Obituary: Gert Hofmann
Monday 02 August 1993
AMONG German writers of the 1980s Gert Hofmann had the unusual distinction of being at once acclaimed and invisible.
Reviewers attempting a summary verdict often resorted to the untranslatable 'Geheimtip', a word that suggests distinctive merit known only to a select few. Not that Hofmann's achievements were inaccessible or esoteric - he was unusually productive; he won high critical praise and many prizes, but he followed no trends and set none. In a country prone to make public figures of its writers he never became a public figure. This withdrawn, undemonstrative man was indeed wary in public, unwilling to make speeches and loath to talk about the writing to which he was so singlemindedly committed.
Why Hofmann acquired no readily identifiable place on the German literary scene is in part explained by the fact that there had been none of the steady lifelong development that attracts labels.
Born in 1932 near Chemnitz, Hofmann took a doctorate in 1957 on Thomas Mann and Henry James, lectured in universities from Berkeley to Edinburgh and looked set on a university career. But he lacked, as he put it, the necessary placidity and pedantry, preferring a life that he saw as rootless and experimental.
Experiment was not Hofmann's aim as a writer, even though his first choice - the radio-play - had become at least in Germany an obvious field for experiment. From the early 1960s Hofmann began to establish a considerable reputation as a prolific writer of radio-plays which - typically - stand aside from fashions and rely not at all on electronic wizardry. By 1980 he had written over 30 radio-plays, winning prizes in the United States, in Prague and - in that year - the Prix Italia. But in 1980 Hofmann, seeking, he claimed, a less transient link with his audience, published his first novel. And it is on his novels that his reputation rests.
In one respect that first novel, Die Fistelstimme, sets a pattern: when a fraught German Lektor (univeristy lecturer) recalls 24 disabling, threatening hours in Ljubljana, autobiography and fiction seem to overlap - Hofmann was Lektor to that same town. But the overlaps are more deceptive than real, the narrator is distanced, more inclined to question experience than simply to report it.
For his second novel, The Spectacle at the Tower (the first to be translated into English), Hofmann won the 1982 Doblin Prize. The location is exotic - a parched Sicilian landscape - and the atmosphere nightmarishly vivid to a couple at the Strindbergian end of their marital tether, journeying through a death-ridden landscape to a strangely unreal tower. The colours are hectic, the symbolism extreme - Hofmann has moved a long way from his disoriented Lektor. But neither this highly charged novel, nor its more reflective predecessor, prepared the ground for the very different novels that followed.
With his third novel, first published in 1984 and translated as Our Conquest, Hofmann's theme changed. The time is 1945, the perspective that of a child. Again it is tempting to invoke biographical fact - Hofmann was a child in 1945 - but this is to misrepresent the variety and the complexity of this and subsequent novels. In Our Conquest two, perhaps three, children traverse their home town on the day of surrender. The children, unaware yet knowing keep the horrors at a distance and yet explore a haunted landscape.
Hofmann's children are strangely anonymous, half-seen presences, but Hofmann seems to have found a kind of security in the child's perspective on grim events. It is children who experience at a distance the hounding of a Jew (Veichenfeld, 1986), childhood haunts an adult 30 years on in Our Forgetfulness (1987) - a title that itself speaks volumes. And it is a child's view of his vivid, comic, film-mad grandfather (Der Kinoerzahler, 1990) that enriches one of Hofmann's most memorable portrayals, a man whose calling in a small-town cinema has left him addicted to the silent screen at a time when there is no silence either on screen or off it.
The past that haunted Germany had plainly come to haunt, indeed to obsess Hofmann. As a character in one of his radio-plays puts it: 'Obviously since the end of the war I've never been able to clear the bomb-damage out of my head.' No German writer has in recent years found so many angles on that damage.
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