Review of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann 

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann

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Review of Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann 

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is the first novel I have read from independent publishers CB Editions, and I think I can understand what the Guardian means in saying that this publisher specialises in “works which might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers”.

The British publishing scene is so dominated by commercial considerations that countless good works of fiction are ignored in favour of endless rows of celebrity biographies and other genre categories.  At least CB Editions don’t try to outdo other publishers in the garishness of their covers – I find the minimalist jacket design refreshing, if perhaps making one think of “brown paper covers” from 1950s Soho bookshops (no, I wasn’t there!).

I’d never heard of this book before reading John Self’s and Mark Thwaite’s reviews, but evidently its author, Gert Hofmann, is a quite well-known German writer, although with a rather sparse Wikipedia entry.  The book is translated by his son Michael, who has an impressive bibliography of published works.  Michael Hofmann provides a very useful Afterword to this novel, and I wish in some ways I’d read it first, because it explains something of his father’s writing style. 

Apparently Gert Hofmann’s first successes were in writing radio plays, and then when he had a stroke at age 57 he began to write his novels in a much more direct, speech-based style, heavily based on dialogue with random interjections and diversions.  The resultant liveliness of the writing is quite unique and gives this novel a freshness and directness which I for one found quite beguiling.

The novel imagines scenes from the life of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist, scribbler and Anglophile, who takes a new housekeeper into his home (the erstwhile “little flower girl”).  We are treated to a lengthy introduction to the life of Lictenburg by means of several cameo portraits from his daily life in the university city of Gottingen. 

He walks to the library with a friend and lectures to students at the univerity.  He digresses about his hunchback and wonders if it is growing bigger, while local people ask if they can touch it to bring them luck.  On returning home he conducts scientific experiments into the nature of electricity. 

We are treated to his inmost thoughts as he jots down in his “waste book”, some of the many aphorisms for which he was famous.  Lichtenberg is full of what might be called “character”, and Gert Hofmann perfectly captures the hopping about of this agile mind which takes an equal interest in everything that comes its way, whether trivial or profound.

But Lichtenberg is love-sick (or rather sick through the absence of love in his life).  Women take an interest in him and are amused by him, but he feels that it is for his curiosity value rather than for any romantic reasons.  His hunchback does not deter him from trying to find love, but somehow he is not taken seriously. 

He thinks about women intently, moving on from one to another as they occupy his non-scientific thinking time.  Soon he encounters the little flower girl, whose parents are poor and only too pleased to offer her as a sort of assistant house-keeper (much to the chagrin of his current house-keeper who does not last long under the new regime!).

The relationship flourishes, but lets get it clear, this book is in not seedy or salacious. These were very different times, and it was not unusual for young teenagers to be given in marriage (or less formal arrangements in this case!), and Hofmann is more concerned with the relationship between these two oddly matched people than their physical encounters. 

The writing is witty and ironic, and constantly surprising.  The flower girl blossoms under Lichtenberg’s tutelage, learning to read and to assist with the scientific experiments.  Lichtenberg has a child-like curiosity in the things around him and this is shared by the flower-girl who follows him around, watching his experiments and offering her assistance at every opportunity.

But it is the style of writing which makes this book sparkle.  English speakers without facility in German cannot verify for themselves whether Hofmann has created an accurate picture of Lichtenberg, but nevertheless, the picture is entirely credible.  Hofmann’s lightness of touch has some of the qualities of a fairy-tale (as Mark Thwaite points out in his review).

I enjoyed reading about 18th century science, its eclecticism and its amateurism.  The wide range of topics covered by Lichtenberg is impressive, despite his special interest in electricity.  Scientists were not specialised as they are today, and took an interest in the whole of the natural world, while throwing in a bit of philosophy too.  In Lichtenberg this resulted in a vast collection of aphorisms, not alas currently published in an English translation.

I am grateful to CB Editions for publishing this fine novel. In some ways it reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge’s much under-rated book According to Queeney, which provides similar fictional but well-researched insights into the life of Samuel Johnston.  In the words of booksellers the world over, if you enjoyed this then you’ll enjoy that!

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