Quick Takes:
Yoel Hoffmann, Joseph Roth, Hans Fallada, J. L. Carr

Cooper Renner

What a reader most likely notices first in coming to Israeli novelist Yoel Hoffmann is his dominant narrative method: sequences of tiny chapters, often themselves divided into smaller sections. The Christ of Fish (1991), for example, has 233 chapters in its 140 or so pages; most of the 38 chapters (about 100 pages) of The Shunra and the Schmetterling (2002) contain 3 or 4 lettered subdivisions. Hoffmann is notably adept at approaching the world via child narrators which not only lends a certain sort of innocence to what is being seen and told, but also brings a simplicity of tone which belies the seriousness of what often lies beneath.

My father Andreas has a kettle of his own, and he steeps tea -- though his room turns (through the power of Bruckner's music) into a valley of vision.
The wood of the crucifixion is there and there too is Pontius Pilate, and among the rabble the apostles as well
. (The Shunra and the Schmetterling, 13.b)

Even when Hoffmann's narrator ages as the text advances, as with The Christ of Fish, the thing-in-itself reportage continues, although the narration might be of internal states or surrealistic occurrences:

I remember lightning struck the tip of his walking stick. There was rain and a kind of orange light. Bright. Herr Doktor Staub was alarmed for a moment (you might call it "The Alarm Felt by Herr Doktor Staub on Seeing Sparks of Fire") and said, "There's electricity in the air." (The Christ of Fish, ch. 197)

Reading Hoffmann, one is translated both to another time and place, whether Nazi Germany (The Book of Joseph) or 1950s Tel Aviv, and to another way of seeing, one not at all like the mundane accounting of urban and suburban lives so common to our own fiction.


Joseph Roth, who was born in the Habsburg Empire when Franz Josef was still Austro-Hungarian emperor and died in Paris as Europe was falling into World War II, employs a much more traditional narrative style than Hoffmann, but is an equally acute recorder of his vision.

Alas, I often remembered how the stars and planets, sons and daughters of the night, had of their own free will stooped down above Vienna to lend her their light and to draw their silver across the nights of my youth. In those days the streetwalkers on the Kärtnerstrasse wore coats down to their ankles. When it rained these delicious creatures would tuck up their clothes about them and I would see their exciting button boots. (The Emperor's Tomb, p. 75; 1938)

One of the things I find most striking in Roth is his skill in creating incisive novels which look without blinking into tragedy coming into being right in front of him. Right and Left (1929) is the tale of two brothers during the rise of Fascism in the '20s; The Silent Prophet (1929; 1966) is a fictionalized look at Trotsky and the Russian Revolution, written while Trotsky was still alive and featuring a thoroughly unpleasant version of Stalin.


Hans Fallada survived World War II, though by less than 2 years, and Every Man Dies Alone (1947), written shortly before Fallada's death, is the heart-breaking tale of a Berlin couple who make the decision, after their soldier son's death in the invasion of France, to protest what Hitler is doing to the German people. Over the next few years, they produce and distribute a series of handwritten post cards with "treasonous" messages, while the police try to discover the cards' source. The book concerns itself mostly with their daily lives, and the lives of their relatives and acquaintances, but Fallada's skill as a storyteller and the doom that hangs over their heads if caught make a page-turning read that is hard to put down.

Wolf Among Wolves, first published before World War II, is set during the runaway and impoverishing inflation of Weimar Germany in the years immediately after World War I. Its central tale is that of the slow coming of age of a young ex-soldier and not-quite-casual gambler when one of his former superior officers gives him the chance to become responsible. Here too, as in Roth's work, one sees the ominous beginnings of the coming Fascist takeover.


J. L. Carr's elegaic A Month in the Country (1980) shares a time period with Wolf, but little else. Its narrator is a shell-shocked English soldier trying to put his life back together after World War I ends and his wife leaves him, and to resume his career as an art restorationist. During his month in the country, he works slowly and surely uncovering and preserving a centuries-old mural in a rural church while living in the church's bell-tower. He is also subtly integrated into community life by the quiet but persistent locals who reach out to him, and soothed and heartened by a short-term friendship with another "outsider" ex-soldier during small-scale archaeological work just outside the church's cemetery walls. Soft-spoken and narrowly focused, Month is nevertheless a minor masterpiece of sorts which I have read three or four times over the past decade.

Yoel Hoffmann: The Christ of Fish (New Directions, 1999); The Shunra and the Schmetterling (New Directions, 2004)
Joseph Roth: The Emperor's Tomb (Overlook, 2002); The Silent Prophet (Overlook, 2003); Right and Left (Overlook, 2004)
Hans Fallada: Every Man Dies Alone (Melville House, 2009); Wolf Among Wolves (Melville House, 2009)
J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country (NYRB, 2000)