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Imagine Kafka as Fat!: a review of Where Have You Been? by Michael Hofmann

By William Harris.

Where Have You Been? by Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (December, 2014)

I came to Michael Hofmann through two recent essays in the London Review of Books. The essays are enough of a kind to have made me think, after only reading two examples of his work, that they were characteristic; that I was amid not only a trademark style but sensibility. The defining, screaming, Braille-like quality of this sensibility was an inexhaustible negativism, cocktailed in my estimation as two parts pleasure to one part pain—though, by reviews’ end, pain and pleasure were so entwined as to be indistinguishable.

I felt like I had found a mutant literary critic, product of some ghoulish pathological childhood, who had discovered a sinister, backwards cultural secret: the real jouissance lies in the hating. How, I wondered, did he find the space, let alone the stamina, to marshal against books this many complaints?

The new Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest, Hofmann writes, “elicits not one but both types of unwelcome reaction from the reader: both the ‘so what?’ and the ‘I don’t believe you’ and sometimes both together.” Hofmann read it “straight through twice from beginning to end” and felt like he “read nothing at all.” Its “governing idea” is “best not even mentioned.” He quotes a passage and then notes how he “can’t be persuaded here that anyone is seeing anything.” The second to last line is: “If you think a novel is splashing through a puddle, and what you are good at is splashing through puddles, then you will continue to splash through puddles even if you are in far over your head, and your novel will continue to have the entertaining and transgressive virtues and the unbelievable and crippling limitations of splashing through puddles.”

His review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North—opening in splendidly original style with a lengthy set piece likening reading the book to watching devilish Cambridge students force overboard innocent, river holidaying Japanese tourists, a scene taken from personal observation, not Flanagan’s novel—is my favourite of the pair, its eviscerations so roving and complete that for reviewing purposes—and in keeping with Hofmann’s own breezy terseness—it’s perhaps best not even mentioned.

All of this is to say I was surprised, after reading Michael Hofmann’s new collection of essays Where Have You Been?, to find out that the murders, the lampooning, the thrown tomatoes and shoes, are instead a secondary trait of a more diverse but still very mappable sensibility. The selection starts, as if to shock me out of my false judgment, with this sentence: “Words in Air is such a formidably and dramatically and lingeringly wonderful book, it is hard to know where to begin.”

Michael Hofmann

Where has Hofmann been? He’s a poet and translator, mostly of novels but sometimes of poetry; he works exclusively from German to English. He was born in Germany, shuffled when young to England (and later to Edinburgh, to America, and back to Edinburgh), and now teaches part-time at the University of Florida. In his essays he has a small coterie of favourites he’s unashamed to return to, again and again, so that you get an essay on the letter exchange between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and then an essay on Bishop’s poetry, and then a separate essay on Lowell’s poetry, interspersed with reviews of various other writers peppered by references back to Bishop, Lowell, and the select few in Hofmann’s charming, idiosyncratic canon.

Charm is a major force in the collection. The piece on Bishop relates John Ashbery’s description of her: “she is ‘the poets’ poets’ poet,’” before lunging on: “As I begin, therefore, I feel the stirrings of a wholly impersonal desire to … maybe pan her?” (He doesn’t.) The opening of the John Berryman review is spent disagreeing with Berryman’s view on his own face: “’I look less weird / without my beard,’ he tells us, but I’m not sure I agree.” His take on Robert Walser: “Imagine Kafka as fat!”

The essays are divided into two parts; part two shows off a more elastic ranginess, reaching out from poets to novelists, painters, filmmakers. Poets more than poems, and novelists more than novels: the real torque of Hofmann’s charm is how it’s of course the art, but just as much the life of artists, he likes to pluck through. It’s a generous tendency: a kind of offering to the reader, of useful information (publishing dates etc.), but also of sorted oddities and bizarre asides, biography scaled down to miniature curios. Hofmann’s idea of the literary life is one of openness and experience, peculiarity and play. It can involve cities but doesn’t have to; perhaps it’s even best when it doesn’t, when it fogs into the periphery. Scottish poet W.S. Graham—“one of the more fascinating lives … of twentieth-century poetry”—lived in a friend’s caravan by the sea in Cornwall. He would “’fish and gather mushrooms and write and cook.’” He grew very excited when he found a lemon on the beach. The quoted clips from his letters are incredible: “’I’m writing every day and the good weather’s begun and we have a goat.’” “’Tibet is a strange place and I read a lot about it.’” Or, reporting back from a trip to the States: “’The drink here is fantastic. What strange people.’” Pitiful amounts of money are asked for, and given, from the likes of Harold Pinter, but occasionally Graham stumbles into his own modest windfalls: “When Graham won a literary prize in 1970, he used it to get an indoor toilet.”

What could seem more distant from our idea of the writing life today? Such lives feel like the twentieth century, but feel even more of geographical estrangement, of a kind that still exists but is easy to forget. Part of the reason Elisabeth Bishop acquires for Hofmann an air of majorness is her geographical shyness—or, to spin it differently, boldness. She brushes off New York for “the less assertive, more hokily unregarded corners of Maine and Key West, where the United States seems, a little improbably, to fade and concede some of its identity to its neighbours; before, in 1951, taking herself off the power map altogether by accidentally immigrating to Brazil for fifteen years.” It’s here, he implies, where life’s lived and originality discovered, in a space away from the university halls and poetry readings and dull workaday domestic interiors of northeastern American life. Robert Lowell, whom he loves, is nevertheless called a “houseplant.” I wonder how Hofmann feels about his post at the University of Florida. Either way he’s too sensible to be taken excessively adrift by either a shamefaced or vitriolic renunciation of the writer’s academic institutionalisation. He writes of John Berryman: “Some of his most attractively heroic poems are about the virtue and necessity of teaching: ‘Sick at 6 & sick again at 9.’ He has a poem about exams.”

If some of Hofmann’s fascination with those in his personal canon traces back to his ideas of poetic life—“one likes a poet to have … some hinterland … to have experiences, to hold opinions, to store memories, to lead a rich and varied life of the senses”—another side of the interest suggests something biographical in the critic himself, his own drift and ironic relation to place. He likes travel, or the quick challenge to observation and wit travel provides: his favourite Ted Hughes poem—“Hughes is at least arguably the greatest English poet since Shakespeare”—is “Remembering Teheran,” which he compares, as is his way, to Bishop’s Brazil poems and Lowell’s poem “Buenos Aires.” His taste is slightly recherché, both in his attraction to the forgotten and to those who’ve been overlooked due to laziness, arbitrary geographical conservatism, and the insulating noise, in America and New York in particular, of our own tinny literary hype machines. “I wonder, a little bitterly, what the point of English as a soi-disant world language is if our smug maps have only the UK and the US on them, and everywhere else is apocrypha or appendix, the province of specialists and pity.” He rarely moves away from European and North American productions in this collection, but he does show a rare curiosity. If America, England, and Germany are his metropolitan poles, he often saves his most significant flourishes for the extremities: the stunning cultural strangeness of Canadian, Australian, and Polish poets.

His literary explorations and cross-cultural dabblings result in a jokey, alienated attraction to vernacularism. “Ain’t no way,” he writes, or “arsy-versy,” or “extra, no charge,” each time trying his hand at passing and winning some, losing others, sounding either like he’s fully at home, or that he’s become literary Borat, or that he’s sitting around in some strange country with all the local dads—an unpredictable ventriloquizing effect not, again, without its charm. My overall impression of Hofmann is the critic as topographical map, its points of interest dispersed—here a hinterland, there an island, finally a city—and with many implicit value hierarchies inverted, so that the city diminishes before the far-flung; the argument stands tall, but still below language and the real art of criticism; life towers alongside artwork; and metaphor is on occasion run away with to such capricious extents that it becomes as real as the art under consideration, shooting off and elongating the map to preposterous extremes. Few critics are as confident in burrowing so deeply inside their own language and imaginations, and few do it as well; he’s digested his subjects and can reproduce them without clinging too modestly to the scaffolding of their work. When he appears closest to the critical object—as he does in his piece on Antonioni’s film The Passenger, languidly describing full scenes—he can in fact be furthest. He details a scene, like a painter directly eyeing her subject, and then turns the intimacy inside out:

Someone is having a driving lesson on the plaza outside. A boy throws a stone at an old man, who shouts at him. There’s a large closed structure, a building perhaps. Schneider appears, mooching and moody. A gaggle of children. A Vespa, or perhaps I’ve added that. Trumpet music, in Spanish semitones, gallant and fading.

“Or perhaps I’ve added that” . . . The film, which you imagine is in front of him—being played slowly, paused, rewound, started up again—now disappears! It’s a dialectical move. The artwork which seemed so close is actually far away, repackaged inside his imagination, which then reforms itself into a new kind of critical closeness, a subjective swallowing of the film. He also excels in the reverse, beginning at a distance and approaching something like an essence by tour-de-forcing whole bodies of work into entertaining, figurative, defamiliarised passages. Karen Solie’s verse is “round-the-corner knight moves in a world of pawns, or almost worse, rooks; googlies and chinamen among dobbers. . . . It is an adventitious gallivanting movement across country that makes denser, bunched sense than any more rational or measured or predictable progress.” Or here, where he imagines Frederick Seidel’s volume Poems as an inflated, dandified, phantasmagoric street performer:

If Poems is a man doing a headstand, then it’s a man in a bowler hat, wearing a chalk-striped four-piece suit, with a handkerchief in his top pocket and a natty carnation in his buttonhole, giving you an eyeful of his heliotrope spats.

He quotes brilliantly but he tells you its labor; I can imagine him writing great criticism without the books on hand, Erich Auerbach in Istanbul-style. What’s perhaps most impressive about the collection is that it reveals a taste. There’s a wholeness to Hofmann: all the pieces fit, but they keep on rearranging themselves in new patterns of detail and expression. He was asked in an interview about the fluidity of his identity, the German, the English, the job in Florida. The interviewer thinks Hofmann’s poetry betrays an unstable sense of self, flitting across continents. Hofmann objects:

I don’t know about that really. It’s possibly to see it the other way, that identity is the only constant, my baggage, a kind of ingrown rucksack-cum-carapace. I think, given the errancy of my formative years, I could argue that there’s more pressure from within, more pressure from outside—all these different outsides—and a more intolerable mismatch between them! Hence a more fixed identity, if anything. Everything has to be denser and more portable: I can’t be relaxed about it, and leave some of it lying around in a house or furniture or some landscape, because really none of that is mine . . . I have an overwhelmingly strong sense of who I am. After all, what else is there to hang on to, or to offer the reader?



William Harris

William Harris has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Full Stop, and Enaegon Magazine. He lives in Shanghai, but is soon moving to Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 15th, 2015.