“We’d like to leave our readers with a great gift before they move on to other books,” writes Yoel Hoffmann near the end of Moods. “But we’re like a building contractor whose tools are limited. At most he puts up a wall or lays down a floor and says to the client that he should use his imagination to fill in the rest.” Moods is the latest of Hoffmann’s books to be translated from Hebrew into English, and they are all faithful to this aesthetic of the evocative fragment, the unbuilt structure. To call them novels would be misleading, and even the label “fiction” only makes sense if that category functions as a catch-all for any kind of imaginative writing.
In Moods, Hoffmann spoofs the kind of conventional realism he imagines the reader is used to. “Maybe we’ll write…a contemporary story,” he teases, and offers a paragraph about a woman named Zivit, who wakes up in the morning, sees her lover in bed next to her, wonders about their future together—the familiar motions of storytelling. “Some of our readers are no doubt saying to themselves: At last, a real story,” he writes, but the story breaks off and Hoffmann hasn’t the slightest interest in continuing it. For him, books are not about inventing worlds but about piercing through to the core of the actual world, discovering its mysterious essence. “We’ve heard about scholars of literature, but we haven’t heard of scholars of life,” he writes, and that is what he aspires to be.
In this sense, Hoffmann is more like a poet than a novelist. Formally, his books resemble collections of prose poems, usually half a page or a page long and presented in numbered sequence. Like poems, these fragments deal in surprising associations and moments of sudden insight; they often take the form of philosophical musings or unanswerable riddles. Voice and imagery do much more than narrative to make his work cohere, to the extent that he is interested in coherence:
The setting of this book (I neglected to mention) is the world. Bugs are in it. Nor is history ignored. Agamemnon, for instance. Textile stores—in their places—come into it. On Paris Square, for instance. In Haifa.
And countless envoys (with pizza, and so forth). Some ride bikes.
Although it’s nearly flat, the dimensions of space in the book are infinite. It’s impossible to mention all the stars, but they too enter into its equation.
This brief passage from Curriculum Vitae—the book that seems to hew most closely to the actual facts of Hoffmann’s life, as a husband, father, and scholar of Zen mysticism*—suggests the breadth of his vision.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.