by Yoel Hoffmann (2007)
translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole (2009)
New Directions (2009)
When I got this title in the mail I had no idea what to expect, but it sure looked intriguing. I know nothing about Hebrew literature, though earlier this year there was an excellent short story translated from Hebrew published in the New Yorker. The cover of Curriculum Vitae is excellent, I think. Throughout the book, Hoffmann has illustrated passages with simple yet remarkable line sketches, and they adorn this cover. Seeing the pages populated by those drawings made the book even more compelling.
What I found alongside those drawings was a very strange little book. Hoffmann has written an elusive memoir/novel in tiny episodes that span his life — from his early days in Palestine to his two marriages to his fascination with Japanese Buddhism. The life sketches remark on the big moments and on the banal ones. Together, the discussion of these moments give a nice feel:
In those days, Van Gogh’s picture of boats on the shore hung on everyone’s wall. Bus drivers earned more than ministers, and civil servants, literally, kicked the citizens around. The sun was formed from thousands of colorful pieces of cloth at the Lodzia factory.
My father’s father, Isaac Emerich, rose to the heavens on invisible stairs and took a seat there at a weightless café. On the earth’s surface, his widow, my grandmother Emma, bought herself a new coat.
At times the episodes seem random and even pointless: “A woman named Mina Katznelson, from Kibbutz Kinneret, sold me five beehives.” Such sentences are common, and often they are followed by a similarly random tidbit from Hoffmann’s life that seems to have no significance other than the fact that it’s one of his memories. While the randomness could get tedious, the purpose shines through. For example, after the above sentence about the beehives we get this nice rumination:
I put the hives in five wooden boxes and placed the boxes in an open field near the village of Gush Halav.
The bees, which clearly had heard of onomatopoeia, buzzed ceaselessly. Sometimes they gathered near the entrance to the box like Jews in front of a synagogue on the high holy days.
Some of them found (by means of color, thus confirming Carnap’s theory) distant fields of wildflowers, and they returned to the box and called the others toward those fields.
The heart can’t bear these words (“distant fields”).
Stairwells make us weep. And small kitchens. Sometimes you see a fork and you just want to die.
There is no limit to the beauty of things. Stooped people. Trees. All sorts of things in the courtyard (an old motorbike, for instance).
I remember a man crossing the waiting room at the train station.
After a nice passage like that, I was less skeptical about Hoffman’s purpose in putting into words his treasured memories.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the integration of “what is fiction” into the memoir. Hoffman is not simply discussing his life; he is also interested in this account of his life: how it affects his readers, what it says about him, how it transforms experience into bit-sized tidbits, and — most intriguing to me — how his fragile memories bear the risk of becoming banal when put into words. He recognizes that this account will not give us readers a correct vision of his life.
I say thank you to the dear souls who have bound themselves to my life and send them forth from literature into the deep regions of the heart that it — art — cannot enter.
If I were able (by means of a deeper covenant than that which exists between author and reader) to fall on people’s necks and say to them Come, let’s sit while the tea is steeping, then drink, and you’ll tell me about your lives and I will tell of mine, I’d toss this manuscript into the trash and do precisely that. In such a world the law would forbid the making of fiction.
Interestingly, at the same time he seems to want to connect with his readers, he purposefully hides things from us, most likely because putting them on paper and spreading them to the world makes them less special. We know that some of the characters in the novel are not real — or, at least, they are not given their real name. His reasoning for doing this actually gives this book its emotional weight. It’s there that I connected to his story. It’s there that I connected to him; when we read these passages, the abstract Mr. Hoffman, whose sometimes trivial life moments are streaming past us, becomes someone we relate to at the very same time that he is hiding from us:
Life is a sacred gift and literature a profane one. If my first wife had brought a catfish up on her hook, and the catfish had crawled across the ground and gotten under her dress, then the catfish and dress would be here now. But not the woman within the dress. I won’t condemn her to a life on paper.
Since I’m still trying to work out how I felt about the book as a whole, I’ll leave these passages and thoughts for you without giving any sense of a final verdict. It pleased me and touched me frequently, but it also became at times tedious and at times fleeting. My memory of those parts are fading quickly, though — what stays is the feeling of reverence for the beauty of life — even when it is tedious or fleeting — and that was conveyed nicely, perhaps even perfectly.