Then a book comes along that’s filled with such vital, remarkable prose, that it reminds you what fiction is capable of. Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is such a book, an explosion of language that leaves the reader wondering, as the publisher might say, How did he do that? This is the kind of prose that makes you want to get up and run around the room, and it’s another feather in the cap of CB Editions, who’ve finally given it a UK publication.
Originally published in Germany in 1994, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is Gert Hofmann’s final book, and like the two before it, has been translated by his son Michael Hofmann, who also contributes an afterword to this edition.
The story is a fictional account of (eighteenth century German scientist) Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s love affair with Maria Stechard, who is thirteen when they first meet. As a result of both the subject matter and Hofmann’s playful use of language, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl has drawn comparisons with Lolita. A difference though is that in Lichtenberg’s time, this kind of relationship wouldn’t have been so unusual. So, where Lolita is a study of morality and self-deceit and voice, Hofmann’s focus here is much more on the voices: throughout the novel, the author’s voice, Lichtenberg’s, the flower girl’s, and those of the people around them, all flow together, intertwining and providing context for each other.
People as far away as Osnabrück now knew “what went on” in Lichtenberg’s quiet house. They just expressed it in different ways. They talked about how he and the girl “were doing it together” or “shared beddy-byes,” “went snogging and licking each other,” that “they ate out of each other’s hands,” etc. At the university, everyone stared at him. The looks he got! When he had gone past with his stack of books, they shook their heads. Then they winked at each other and sucked their teeth: tsk tsk tsk! There wasn’t much left of the sympathy he had once enjoyed as a cripple. The men were envious of him and asked: Wonder how he managed to catch her? or: Did he make her climb up on his hump, the little chit! He’s got to have something!
Yes, said someone else, and I know where he keeps it too!
If you’re talking about what he’s got between his legs, well I’ve got one of those as well!
Me too, said a third.
The momentum keeps up throughout the book: ideas and speech tumble over each other. The language on every page is alive and fluid and gripping.
Perhaps this style was partly a result of the fact that Hofmann, who had suffered a stroke, was no longer able to read at this point: his wife would read his writing back to him and he would edit it orally. It’s easy to believe that this prose was edited with the tongue rather than the eyes, but I’d need to read Hofmann’s other work to find out whether this is specific to his later work, or whether the fascination with voices was always there.
It’s not often that I quote Wikipedia, but this epitaph is taken from the entry for Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Lichtenberg was prone to procrastination. He failed to launch the first ever hydrogen balloon, and although he always dreamed of writing a novel à la Fielding’s Tom Jones, he never finished more than a few pages. He died at the age of 56, after a short illness.