Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann


At Work

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game.

Also, it’s not about extent, never about extent, not about numbers or range or choice. It’s not a supermarket. You can’t roam around, and read x on one day, and a the second, and b the third, not if you have taste and take it with you everywhere. It’s a condition of poetry that you can’t read everyone. What is it Lowell’s Harriet says— “You can’t love everyone—your heart won’t let you.”

It’s about depth, and what you find in it. The question isn’t, Who would I like to read now for the first time? It’s, I have these six poets. I must have read them all a hundred times. They’re just about all I read—it’s years since I read anyone else. Which of them do I feel like reading for the hundred-and-first?

Whose books do you wait for? That’s the question. Precious few. I’m not a generalist or a charity. Who interests me? Seidel, Paulin, Solie.

Precious few.

I think there’s always been an element of absence for me, of what’s not there. The first thing I heard about Lowell, at a time when I was still mispronouncing his name, was that he had just died. In England, the great poets from the seventies and eighties were literally over the water—they were the Northern Irish pleiade of Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Paulin, Muldoon. I read German poets, but without being in Germany when I did. Who was the greatest poet in America in the seventies and eighties? Joseph Brodsky. The spark has to fly, or is the better for flying.

And then there’s what one imports into poetry—from novels, from biographies, from films, from paintings, from other, acute cultural references. For a long time, I don’t think I made up a single title of my own. They were all “borrowed.” Poetry grows on all kinds of rubbish, as Akhmatova says. Whereas the kind of hydroponic poetry that sustains itself was always an object of horror and incredulity to me. A library with nothing but the poetry of the past two years—and I’ve seen them, people have them—would send me round the twist.

In an essay on Kurt Schwitters, you write that “badly heard or badly reproduced music is more moving than expensive acoustic perfection can ever be.” Is there a way to approach your philosophy of translation through that fragment?

I’m thinking of a mixture of Laforgue poems—some of the “Dimanches,” maybe?—and certain scenes in Joseph Roth, hurdy-gurdies, street musicians, public music, marching bands. Rimbaud’s “A la musique.” Rilke near the beginning of the First Elegy, the violin through the open window. But it’s true. You hear a snatch of something from a passing car, and you worry at it until you’re able to place it, or not. Those few second instrumental shifts on NPR—I’ve heard this before somewhere, what is it? And then it’s things like the Keep it with Mono side of Stiff Records. Lo-fi. People go to concert halls to show off their coughs. The unpampered ear does more. Once when I was in Michigan for a term, and didn’t have a record player, someone in Shaman Drum put on Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and I had to stay there browsing unobtrusively for the next forty minutes, feeling like a pervert. That’s music starved, that’s not bad repro. I suppose the Brit in me believes in a degree of adversity. The less than ideal. Bad weather. The ideal is often only sterile.

As for the connection to translating, I can’t offer you consistency there—or necessarily anywhere else for that matter. I think Brodsky would have gone for that, and maybe Nabokov as well. Something not slick, something that betrays its noble difficulties, something that has an accent, so to speak. It’s the loyalty of exile, to the past, the other, the original … It’s a pleasing idea, a lovely idea, but you wouldn’t want to be the party responsible for the awkward rendition. Or I wouldn’t, anyway. I have a different imperative. The need to “pass.” The desire to make something near autonomous, deceiving, and of high quality—in English. The translation as immigrant.

hofmann where have you been coverDo you think a faithful translation can be more moving than the original?

Yes, I do. It would be like something sung by a different voice or played by a different instrument. But it’d be perfectly possible for slovenly up-and-down English to offer a better home to some foreign text than the foreign language in question. And variations of the above. We had a lovely intellectual schoolmaster who told us he thought Proust was better in the Scott Moncrieff—and that not from ignorance or monolingualism. Scandalous!

You don’t own a TV and “don’t really approve of seeing films except in cinemas.” Writing about The Passenger, you describe a specific shot but note that you might have inserted a Vespa where there wasn’t one. It would have been easy enough to pull up the scene and confirm your hunch, but you chose not to.

I think that’s—paradoxically—a question of manners or acculturation. Too positive or definitive a reference, something too categorical, would just sound bossy to my fey British ear … It feels courteous to leave some room for error or inaccuracy—which I’m going to need anyway! It’s difficult—I’m too old to rely on my memory, and far too old to have adapted to Google’s exomemory facility. I like the chiaroscuro of a little measure of uncertainty. Is there a Vespa? I think there might be. It would be good if there were one. Maybe not.

You’re condemned to permanent rereading anyway. You can do mathematics on a blank sheet of paper. For literature—criticism—you need a full one. (Unless you’re Auerbach, who had memorized the texts he wrote about.) I have a memory that reduces a poem to three or four discrete lines or half lines. Greatest Hits, and nothing over ten seconds. Maybe that’s why I like Lowell so—he looks particularly good like that. Some people’s memories are like abundantly furnished rooms. Mine is liked a half-wrecked carpenter’s shop.

As you worked on the arrangement of these essays, did they communicate with each other in ways you hadn’t expected?

Yes, in a kind of call-and-echo. It may appear to be negatively conditioned—a narrowness of reference—and I’d have to accept that, except that there’s also a perfectly reckless and deliberate cross-referring. Take the end of the last piece, on Robert Walser. There’s a reference to a line from another one of my subjects, John Berryman—“The Bach-Gesellschaft girdles the world.” Now, I could quite easily have left that out, and it would probably have had the effect of making me seem even more learned, but I wanted to leave it in. The book doesn’t have an index, but I’d be surprised if there are many people or works that appear in it just once. So the effect is something like that of a carousel or a big wheel. “Und dann und wann ein weisser Elefant!” the Rilke line. It’s an Ark or a biotope. “Meet my critters.”

This is a complicated, essential, idea—“I translate to try to amount to something … To repair a deficit of literature in my life.” What do you mean?

That goes back to a feeling of inadequacy I’ve had really forever, since I got my first copy of my first book of poems in my hands, and it felt like an airmail letter. If I flipped it up in the air, I thought it might never come back to me. My father was a novelist, so it’s bred into my fingers to expect a little more heft from a book, something a little thicker in the way of a spine. If Kafka hadn’t said it, then I would say it—“literature, from which, or out of which I am composed.” Perhaps I’ll say it anyway, echoing Kafka. When my father’s first book appeared, I was twenty-one or so. I called it his firstborn, in a poem written not long after. We defer to print, where I’m from. Quite soon, I’ll be like that Arcimboldo painting, all book.

Jack Livings is the author of a collection of stories, The Dog, published earlier this year. The title story originally appeared in The Paris Review, where he has also published interviews with Tobias Wolff and Salman Rushdie.