Eva Hoffman: 'The first impulse was to write about music'

Eva Hoffman was a budding pianist before her family had to leave Poland for Canada. Fifty years on, she tells Matthew J Reisz how recitals and romance fill her new book

Friday 27 June 2008 00:00 BST
(Rex Features)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Eva Hoffman's novel, Illuminations, is a love story and a novel of ideas, but it is also, says its author, a book about "a path not quite taken". While growing up in Cracow, she attended the music school, "a kind of natural environment for future professional musicians – the idea was certainly that I was being groomed to be a pianist". When she was nearly 14, however, rising anti-Semitism in Poland led her family to emigrate to Canada – as described in her first book, the evocative Lost in Translation. Among many differences between the Old World and the New, she had left behind a milieu where being a pianist was "a very noble and high and serious calling" and landed somewhere where it had far less prestige, and was thought hopelessly impractical and risky for a new immigrant.

At college in Houston and then graduate school in Harvard, Hoffman drifted away from music into literature, especially 20th-century American literature, which was "also a way to help me understand the new world I found myself in". This led to a career in journalism, first for small publications and then at The New York Times. Little more than 20 years after arriving in Canada as a desolate and confused immigrant, she had penetrated to the heart of the American establishment.

Still, there were aspects of American life Hoffman "felt in a kind of friction with". She was never totally at ease with the individualism, the intense competitiveness or the sense of entitlement about "having fun". For someone born just two months after the end of the Second World War to parents who had barely survived the Holocaust in Ukraine, "There was not a great awareness of history. America had not gone through its historical tragedy."

So what did she feel was lacking? "Growing up in post-war Poland still felt very communal... very close and very intimate. That was something very positive. The growth of Solidarity would have been impossible in a more fragmented society."

A sense of shared hardship and mutual aid was strong among the Cracow Jewish community, but it also crossed the divide with non-Jews. This may sound like an anodyne statement, but it touches on a hornet's nest of ill feeling. Polish-Jewish history has been bloody and debates about it remain poisoned by acrimony. While many Poles feel that their own suffering under the Nazis has never been properly acknowledged, many Jews assume that if you scratch a Pole you'll find an anti-Semite.

Hoffman devoted a remarkable book, Shtetl, to healing some of these wounds. "I was rectifying what seemed to me a real imbalance and a real distortion," she explains. "There were many positive aspects to Polish-Jewish history and it offers many paradigms and templates for thinking about multi-ethnic relationships.

"To put it simply, Poland had the largest Jewish population of any country for several centuries – and that wasn't a coincidence. Polish traditions allowed Jewish life and Jewish identity to develop more than in any other place. I felt this should be known." Perhaps inevitably, the book was attacked from both sides by people with a deep emotional investment in their "permitted form of prejudice", but it also played a reparative role.

Even before Shtetl, Hoffman had written Exit into History, based on two four-month trips to post-communist Eastern Europe. She had also moved to London, "out of a sense that I wanted to be in Europe." She now lives just off the Finchley Road, in an area well known for Central European post-war émigrés, and about 10 minutes' walk from the spot where Freud re-established psychoanalysis-in-exile.

London, she claims half-jokingly, is "the perfect midway point between Manhattan and Cracow – not only geographically but along so many cultural dimensions". Asked about the city's obvious similarities with New York and even more obvious differences from Cracow, she notes that "It made a difference that this country went through the war and a period of human hardship – it just made for a different sense of human proportion."

Illuminations (Harvill Secker, £16.99) is a novel about reparation, clashing values and "the two-forked nature of romanticism", including "the strain which can be transformed into violence". Yet "the first and main impulse was to write about music". Her heroine, Isabel, is the concert pianist she might have been. Viewing her profession in highly romantic terms, she "feels the real sources of meaning are in sublime works of art".

It is a striking feature of the book that just about everything, including politics and sex, is seen through a musician's eye and through musical metaphor.

Does Hoffman envy musicians (not unusual among writers) for the way they use a language which can speak straight to the heart, across cultures? "Universality is a fantastic bonus," she replies, "but the key point is the convergence of form and content – you have a medium in which what you are expressing is expressed completely directly... the medium is the message."

Isabel's almost religious devotion to music plays itself out amid the dislocation, arbitrary encounters and soulless hotels of life on the international concert circuit. She is mocked by Americans committed to hedonism or the kind of detached, ironic post-modernism which takes nothing seriously. But the real challenge to her values comes from her fellow-romantic, Anzor, a Chechnyan political exile who devotes his life to the national cause.

Illuminations, it soon emerges, is a book about "the moment when righteousness translates itself into unacceptable forms of violence". Although conceived and started before 9/11, Hoffman was deeply affected by the attack and for a while couldn't write. "It wasn't only the shock of the event," she explains, "but it seemed to portend a kind of rearrangement of values in which it was unclear what writing and art can do. And then of course I started writing again...

"That's what Isabel has to think through. What can art do in the face of things like that? Of course art does not prevent violence, and yet she comes to feel – and I feel – that it has its particular power".

Hoffman deliberately avoided making her hero "a post-9/11 extremist". "I was more interested in character and sensibility than in the rights and wrongs of the Chechnyan cause. I wanted the place where he comes from to be a kind of elsewhere for Isabel."

As someone who grew up in Eastern Europe, she can see the echoes and parallels. The Chechnyans are engaged in "a kind of late repetition of a 19th-century struggle for sovereignty". The intense sense of victimhood and cult of anti-Russian resistance are familiar from Polish politics. Yet the emotional and moral issues emerge far more clearly than if the plot had involved, say, Irish or Middle Eastern terrorism, about which most British readers are likely to have far stronger prior feelings.

It is central to the story, of course, that Isabel falls for Anzor. Did Hoffman herself see the charisma and sexual appeal of men of violence? It was something she "understood with more immediacy when I was younger", she replies discreetly. "I can... imagine the appeal of the very fiery, the very intense, the very dedicated personality who burns with a gem-like flame – though, in his case, a very dark one. But I couldn't have written this book if I didn't have a certain perspective on it and on her."

The cult of violence can seem more romantic, I suggest, to those who have never experienced violence. Does Anzor's appeal to Isabel reflect her naivety and parochialism? Hoffman tends to agree. She has never been passionately committed to a national political cause, partly because her identity is quite hybrid and "Ideological nationalism demands flattening oneself out. It's reductive. It simplifies the world. Growing up in Poland, just after the Second World War, did make one aware of the dangers of ideological fanaticism."

Much of the power of Hoffman's intense, distinctive – and utterly un-English – work comes from her unselfconscious commitment to dealing with Big Issues like the value of art and the dangers of romantic nationalism, though without missing any of the ironies.

Since Anzor is a political figure, the progress of his passionate affair with Isabel is carefully observed from the wings by a rum crew of spies and diplomats. High romantic ideals have their beauty and absurdity, but to the spooks pianist and terrorist alike are pawns in the great dramas of international power politics.

Eva Hoffman

Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow in 1945, grew up in Vancouver and studied in the US. She worked on The New York Times for a decade and is now based in London, although she still teaches courses in memoir and diasporic writing for a semester every second year at Hunter College in New York. She is the author of the memoir Lost in Translation (1989); Exit into History (1993), an account of "a journey through the new Eastern Europe"; Shtetl (1997), a study of Polish-Jewish relations; and After Such Knowledge (2004), an exploration of the legacy of the Holocaust. Her first novel, The Secret (2001), considered the morality of cloning. The second, Illuminations, is published by Harvill Secker. Eva Hoffman lives in north-west London.

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