Yoel Hoffmann
Curriculum Vitae
translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole
New Directions, 2009
reviewed by Cooper Renner

Most narratives--novels, biographies, histories--flow like symphonic music or water, an inexorable connection of cause to effect to cause, the logical linking of one moment in human life to the next. But consciousness--the awareness of what one is doing, the active engagement of thought--is more like the series of stepping stones that crosses a creek, discrete points of solidity in a flux which may be transparent but is still an indistinguishable, unpremeditated propulsion. Hoffmann's fictionalized memoir Curriculum Vitae moves like consciousness, catching the import of a life through brief flashes of epiphany and true wakefulness. Observe how easily and accurately he can evoke male sexual awakening within its schoolboy milieu:

In the bathrooms, members were compared. Everything (houses, trees, street signs) made us think of girls. By the power of this eroticism, books read themselves.
As in the world of non-Euclidian geometry things came together. All inclined, as in a convex mirror, toward women's panties.

The tone is wry, the comedy neither cruel nor dismissive, and the 'sense' entirely on target. And he can just as succinctly summon up a weightier subject, the omnipresence of death, from a comment on pronunciation:

People say I was born, but they don't enunciate the "n" as they should. One has to fold in the lips with a death-like movement.

Such concision and the sometimes oblique approach recall not only the parables of Jewish tradition but also Hoffmann's study of Japanese poetry and Buddhism:

We went to the Japanese monk (next to Augusta Victoria Hospital) and spoke with him about space and time. Time does not exist, he said, waving a hand that bore a watch.

Life both ordinary (birth, death, marriage, family) and not-so-ordinary (study in Japan, commemoration of the Holocaust) is at the heart of these tiny chapters, most about a page long, but what is not ordinary is the intelligence of the narrator, the observant eye, the cogitating mind: the ability to select the precise incident which opens out into lyric universality. There is also a kind of sympathy of method with the novels of Ken Sparling of Canada, whose investigations of family life are likewise constructed in telling snippets, individually quite brief but coalescing as the reader progresses through the pages into an impressive and unified whole.
Curriculum Vitae can be read quickly, belying its emotional weight, and the inclusion of some thirty squiggle-style illustrations by the author enhances both the wryness and the Zen-like sensibility. Surely this book, like very few others of the past decade, will take its place alongside the classics.