Maira Kalman

Painting by Maira Kalman from Sara Berman’s Closet, an illustrated family memoir created with her son, Alex Kalman, after their museum exhibition of the same name. It has just been published by Harper Design.

“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. Yet as in a mosaic, out of these fragments a recognizable picture emerges. Hoffmann, who was born in Romania in 1937 and came to Palestine as a small child, frequently returns in his writing to the milieu of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish settlement of his youth. The bombing of Tel Aviv by the Italian air force, in 1940 and 1941, makes several appearances in his books; it must have been an indelible early trauma. It may also have blended in his mind with the death of his mother, which in Curriculum Vitae is said to have taken place in January 1941.

While the names of the narrators or leading characters of these books vary, they usually have a similar biography, involving the early death of a parent. In The Christ of Fish, the Hoffmann figure loses both parents and is raised by his Aunt Magda. In Curriculum Vitae, it is his mother who dies, and he is raised by his father and stepmother, Ursula; in Moods, the stepmother reappears, but now she is named Francesca. As an adult, the Hoffmann character has usually gone through an early marriage that ended in divorce, and found new happiness with another woman—this scenario forms the plot, such as it is, of The Heart Is Katmandu.

But postmodernist guessing games about what is truth and what is fiction have little interest for Hoffmann. That is because he’s not engaged in telling stories so much as in musing over them, reflecting on them, and marveling at them. For if there is one dominant emotion in Hoffmann’s books, it is wonder at the sheer unlikeliness of everything that happens. Like a mystic’s, Hoffmann’s wonder extends to the existence of things in general: “I want to know: what was Pawel’s exact place (at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning when he went down to the sea at the end of Rechov Gordon with a straw hat and the Reader’s Digest) in the vast order of the universe?” he asks in The Christ of Fish. Pawel is one of his aunt’s friends, and this juxtaposition of the familial detail and the cosmic background is one of Hoffmann’s favorite ways of evoking the strangeness of reality.


As this suggests, Hoffmann does not provide what many readers turn to Israeli fiction to find: he is not realist enough to offer a detailed portrait of his society, and not worldly or “serious” enough to engage in political debates. (This may explain why, despite the long-standing support of New Directions, Hoffmann remains far less known in the US than Israeli writers like A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, who are his contemporaries.) Which is not to say that Israeli history and Jewish themes don’t appear in his writing; they do, insistently, but usually in the form of memory and fantasy. Above all, the Land of Israel functions in Hoffmann’s writing as a local site of universal mystery:

On the Day of Atonement a dead cock sailed through the air in centrifugal fashion, and at the end of the Concluding Service, when the shofar sounded, through the window on Rechov Bogroshov were revealed the ten Kabbalistic spheres…. What did Mr. Moskowitz see in the world of emanations? His great-grandfather Reb Mendel, who cut up a cow? Something sublime? A female maidenhead? At that moment, though, when the rams’ horns sounded, his was a spiritual body and his sweat gave off a holy smell.

This transformation of Jewish themes into universal symbols often makes Hoffmann resemble Marc Chagall, and there are many tableaux in his work that could come straight from a Chagall canvas. Describing the joy of spring, Hoffmann writes, “Cheesecakes flew, so great was the joy, on the wind. Forks soared to the clouds.” Sometimes he even makes the affiliation explicit: “Love is a kind of giant Chagall that lifts cows off the ground and causes tremendous clocks to fly,” he writes in The Heart Is Katmandu. Like Chagall, too, Hoffmann balances on the point where sentimentality meets sublimity, and the difference frequently depends on whether or not the reader is willing to be brought under the writer’s spell.

It is when he writes about his childhood that Hoffmann’s spell is most potent, perhaps because early youth is the time when the world seems most magical to all of us. None of Hoffmann’s books is long, but The Shunra and the Schmetterling, which deals mainly with his school days, is the briefest, as if to suggest that his goal is not documentation but distillation. The book’s odd title gestures to one of the central facts of his early life, and of Jewish life throughout the centuries: it was a polyglot existence. Shunra means “cat” in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud and the lingua franca of Jewish life in the ancient Near East; Schmetterling means “butterfly” in German, the language spoken by the immigrant circle of Hoffmann’s parents. The words come together in a scene that feels like a half-remembered vision from early childhood:

I give my father’s father the cat. My father’s father releases white butterflies into the space of the home, and the old cat chases them as though in a slow-motion movie. But when a butterfly rises in the air, my grandfather performs an act like that of the one who was crucified, and in his hand he lifts the cat toward the sky of the room, which is fashioned in the form of a ceiling.

A butterfly and a cat have different names in every language, but this kind of primal vision is prelinguistic. Indeed, while fragments of many languages—Hungarian, Icelandic, Japanese—appear throughout Hoffmann’s work, there is a persistent intuition that the world we see has a reality that this Babel of tongues can only obscure. At school, he recalls later in the same book, “They gave names to the mountains and cut them out on paper like slices of a wedding cake. They said to us meneh [count]…and we counted the continents and seas and rivers like a warehouse clerk or a peddler standing on a market corner.” This kind of intellectual knowledge, Hoffmann implies, counts for little compared to the hallucinatory insights to which childhood is privy:

We saw a million stalks (how they rise in the pristine air as though the forces of gravity didn’t exist).

We saw the great humanity of the winged creatures that wander like Mongols on the backs of transparent horses, in formations that Euclid saw only in his dreams.

Yoel Hoffmann
Yoel Hoffmann; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

“More wonderful than the wonders people sit and talk about, is the fact that they sit and talk,” reflects the title character in Hoffmann’s Bernhard. This is the book of Hoffmann’s that comes closest to being a novel, mainly because Bernhard himself—a middle-aged widower who has immigrated from Germany to wartime Palestine—stands at a biographical remove from the author. But Bernhard shares Hoffmann’s characteristic sense of the fragile miracle of existence. He also suggests another explanation for this sense, which is that the existence of Jews in Palestine during World War II was, in fact, very fragile. The Yishuv was only a battle away from being overrun by the German Afrika Korps, and hostilities between Arabs and Jews, and between Jews and the British, were incessant.


These events punctuate Bernhard in the form of periodic bulletins that combine world history with local trivialities: “In the beginning of November the English win the battle of El Alamein. Elvira Neuwirth spreads a woolen blanket over the white sheet.” Living through such times must have bred in Hoffmann his tragicomic sense of the incongruity of things, the way major events seem small and distant while tiny observations grow to vast proportions:

People believe that the correct order is as follows:

1. Truth (in light blue).

2. History (Napoleon, the Jews, etc.).

3. Living persons (Bernard Shaw and others).

4. Animals and Things.

But the correct order is different. It’s impossible to say what it is (if it were known, it would be thrown into disorder).

The great historical event in the deep background of Hoffmann’s childhood was, of course, the Holocaust. It is only on rare occasions that he mentions the Holocaust directly, but when he does, we come to realize how profoundly it shapes his view of the world. As he writes in Moods:

The counting did in fact begin, as the Christians have it, with the birth of the infant Jesus. But it concluded with the birth of Adolf. We were given just 1,889 years of life.

Now we’re in the age of ash. Beyond time. As though in a game that has come to an end…. Everything only seems to be. A thin wash of color covers it all, and beneath that—blackness.

But despite this nihilistic insight, the truth is that few writers see the world in more vivid colors than Hoffmann, and mournfulness is only one of his many “moods.” More often, he is besotted with the world, which he sees as the garment of the holy. And his rapt observations, in which ordinary sights rearrange themselves into surrealist tableaux, are intent on demonstrating the miraculousness of what we usually take for granted.

One word for this vision is “childlike,” and a tone of willful naiveté can often be heard in Hoffmann’s writing. The same kind of patience required by magical-realist fiction—an eagerness, rather than just a willingness, to suspend disbelief—is often required in reading Hoffmann. So too is a taste for rhapsody: “Sometimes the heart is fit to break. Such sanctity cannot be reckoned. How the skin enwraps the body. How the atmosphere surrounds the globe of Earth,” he writes in The Christ of Fish. It takes only a little skepticism, a little cooling of the emotional atmosphere, to make such epiphanies seem sentimental.

The subjects that call forth the most sentiment in Hoffmann are love and sex. One of the things in this world he finds most miraculous is the female body, which he writes about with a kind of enraptured awe that is no longer quite in fashion, since it can be considered as a (highly chivalric) form of objectification. The Heart Is Katmandu is Hoffmann’s closest thing to a pure love story, showing in flashes the unfolding relationship between Yehoahim, a forty-three-year-old divorced man, and Batya, a woman with a young child described as “Mongolian” (it’s unclear whether this is supposed to mean something like “mongoloid”). Yehoahim is given to Hoffmannesque reveries:

He sees how an inner light spreads through his hand. At first through the little finger and then through the other fingers, up to the thumb. He understands the sacred nature of the hand and the sacred nature of the frying pan.

These moments of insight soon find a focus in Batya, with whom he engages in a kind of sacramental lovemaking: “See how the moon wavers. Today you can call it Batya,” he thinks. Or later: “This warm body (Yehoahim thinks) is called Batya, and he hugs it as an Orthodox Jew hugs the scroll of the Law.” There are fleeting suggestions, in the book, of the kinds of complications that in a proper novel would become the substance of a plot: we hear of another man in Batya’s life, named Robert, who confronts her in the final pages. But Hoffmann prefers to tell this story, like the story of his childhood in other books, in short enigmatic fragments, rather than spell everything out. His true focus is not what happened in this particular love affair, but the way love gives us the sensation of access to a profound, universal truth: “She goes barefoot to the window and her toes refute the theory of relativity. There aren’t (Yehoahim thinks), in the entire world there aren’t any other toes like these.”

After such dizzy reflections, it can be a relief to turn to Hoffmann’s later work, which grounds his perceptions in a more recognizable life story and a more conversational voice. Curriculum Vitae quickly disclaims its title’s suggestion of matter-of-fact accuracy: “Life is a sacred gift and literature a profane one,” Hoffmann writes, and so he declares that he will keep the true names of his wife and children out of the book. This is, however, a promise that is broken in the making, for he mentions those names in the very sentence that promises to hide them.

If the book is a memoir, it is a deliberately playful and artificial one, using the same mosaic form as all of Hoffmann’s work. Here, however, the fragments are more likely to tell prosaic truths and believable stories: we hear about the births of the author’s children, the tensions in his marriage, his research trips to study Zen Buddhism in Japan. Still, threaded through this chronicle are suggestions of Hoffmann the mystic, the writer who yearns for transcendence:

We (which is to say, I) wanted one of two things. Either that thoughts would vanish once and for all, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki had vanished, or that there would be just this one thought, that of the infant, in the Christian icons, lying in the Madonna’s lap.

The fusion of Japanese and Christian images is typical of Hoffmann’s eclectic spirituality, which also makes room for Kabbalism and Hasidism. One story in the book involves Japanese monks who visit Israel and observe, on seeing Hasids at prayer, “There is no doubt. They know what devotion is.” For Hoffmann, all traditions and disciplines are routes to the same truth.

If Curriculum Vitae surveys Hoffmann’s past, his most recent book, Moods, is written in an insistent present tense, and in a voice less vatic, more casual and personal, than ever before. “Ever since finishing my last book, I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one,” runs the first sentence, and this confession of uncertainty is more humanly touching than the poised mystery of earlier books. Hoffmann, now over eighty years old, reviews episodes from his life: visits to foreign places, a schoolyard fight, his father’s wristwatch. And we hear more about Hoffmann’s personal tastes and opinions than ever before: his love for the fiction of William Saroyan and the music of Louis Armstrong, his suspicion of literary critics. The events of 2009, the time of writing, are also allowed to slip into the narrative—the Israeli invasion of Gaza, in particular, as when Hoffmann writes about an uncle who had lost a leg in World War I: “His [wooden] leg most likely went up in smoke in Auschwitz. But if we had it today we’d set it afire now in order to warm up the people of Gaza, who are freezing.”

In its gentle, wandering pace, Moods is the easiest to follow of Hoffmann’s books; for readers new to him, it may be the most accessible place to start. For that very reason, however, it is also his least characteristic book. It mostly offers observations, rather than the kind of piercing insights that he has sought in the past. Even in this late, often gloomy work, however, Hoffmann is open to those intimations of immortality that make his writing, at its best, a kind of wisdom literature:

We should call all things by their first names. All dogs. All frogs. All trees. Once upon a time we took pity on a gourd that the gardener wanted to uproot, and so we called it Simcha.

How can it be that we walk around under the sky and nonetheless have an unconscious? Don’t believe these lies. The world is large and wide and has no measure. And all is revealed.