The Tale-less Hoffmann
The unlettered, the overworked, the understaffed; the addled, the attention-deficient, the neurasthenic; the addicted, the simply disinclined: all those who can’t or won’t or don’t read or who, by their own or others’ estimation, don’t read enough—most of us, that is—need look no further in our search for our writer of the moment or the age than the Israeli scholar of Buddhism turned novelist-memoirist/antinovelist-protomemoirist Yoel Hoffmann, who has discovered a mode of expression as fleeting—and, now and then, as funny or sad—as experience itself. The distinguished poet Peter Cole’s translation of Hoffmann’s latest, Moods, captures the breezy despair of anecdotes overwhelmed by a sense of transience before they ever get going, a transience so refined that it makes the book unreadable in the highest terms: you read it without being able to feel that you’ve read it. This isn’t because you don’t think you’ve understood it—the sentences, conversational in tone, could hardly be more straightforward. Nor is it because you immediately forget it—the details are so sparse that there isn’t much to remember. Instead, its resistance to the effort to retain the contents, the feeling it gives you of not having read the words you’ve passed your eyes over and made sense of, comes from a way the narration has of blocking your mental cookies, of preventing your mind from finding continuities and patterns, advancing some elements to the forefront and relegating others to the background, arranging the information provided, staging episodes . . . Moods doesn’t let you do many of the things you’re used to doing when you read and so calls for a reviewer, instead of performing the customary tasks of summary and assessment, to try to transmit an idea of a narrative method and style in which personages, places, and situations are introduced without being characterized, described, or developed. Unless you’re willing to fill in so many blanks that you might as well write a book of your own—a high-concept mad lib—you’re without the means to imagine another life, another world. It keeps you right where you are, which is just where Yoel Hoffmann wants you.
Moods isn’t the first of Hoffmann’s books to deny the reader imaginative transport, but it may push the creation of impediments to such transport closer to the narrative center than its predecessors. Novels like The Christ of Fish (1991), Bernhard (1998), and The Heart is Katmandu (2001), for example, keep returning to certain settings if only to digress from them. And Hoffmann’s other proto-memoir, the ironically titled Curriculum Vitae (2009), uses milestones in the writer’s life as the scaffolding for meditations on seemingly trivial moments that the reader is made to see as no less consequential, or no more inconsequential, than the milestones themselves. Moods on the other hand may be just what the title says it is, a book of or about the expression of moods, moods that you might say are united by or constitutive of the narrator’s—i.e. Hoffmann’s—identity. But whether you do say this or that, united or constitutive, is unimportant. It seems wrongheaded to want Moods to come to more than the sum of its parts. Its studied evanescence is incongruous with the idea of self-transcendence that the possibility of its coming to more would imply. The big question, given Hoffmann’s narrator’s anecdotal bent and his material’s apparent ripeness for telling stories about, is why not tell stories? “Ever since finishing my last book, I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one,” Moods begins. “ . . . What I see is the figure of a man descending (from the sidewalk?) five or six steps to a basement apartment, and he’s halfway there. I know it’s a love story. And maybe there’s a woman in the basement apartment. It’s probably November.” But the scene isn’t filled in, let alone completed; its details are interspersed over a couple of pages with others from what we’re told is a real memory and dropped. In fact, Hoffmann drops every story he starts. In his preference for the mystery of the untold, he may be one part Hasid and another part bodhisattva. Or he may just be the kind of alte kaker to whom every story seems, from the moment it’s conceived, too long. In any case, the short, numbered, koan-like fragments into which the narrative is broken dwell on the reluctance to tell stories to the point that it becomes not just a theme but a principle:
I could write about how the Bible that the principal gave me at the end of eighth grade saved my life (it was in the pocket of my army vest and the bullet went into it up to the Book of Nehemiah) or, how, as though in an American movie, I went to the wedding of a girl I was in love with once and at the last minute etcetera. Which is to say, a bona fide story with plot twists and intrigue and an ending cut off like a salami (to keep it modern).
Books like those have at least three-hundred-and-twenty-eight pages, and in the end mobs of people running around you like holograms.
But I can’t, because of the turquoise sunbirds.
Some of our readers are no doubt saying to themselves: At last, a real story. I wonder what will happen next.
We don’t know if we can say what will happen next. For that we’d need real inspiration, and inspiration, as we know, comes from somewhere else, like prophecy.
We could, toward the end of the book, tell about a murder, and then when the woman asks, Who killed him, the detective will answer, You.
Or we could make it a love story, and the woman will ask, And who is that woman you always dream of, and the man will answer, You.
And what then? What happens in books after they end? Then, and only then, does the true story begin. Again there’s no end. No division between different things. All the colors come at once.
We owe nothing to no one. Certainly not a story. If we like we could write a single word 7,387 times. A word is as cheap as a stick. Or we could compose our sentences along the lines of Japanese syntax (that is, from the end to the beginning). Or insist that the publisher burn the bottom edge of the book so that the reader’s hand will be blackened by the charcoaled page . . .
There’s no indication that this reluctance to tell stories is political. To object to the imaginary as a distraction from material reality is probably to believe in the priority of such a reality, and Hoffmann is too abstracted for that. The here-and-now is too close for him to the there-and-then. Nor does this reluctance appear to arise from the sense, famously described in Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” that in an age of information, stories have lost their power. On the contrary, stories seem all too powerful for him, at least potentially; the terms of his reluctance suggest inadequacy before them or a fear of telling the wrong one: “We don’t know if we can say what will happen next. For that we’d need real inspiration, and inspiration, as we know, comes from somewhere else, like prophecy.” “What happens in books after they end? Then, and only then, does the true story begin.”
Hoffmann’s own story began in Romania in 1937. In 1938, when he was one, his parents fled to Palestine, where his mother soon died. He was committed to an orphanage until his father’s remarriage. The use of the general details of an author’s biography to explain his or her work is more often than not a misuse, but Moods may be an exception. Like a cryptic religious text, it seems to call for an understanding of its prophet’s intentions. It’s tempting to see the loss of his mother and of the doomed world he was born into—the world of his first novella, “The Book of Joseph”—behind Hoffman’s embrace of Buddhism. (Before turning to writing, he was a professor of Japanese and Far Eastern Philosophy at Haifa. There are passages in Moods about his experience living at a Rinzai Zen monastery in Japan.) It’s tempting, that is, to understand the restlessness of Hoffmann’s narrative as arising from an attempt to reconcile the religions of Israel and Japan, the responsibility in Judaism to preserve the dead through the act of memory and the aspiration of the Buddhist disciple through the practice of right understanding to detach himself from the world of appearances. The attempted reconciliation would be no less than a reconciliation of opposites: Jewish attachment with Buddhist detachment, the Jewish belief in the singularity of the individual with the Buddhist typology of the will, the faculty that at least for the unenlightened is at the core of our experience of individuality. Hoffmann’s compromise in Moods is to recall the dead, his dead, but to do so without context, without characterization, without evocation, without trying to give them a decent second life on the page:
And he should see my Aunt Edith. How she fell into herself, in the wheelchair, until her mouth sank into her jaw and her jaw sank into her chest and still she said—time after time, until she died—noch (which is to say, “more”) . . . .
If we could bring Aunt Edith back, we would. Even to the time when she had to sit in a wheelchair. She’d be amazed by the sight of the Azrieli skyscraper in Tel Aviv . . . .
There was a radio repairman who was bound to us during the days when radios were made of lamps. And Uncle Zoltan, who heard the symphony’s concerts (on the radio), and Mr. Yaar, who sold shoes, and so on and so on.
That is to say, we thought they were bound to us, and they thought we were bound to them. The whole thing’s very complicated, as a post office clerk, Rahamim Kadosh . . . once said: It’s been ages since I’ve seen you, and you haven’t seen me either . . . .
What is it about contemporary literary characterization that Hoffmann wishes to avoid in his own work? It’s not what we might expect from a writer with so little apparent interest in artifice, it’s not that literary characterizations tend to be too stable, it’s not that the idiosyncrasies are sacrificed to the compositional requirement for dramatic relevance and consistency. What Hoffmann dislikes, it seems, is the aesthetic of particularity. The triumph of literary impressionism and the achievements of modernism have helped make the realization of particularity the contemporary criterion for the successful drawing of characters. The more pointedly the motions of consciousness are observed, the more minutely its processes are anatomized—the thicker the details, in short—the better the portrait is taken to be. Though Hoffmann offers no direct artistic judgment on this preference, he certainly dishonors it in the breach, and as a Buddhist he distrusts the implication that individual distinctions are all-important:
It makes little difference if one Jorge takes the place of another. If he sometimes finds there an extra child or a refrigerator of a different color, he quickly gets used to it and to the woman who, in any event, everyone calls “Jorge’s wife.”
These are the turns life takes, and it takes us here and there, sometimes in Adidas sneakers and sometimes in Crocs and the like.
These changes are easier by night, when outlines blur, and nearly every man is willing to take in nearly every woman and vice versa . . . .
And there are those who believe that movements like these (that is, who goes to whom, etc.) are scribbled in the stars, but we lift our eyes and see something else spelled out there . . . .
At night, when the supermarket closes, the cashiers go out into the street and return to their room-and-a-half beneath what’s written in the heavens—and no doubt it’s written that death will surely come, and so we shouldn’t worry so much. After all, we too are made of stardust, and there is no difference between the stuff of the stars and us.
One Jorge may be as good as the next, one cashier too for that matter; all is vanity, including identity . . . There’s wisdom in this, no doubt, and comfort in the equanimity it gives rise to. Even so, the equanimity doesn’t last long. Wise moods, it turns out, are still just moods. On the next page, after recalling a few details from his youth, Hoffmann turns against his own recollection: “What good do those memories do? They’re made of the stuff of dreams, and the stuff of dreams (as it says in the Talmud, Gittin 52) makes nothing happen.”
The Talmudic quotation brings to mind Auden’s famous statement in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen,” qualified if not disavowed just a few lines later in the poem when poetry is said to be “a way of happening, a mouth.” The pivot from an inflated aphorism to a nuanced appositive is worthy of Hoffmann. As in Auden (and Ovid) change is essential to the motion of Moods. It’s also essential to stories, of course. Stories begin in moods, you start to realize. The mood is the germ, the thing before the parts you have to make up and believe in have sprouted. In not having to be believed in, in being inaccessible to doubt, moods precede all particularity—particulars of time, place, identity . . . the whole shebang:
We’d like to leave our readers with a great gift before they move on to other books. Perhaps a character. 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 him imagination to fill in the rest.
Assume for a moment that the criminal code applied to writers as well. We would be sued for negligence and the incompletion of characters just as suits are brought against contractors.
Your honor, we’d say, but we’ve given the reader the essential quality in each case. There is no such thing, the judge would reply, the reader’s entitled to all the particulars.
Once upon a time I’d have agreed with the judge. Now I’d tell him to keep his stinkin’ particulars.
There are only stories, the commonplace holds. Maybe not even.
Moods is time well spent, all the more so for not letting you forget that you were going to spend it anyway.