Real life on the silent screen : BOOKS : FICTION

THE FILM EXPLAINER by Gert Hofmann, trs Michael Hofmann Secker £9.99

GERT HOFMANN was born in Limbach/Saxony in 1931. He made his living as a lecturer in German literature, and was also a prolific author of radio plays. In 1979 he published his first prose work, and thereafter put out a novel a year until his death in 1993. His poet son Michael painted a memorable portrait of the father as sacred monster in his 1986 book of poems Acrimony, a portrait compounded of fear, exasperation and thwarted love. Here was a modern Polonius skewered in verse: the bundle of accidents, incoherence and bad breath who sat down every day to work it all up into art.

The Film Explainer is his last novel, translated by his son. It seems that they could only relate - and compete - in their respective writings. A recent TLS poem about Gert's death, "Epithanaton", tells us that he left this completed manuscript on his desk and, a little before, "a choleric note dashed off to me/cutting me off... /for nothing I could this time see that I'd done wrong". So we have elegist and translator mediating a novel which has at its centre a drifter-cum-dreamer who sometimes writes poetry. You feel there's some sort of bildungsroman going on between the lines.

All this is incidental, however, to a very good read. Set in Hofmann's own stifling small town of Limbach, this presumably autobiographical tale is devoted, in both senses, to the writer's grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873- 1944), who works for a pittance in the Apollo cinema as "film explainer and piano player", pointing out the significance of especially good scenes with his bamboo cane and gilding all the filmic emotion with appropriate trills and chords. Grandfather puts on a special uniform to do this, recalling the "apish origins of art" at the fairground where he was once a barker. Off duty he wears his "artist's hat", dreams of another and better world, and craves "better teeth with which to chew his bacon, more hair to comb and some more reliable equipment to stick in Grandmother and Fraulein Fritsche who lived by the sewage works".

Reality he finds grey and unrewarding. Only the "artificial" world of the cinema keeps him going. "It's reality, said Grandfather, which we have every reason to fear! And to shiver at too!" His long-suffering wife sees things rather differently, though: "He's not just an artist without any bread, he's an artist without any art ... something wants to get out of him, but there's nothing inside!"

Grandfather blames Herr Theilhaber, his Jewish employer, for his casual employment, low wages, and impending redundancy, thanks to the imminent arrival of the talkies. A passing reference to the "39 billion marks" it cost for Grandfather's second-hand clothes reminds us that we are in the hyper-inflationary days of an unstable country which is already breeding clumps of men in brown shirts who take a special interest in people's discontents and the shape of their noses. Once The Jazz Singer arrives Grandfather's fate is sealed. "Only in cognisance of death does everything become clear" runs one of the many saws he is addicted to. "It's not just that I don't bring any money into the house, I'm no longer the higher being I always believed I was."

Booted out of his job and Grandmother's bed (for infidelity), he finds succour in the arms - and indeed the boots - of new friends who see to it that the cinema is vandalised and Herr Theilhaber sent packing, together with the man found beaten half to death in the street and displayed in a window as a "warning".

This enjoyable and disquieting novel is not only a humorous parable about art and artists, "convinced that life is not real", or at least not real enough; it is also a subtle exploration of the links between artist, discontent, economic chaos and political brutality - a Walter Benjamin essay brought to fictional life.

At one point Grandfather on his tea-chest, "explaining", is explicitly compared to that other failed artist and tub-thumper, Adolf Hitler. Are lovable dreamers susceptible to the witchery of scapegoating (cf Ezra Pound)? Did ordinary Germans - "small people experiencing difficulties in their small lives" - drift into fascism from a legitimate feeling of despair? It's difficult to reconcile Grandfather's wisdom with his apparent political blindness. Or do such comfortable certainties only come with hindsight?

Written largely in dialogue, occasionally indebted to Beckett, told in a gossipy narrative voice that meanders backwards and forwards like someone chewing the fat in a pub, The Film Explainer gives a startling mix of insight and provocative historical reconstruction, seen lovingly from the inside.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform