Hoffman died in 1993, and his last novel (following The Film Explainer, published here in 1996), translated again by his own son, is a quietly powerful masterpiece of human charm that manages to capture the very essence of the Enlightenment in Germany.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a real person (1742–99), and here he lives all over again as a fictionalized presence—small, short, hunchbacked, eccentric, and utterly charming, a professor in Göttingen, ever-curious intellectually, well known among the international community of thinkers and scholars—and yearning for a private life of passion, fulfillment, and affection. How could a squat and ugly little hunchback ever hope for such? Well, how could it ever come about that a pretty girl of 13, Maria Dorothea Stechard, a flower-seller on the street, should move into his house and live there with him, alone, for a number of years? It hardly matters how, but that it did happen matters greatly: and readers will be intrigued indeed at the way the two live together, preternaturally shy at first, then bit by bit coming to terms with each other, and, finally, falling into love and fulfillment in a way wholly captivating in its charm and utterly lacking in any prurience whatsoever. The end that comes to this exquisite love will bring a tear to the reader’s eye, but not before much else of genuine interest takes place—lectures to students; correspondence with and sometimes visits from scientific greats of the era (“He was in contact with Bernoulli, Delalande, Maskelyne, Messier, Cassini, with Mallet in Geneva and Rumowski in St. Petersburg,” not to mention Volta, Lessing, and Blumenbach); the seriocomedy of death (“Because he had passed on, Erxleben had stopped coughing”); the wonder of teaching Maria Stechard how to read; and Lichtenberg’s endless jotting of notes large and small on the nature of life.
Brimful with love, nature, energy, and intellect: history proved on the pulse and expressed through the heart. A treasure.