Sunday, 19 April 2009

‘Whoever has two pairs of pants . . .’

Ever since the Hofmann (père et fils) Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl I’ve been looking out for L’s aphorisms, without going quite so far as to order a copy; and then the other day there they were, in the second-hand bookstore in Gloucester Road – not the Penguin Classics translation but the 1969 Cape Editions one, a single copy, with my name figuratively already on it.

The aphorisms are sceptical, funny, beguiling; some appear unfinished, half-formed, so that one sees the mind in the process of thinking; after reading them it becomes even harder to tell where the real Lichtenberg ends and his reincarnation in Gert Hofmann’s novel begins. ‘To become wiser means to become acquainted with the errors to which this instrument with which we perceive and judge can be subject.’ ‘Everyone should study at least enough philosophy and belles lettres to make his sexual experience more delectable.’ ‘Health is infectious.’ Among them are simple observations, jotted down as the phrase occurred to him: ‘It rained so hard that all the pigs got clean and all the people dirty.’ ‘The room was quite empty except for a bit of second-hand sunshine which lay on the floor.’ ‘He loved pepper and zig-zag lines.’

The Cape edition comes with an introduction made up of L’s writings on himself, most of them in the third person. ‘His body is so constituted that even a bad draughtsman working in the dark would be able to draw it better . . . He will for ever revere gaiety and lightheartedness as those qualities of his soul which procured for him the most joyful hours of his life . . . He had names for his two slippers.’

And it has letters too – about a trip to London, about pumpernickel and girls, a sea voyage, a thunderstorm, a house on fire, the good life. This from a letter to a godchild: ‘When you begin to walk, I, of course, allow you to fall down, for a regular boy falls at least three times a day. But just don’t fall on your so-called pate, for that God gave you to write compendia; and not on your nose, for that serves to set spectacles on. Rather you will soon find that Nature equipped you in the middle of your body (NB, towards the rear) with two cushions, which are called buttocks’ – and there follows a mock-instructive analysis of the four principle uses of the buttocks.

The selection includes two letters written to friends in the days following the death of the Stechardess, ‘after living seventeen years and thirty-nine days’, the Little Flower Girl of the Hofmann book, which CBe published in October last year. In L’s words: ‘Whoever has two pairs of pants, sell one and buy this book.’

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