his talent for dialogue. But where, in Lolita, chatty patter eventually gears up into a freewheeling romp through Humbert Humbert's imagination, Hofmann's perspective remains oddly restrained, with something of the biographer's respectfulness: it's a curious peek into his bedchamber, when we'd rather gaze down the abyss of his soul, or at least under the covers.
The novel ends with another aside: "And then?". It could be the narrator, the little Stechardess or us readers speaking, but none of the voices synthesise into a whole.