Deep language, the “silver” figures of literature, and reader as pit canary.
My first dealings with Michael Hofmann were professional—or should have been. The publishing house I work for was printing one of his translations, and so I wrote to introduce myself.
What started formally—“Dear Mr. Hofmann”—quickly devolved into an embarrassingly ingratiating letter, in part detailing my love for his recent translation of Durs Grünbein's Ashes for Breakfast, but also asking him for any reading recommendations. I’m not entirely sure what I expected back from someone who has established himself as the preeminent translator of German literature, not to mention a brilliant critic and poet. Even a selected résumé of Hofmann’s work is formidable: translations of Joseph Roth, Gottfried Benn, Franz Kafka, Peter Stamm, Wim Wenders, Wolfgang Koeppen; six collections of poems; decades of writing for the London Review of Books. I received in return a modest email of thanks. And a PS: “Have you read any Penelope Fitzgerald?”
While Hofmann is certainly best known as a translator here in the United States, his reviews in the LRB confirm that his criticism is some of the most incisive and beautifully composed in contemporary literature. At times incendiary and seemingly ruthless in his critiques—his now infamous takedown of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig goes so far to describe Zweig’s suicide note as boring and reading “more like an Oscar acceptance speech”—Hofmann’s criticism is unpredictable, informed, personal, sensitive to inscrutability.[ Read More ]