Saturday 5 November 2022


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Veilchenfeld by Gert Hofmann (translated by Eric Mace-Tessler)   {Reviewed by THOMAS}

“One understands only what one expects, says Father.” Through the perspective of a young boy in a small town, Gert Hofmann’s pitch-perfect novel tells of the gradual, sure and awful destruction of a Professor Veilchenfeld, who comes to live in the town after (we deduce) his expulsion from a university position. Hofmann is careful to limit the narrative to what the boy knows, learns and asks, and the answers he gets from his parents — answers progressively unable to encompass or explain the situation. Although the novel does not contain the words ‘Jew’ or ‘Nazi’, but narrates the abuses heaped upon Veilchenfeld directly as the actions of persons upon another person — Hofmann provides no buffer of abstraction or identity to Veilchenfeld’s miserable fate (the abusers, after all, are the ones motivated by identity) — the novel, evidently set in the years preceding World War 2, gives subtle and devastating insight into how an attrition of civility in German society in the 1930s prepared it to both tolerate and perpetrate the Holocaust. The change in society is seen as a loss, a narrowing, a degradation, a stupification; the abusers themselves seem helpless and perplexed even at the height of their abuse. Fascism is the opposite of thought. For others, what cannot be accepted is erased from awareness. “What one does not absolutely have to know, one can also live without knowing,” says Father. What begins as some surreptitious stone-throwing and more general avoidance escalates over the three-year period of the book into community-sanctioned violence and brazen cruelty. As Hofmann shows well, degradation also degrades the degraders, for which the degraders hate their victim still more and therefore subject them to yet greater degradation — thereby degrading themselves still more and hating the victim still more in a cycle that quickly becomes extreme. Veilchenfeld applies to leave Germany but has his passport torn up and his citizenship revoked by an official at the town hall. Ultimately, his abjection cannot be borne; he hides in his apartment, despairs, loses the will to live, awaits his ‘relocation’. Eventually even the narrator’s father, Veilchenfeld’s doctor, sees death as the only solution. For the degraded degraders, though, there is no such simple release from the degradation they have wrought, only further escalation. “Reality is a gruesome rumour,” says Father. Towards the end of the book the townsfolk hold — for the first time ever — a unifying and nationalistic ‘traditional folk festival’, with the children grouped into different cohorts supposedly emblematic of aspects of the town’s heritage (though nobody actually recognises the supposed woodsman’s costume the narrator is issued to wear). This ludicrous festival is an innovation, a lie, emotive quicksand; all Fascism is retrospective folk fantasy, fraudulent nostalgia, a mental weakness, a sentimental longing to return to an imagined but non-existent past. Hofmann was the age of the narrator in the period described and was later concerned at the ongoing relevance of what happened then. History is a good teacher, Herr Veilchenfeld says, but, time and again, we are proven to be very poor students. 

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