Friday, February 18, 2011

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann


Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl has been sitting on my to-read pile for over a year, and now that I’ve finally got round to reading it I can’t recall what attracted me to it in the first place. Lichtenberg, of course, is a real person, an eighteenth-century German, very much a man of reason, a multi-faceted scientist and intellectual typical of the period. Today, he is best known for his witty aphorisms, but he was a fascinating character. He was a hunchback and dwarf, given to massive hypochondria, and well enough connected to be invited from Germany to England to stay in the court of King George (another German, of course).

Gert Hofmann’s last novel (he died in 1993, shortly after completing it) is a fictionalised account of Lichtenberg’s relationship with a very young girl, thirteen when they first met and when her parents agree for her to move in with him. At the time, Lichtenberg is thirty-five (though vanity impels him to claim he is thirty-three). He begins a slow courtship of this child, too young even to have breasts worth speaking of. Thus, we have what, on the face of it, seems to be unpromising territory, certainly in modern Britain where hysteria about child sex abuse has reached such a pitch paediatricians get beaten up by mobs who confuse the job title with the term paedophile. But this is a beautiful book, quiet and tender, very funny and desperately sad. The Lichtenberg who emerges from these pages is a tortuted, sensitive soul in search of love and companionship. And, improbably though it may sound, in Maria Stechard, whom he calls affectionately the Stechardess, he finds it.

Much of the success of this novel is derived from the wonderful voice. It is one part Nabokov (of course, given the subject matter), one part Nietzsche (those exclamation marks!), one part Rousseau (my ailments, my woe!), one part Flannery O’Connor (some things are so serious they can only be conveyed through humour) and several parts Torgny Lindgren (the beautiful, dreamlike directness of the prose, its poetic simplicity). There is virtually no description, no backstory, no scene-setting, no pausing to wonder or hint at the motivations or the feelings of the character. What we have is story, a quiet love story unfolded in achingly lovely prose. What we have are two people who fall into one another’s companionship and seem blissfully happy to reside there. In the novel, there is much clucking and wondering from friends and neighbours about the nature of the relationship (though far less than there would be these days) but Lichtenberg remains largely oblivious. He has his books, his experiments and his little Stechardess. He is happy. And in return he gives happiness.

This is certainly an odd book. It’s no surprise that it hasn’t been picked up by a major publisher – the subject matter is too contentious in the current age. But Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is the opposite of prurient. There is nothing titillating here, nor is there anything objectionable. It’s as eccentric a read as you’re likely to find in a long time, a stylistic delight and an absolute masterclass in the use of a daring and original voice to drive the narrative.

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