I have been meaning to read the late Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (Kleine Stechardin, 1994; tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann, 2004) ever since John Self reviewed it on his blog (click here for his review). John’s review spoke of charm, yet, mixed in the review, is a disturbing premise. Charming and disturbing? Why did I take my time getting around to it? Whatever the reason for my procrastination, I recommend you don’t wait. Now that I’ve read it, I feel pity for that alternative life I would have led had I not.
“Once, many many years ago . . .” is the soft opening to the book about the real historic figure Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799). In his afterword, Michael Hofmann (the author’s son and translator) says we might be forgiven for not knowing who Lichtenberg was since it is likely we would only know if we were “a Germanist, a lover of aphorisms, or a student of ur-science.” In 1763, Lichtenberg arrived at Göttingen University where he was a physics professor until his death, though he has no major accomplishments to his name. This book gives a comical account of one of his failed experiments when he inflated a balloon indoors, but it was too big to take outdoors where he planned to use it as a transportation device — something already invented by others — and, consequently, “Lichtenberg was left sitting with his balloon in his lecture room.”
My own knowledge of Lichtenberg before reading this was limited to the fact that NYRB Classics published The Waste Book, a collection of those aphorisms Michael Hofmann mentions. I haven’t read The Waste Booksbut I’m now tempted because this book uses them liberally. Lichtenberg was apparently a clever man and took pride in it, carrying around a pencil to copy down and refine his wit.
“In case Heaven should really consider it necessary to withdraw me from circulation and put out a new version,” he wrote to his friend Polycarp Erxleben (1744 – 1777), “I would like to give it one or two bits of advice, in particular concerning the form of my body and the overall design of the whole thing. Straighter,” he wrote, “altogether straighter!”
Why straighter? I’m getting ahead of myself, and perhaps to the detriment of this book. After all, perhaps the idea of reading a book about an eighteenth-century scientist and aphorist sounds a bit dry. I should retreat a bit and allow Lichtenberg to be introduced the way Hofmann introduces him:
As he scrambled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let’s write about it!
The hunchback was enormous!
As you can see, that this book may be stodgy should not be a concern. Hofmann’s presentation is whimsical and vivacious, chuck-full of exclamation points (which I never, here, tired of). Whoever the narrator is, the thrill he gets telling the story is contagious as he brings the reader into the narrative, always assuming our next question: “And then?”
As the story begins, we feel sorry for Lichtenberg. He’s in his thirties but is a feeble wreck of a man:
“My poor spirit happens to have been poured into a miserable vessel,” he wrote to Alessandro, Count Volta (1745 – 1827).
His hunchback, in particular, is a constant embarrassment. He dreads going to his classes, knowing that everyone’s attention is on his hunchback, not on physics. As much as he wants to be social, he can’t stand the thought that his hunchback is always between him and his friends.
He wished they wouldn’t insist on touching it. It made him feel terribly impatient, later sad.
Of course, he saves himself with some cleverness:
“The only manly attribute I have, decency unfortunately prevents me from displaying.”
What Lichtenberg wants more than anything, though, is love. He adores females of any age; he comes off every bit as lusty as he does witty. Any dread that his hunchback instills in him is almost eclipsed if a woman is giving him a bit of attention. Nevertheless, he knows he is repulsive. One day, though, Lichtenberg’s time comes:
Shortly thereafter, Lichtenburg wrote a letter — still preserved — to his schoolfriend, the pastor Gottfried Hieronymus Amelung (1742 – 1800). “Just imagine,” he wrote, “something has happened, all of a sudden! I’ve met a girl, a girl, a girl, a girl! — the daughter of someone in the town. [Here he was lying through his teeth, she wasn't a burgher's daughter at all, she was way below!] She is thirteen, and, I have to say, beautiful. I have never seen such a picture of beauty and gentleness. She was in a group of five or six others, doing what children do here, selling flowers up on the wall to passersby. [. . .]“
Well, said Lichtenberg, and then indeed.
Soon the little flower girl, Maria Stechard (Hofmann often calls her the Stechardess) has moved in with Lichtenberg, to Lichtenberg’s absolute joy, and he becomes a subject of gossip (as, we are assured, were many others in that day):
In Göttingen — pop. 10,000 — there were no secrets. One person yanked another around the corner, and the whispering began. Often enough, the subject was Dr. Lichtenberg and the beautiful child.
For some time, the Stechardess and Lichtenberg live together in innocence. She is an object of contemplation for him, and he is just a kind malformed man for her. Nevertheless, we know Lichtenberg’s heart, and the seduction begins. Though it is clumsy and, for all its shamefulness to us today, funny, it is an ugly moment. Here sit Lichtenberg and the Stechardess one quiet evening:
When the sun’s gone down, he said, I don’t know if you’ve observed this too, the world is changed. Even the people are different. In their houses they move closer together and speak more quietly, as though they don’t want to be heard. They sit by the stove. The old women cross themselves and sigh a lot. All because of the darkness, better termed blackness, said Lichtenberg, and the pair of them ate. He looked towards the Stechardess and had sinful thoughts, his face turning red. The Stechardess lowered her eyes. Ah yes, he said.
There’s some marvelous control and pacing in that passage. We can feel night dropping in the silence as the evening becomes much more grave for both Lichtenberg and the Stechardess. It serves to note, also, the lack of the exlamation point, used so often elsewhere. And then, in one simple paragraph, this:
Don’t hurt me, she said.
The entire book, though it is funny — and charming, don’t forget charming — throughout, contains such grave undercurrents. Lichtenberg is practically a failure and he’s already contemplating the fact that when he is swallowed up by the grave so are his memories (making his deceased parents, he thinks, truly dead). He’s already fairly certain that he has achieved nothing of note that will merit remembrance. And death is all around. Good healthy friends and students are absent the next day, death having visited them inexplicably in the night.
And Hofmann keeps the flow of time ambiguous, despite the consistent “And then?” that moves the story from one scene to the next: “It was summer again — or was it still summer?” A great book, worthy of remembrance.