Of Israeli novelist Yoel Hoffmann's delicate, unorthodox writing, several things can definitively be said. He is directly in the modernist tradition, if by a modernist we mean someone who resists following traditional ideas of narrative flow and character development. Instead, Hoffmann is fond of fracturing his tale into any number of small, delicate pieces, which are sometimes even assigned numbers.
He is also a determined miniaturist, which means that none of his books are very long, and are marked by a precise use of language, with the words often laid out on the page as if they were poetry. And his novels -- being small in size and quietly told -- lead one to believe that they are simple, uncomplicated, though this is purposely misleading. There are often passages of great beauty in each one of them that are also odd and so never yield their meaning, remaining elusive yet still seeming perfectly relevant to the "story" being told.
All of these qualities are at hand in Hoffmann's newest work, Curriculum Vitae, published by his steadfast American publisher, the estimable and always adventurous New Directions. Curriculum Vitae is billed as part novel and part memoir, but I'd challenge even Hoffmann's most devoted readers to differentiate between the fabricated and the real.
(And this book also happens to include a sampling of drawings by the author, witty little doodlings that "illustrate" the text at various points.)
Hoffmann's biography, of obvious importance here, has influenced his other half-dozen titles as well, so it's good to revisit the details. The author, who was born in Brasow, Romania, in 1937, studied at Tel Aviv University, where he earned a master's degree in philosophy in 1969. Five years later, he was granted a Ph.D. from the University of Kyoto (in conjunction with Tel Aviv U.), where he studied Buddhism.
In 1980, he published his dissertation, "The Idea of the Self: East and West," and has since published several studies on Zen and Japanese poetry, in addition to his fiction. Hoffmann, not surprisingly, teaches Eastern philosophy at the University of Haifa.
This paragraph contains keys to the author's writings and their meanings, for, in one sense or another, they have all been about "the idea of self," whether from the Eastern or the Western perspective, and depend for their underpinnings -- and some of their discursive mysteries -- on ideas drawn from the great works of Western philosophy and the teachings of Buddhism.
Curriculum Vitae is no different. The work deals in a somewhat more linear fashion than some of his past efforts with the details of Hoffmann's life: his childhood spent in pre-state Palestine; his youthful education and adolescence; the fate of his two marriages; his becoming a father; his encounter with Japanese Buddhism; his various travels; his writings; and the quirky nature of his inner life.
Because of these biographical connections, Curriculum Vitaeechoes portions of his earlier works. The Sunra and the Schmetterling chronicled an Israeli childhood with sensitivity.The Heart Is Katmandu was the story of a passionate love affair (the man's wife, not incidentally, had deserted him). AndThe Christ of Fish told of German Jews and their difficult transition to becoming Israelis.
Plot, however, has never been of much importance to Hoffmann, so a simple reduction of the books to these elements doesn't really do them justice, especially as concerns their human and literary resonances.
Curriculum Vitae, on the other hand, opens in a fairly standard biographical manner -- with facts and background -- but then wanders off in the author's standard comic and fanciful manner:
"My mother died on January 27, 1941," writes Hoffmann. "I was 31/2 years old. When I was 7 or 8, my father remarried and a little while later he asked me to call my stepmother 'Mother.'
"My stepmother -- Ursula -- worked at an institution my father sent me to. The institution's director -- Trude Tugenhaupt -- had been my stepmother's friend back in Germany, and I remember (or they told me) that Trude's husband -- Karl -- died sitting behind the wheel waiting for the light to change. ...
"The wedding, which took place at the institution, I recall only dimly. I remember that my mother (which is to say, Ursula) complained that a day before the wedding (or the night before it) 'a mouse jumped out from the blankets.' I also remember that she said, 'I made all the sandwiches by myself.' While the guests were eating the sandwiches, the child Pinhas Indyk sat (I recall) on the balcony railing and swung a scarred leg before him.
"Around that time (more or less) the event I've told of elsewhere occurred. While attendance was being taken at school (I was in the first or second grade), a dog mounted the stage and peed on the principal's leg."
Then, as is part of Hoffmann's general method, he jumps ahead in time, and we are with the unnamed central character -- the author, one imagines -- who is clearly an established writer:
"In October, Pima the shoemaker asked me: Are you writing? I don't feel inspired, I told him; I'm waiting for the rain. Me too, he said. When the rain falls, the soles start to fray.
"From time to time I write the opening of a story or a play and toss the manuscript into the waste basket. For instance:
"I see dreams. A room at the airport and (Romanian) women who are silent. Or: The hindparts of a cow in a door and the door in a field. I sing (in my dream), Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, then go blind."
There is more of this, laced with Hoffmann's surreal sense of the absurd, then we're back with the young Hoffmann, who's being sent to a new school.
And, as in all of the author's books, there are paragraphs throughout that are filled with a sort of stream-of-consciousness kind of philosophy, as in the following:
"There are things beyond belief, such as -- that the German word for 'feelings of inferiority' is Minderwertigkeitsgefühle. The earth comes from a dream and returns to that dream like my Uncle Ladislaus, who was made an honorary citizen of Ramat Gan. There was only a single asphalt road in the Ramat Gan of 1937, and he rode a donkey he'd received from the General Union of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel to his patients' homes. Also amazing, for instance is that in Russian (or Polish) the word for God is Bóg."
As in the earlier works by this least "Israeli" of Israeli writers, these bits and pieces of polished writing -- like small, well-crafted gems -- form a mosaic and give one a full portrait of a certain kind of existence that, though seen from a minimalist point of view, also manages to resonate with the larger issues of life.