Lichtenberg in Love

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl was first published in 1994—a year after its author, the German novelist Gert Hofmann, died. The translation is by his son, the poet Michael Hofmann, who lives in England and the US and writes in English. You could call it another work of filial piety—along with his translations of Luck and The Film Explainer, the two novels by his father that preceded Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. All three were written after Gert Hofmann suffered a stroke, which left him unable to read. He dictated them to his wife, and she read the drafts back to him “to correct and embellish aloud.” The pathos of their collaboration seeps into Gert Hofmann’s final novel. Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is both funny and sad, with a happy but disillusioned and disillusioning ending.

In a mournful afterword, Michael Hofmann gives a brief biography of his father, who was born in 1931 and, according to the publisher, for many years taught at universities in Europe and the US:

My father was always a writer—long before I was born—but circumstances, job, family, moving around—he was an itinerant professor of German lit., with four children—all conspired against his writing. Perhaps he couldn’t see what to do, or what form to do it in. He deliberated. And he wrote plays and a great number of radio plays through the 1960s and 1970s. The result was that when his first prose book was published in 1979…he gave every appearance of being a late starter. Thereafter, he was always a man in a hurry. He didn’t know how long he had left, but he knew it was unlikely to be the 30, 40, 50 years of a standard literary career. He pushed himself. He wrote very nearly a book a year. That’s what presumably gave him a stroke at the age of 57.

Gert Hofmann’s last novel is historical in the sense that almost all the people he writes about really existed—he gives their dates in parentheses. World events, though, play no part. It is a small, intimate, provincial love story reconstructed by Hofmann from letters, contemporary accounts, and most of all from his own imagination. The hero is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799). A pastor’s son, he was a hunchbacked dwarf who didn’t believe in God and became a professor of science at the University of Göttingen. His particular interest was electricity, and he was highly respected as a teacher. Students came from abroad to attend his lectures—especially from England, where he had been admired and taken up by various grandees when he visited it. His lasting fame, though, depends not on his scientific work but on his aphorisms. They were collected and became a standard German classic, published, republished, and admired—so the publisher tells us—by “Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Einstein.”

Some of them are profound: “What makes the prospect of Heaven so pleasing to the poor is the thought of equality,” for instance. Others are…

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