Sunday, 6 January 2013

CBe 2013 1 / The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann

Hofmann’s last collection of new poems was fourteen years ago; his Selected from Faber, five years ago, included a sparse handful of new poems, departure a thread in those. He lives now in the US. It’s possible that for most writers and readers under my own age he’s hearsay, a rumour, despite the flood of prose translations: Joseph Roth, conspicuously, but also, in the past couple of years alone, Grünbein, Stamm, Wasserman, Fallada, Remarque, Döblin, Jungk. Who? Exactly. If Hofmann’s name does come up, as often as not it’s in the conflict arena that the vultures, the culture ones not least, zero in on: his dissing of Sebald, of Stefan Zweig, of the new translations of Zbigniew Herbert. (A colleague in my Faber days once took a taxi with a chatty driver who asked what she did, where she worked, and she mentioned Ted Hughes and he said, Oh, yes, the guy whose wife stuck her head in the oven. Between talent and what you’re known for there’s no simple correlation.)

Checking the quotes in Palm Beach against the texts, I opened my copy of Hofmann’s first book, Nights in the Iron Hotel, and a compliment slip slipped out: ‘Review copy / Faber paperback £4.00 / publication date 7 November 1983.’ Sent to me by Alan Ross of the London Magazine, and I did review it. Almost yesterday, it feels. In any generation, there are no more than two or three that at a personal level really count, half a dozen if you’re feeling generous, no matter how wide the net’s cast, how various the routes to publication, and for many in my generation Hofmann has occupied one of those places ever since then. When André N-S and Julian S, who had the nous to get this book together, came to me and suggested it for CBe I didn’t need to think twice.

There are forty contributors to The Palm Beach Effect (the Contents page and the editors’ prefaces are included in the downloadable extract on the website page): some younger than me, some older; and from Germany and the US as well as the UK. There are memoirs of how it used to be (‘I was employed as one of half a dozen in-house readers at Jonathan Cape ... and it seemed to be understood that we would spend as much time keeping up with our literary pals as we did reading manuscripts’); some lit crit (David Wheatley, Mark Ford, Tessa Hadley, others); poems (Sarah Maguire, Frederick Seidel, Durs Grünbein, others); and also – and for UK readers here is a new window opening – there’s first-hand testimony from students who have been taught by Hofmann in Florida (‘He didn’t lecture, had only the most modest sense of authority in the classroom, often winged it (sometimes to brilliant effect, other times not) and sometimes struggled on the spot ... He assigned us novels in poetry workshops, rarely made formal syllabi ... His genius was widely recognized; he was fun-loving, kind, always went for a drink after workshop, had an ever-open door ...)’. The silences are in there too; Hofmann has a reputation for being difficult to talk to, for not doing small talk (actually he does, if not in the standard English register); but what abounds in this book is an abiding affection for the man.

Included in The Palm Beach Effect is a fine essay on Hofmann and ‘confessional poetry’ by Dennis O’Driscoll, whose untimely death cast a shadow over the Christmas period. I barely knew him, but we emailed about this and other books and, like others who knew him better and who have spoken in recent weeks, I felt his generosity and the uplift he gave you by his immediate trust that what you were doing was worth doing, that it mattered. These things are rare.

Months ago, I wrote on the AI sheet for this book that ‘The intention of this collection of essays, poems and reflections ... is both to celebrate the man and his work and and to reaffirm his central place in contemporary literature.’ Blurbspeak, and the word central needs some teasing out. He doesn’t do consensus (can you imagine Hofmann being Poet Laureate? or the go-to man for a soundbite on the state of the nation / contemporary poetry / translation even?). There’s something bygone-era about the man: learned in an auto-didact kind of way, opinionated, bookish (not ebookish), uncompromising, Russian-revolutionary, ‘superfluous man’, eternal student. I’m romanticising here, idealising, a bit (it’s a thing we do, about writers whose work is important to us), but the particular angle at which Hofmann operates in relation to home-grown UK culture feels important. I’m not backing away an inch from the word celebrate.

1 comment:

JRSM said...

I'm definitely getting this one.

"Hofmann has a reputation for being difficult to talk to..."

I once wrote him a fan email, overcome with thankfulness for all the amazing books he'd translated, and he was a very kind and polite man in his responses.