The Feeling of Things Past

Yoel Hoffmann, trans. Peter Cole, Moods

New Directions, 160pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780811223829

reviewed by Dustin Illingworth

In Proustian literature, memory is marshalled as a form of aesthetic seduction. The product of that most fundamental of human propensities – to recall, to remember – is imbued with an authenticity that belies its construction as the reader, beguiled, begins to conceive of remembrance itself as a kind of latent narrative model: behold, the novel of the mind. The history of the memory novel – as a site of revelation, of credible experience, of transformative pain – is as rich as anything in letters. De rigueur in much of literary modernism, memory became the de facto engine of high-minded literature in the early 20th century, a way to parse the incomprehensibility of history by virtue of a single soul’s lucid summoning, the instrument with which serious novelistic ambition was pursued and expressed. It took the detachment and interrogation of the avant-garde at the edge of literature – Barth and Gass and Markson, among others – to expose the faultiness of this supposition. In eroding the credibility of memory, the postmodern masters returned it to what is perhaps its proper literary purview: the most powerful and affecting fiction possible – but, admittedly, fiction just the same. Moods, the new work from Israeli author Yoel Hoffmann, examines life as a phenomenon of memory’s fictive possibilities and fragmented digressions, a process wherein grace is discovered as a product of 'the feeling of things past.'

Composed of just under 200 brief poetic sketches, Moods guides the reader through an impressionistic re-imagining of a man’s life in the district of Ramat Dan in Tel Aviv. But no easy passage, this. Hoffmann, translated here with grace and humour by Peter Cole, challenges narrative through-lines, dissolving cosmic significances within pockets of almost unbearable intimacy. Early on the narrator, also named Yoel Hoffmann, calls the text ‘a book of states of mind,’ and if this is partially true, it is also an obfuscation, an evasion. Like much of Hoffmann's work, Moods defies easy categorisation; as neither novel nor poem nor memoir, it is perhaps best described as a hymn, a literary ceremony in service to what Hoffman calls 'the beautiful things.'

Much of the joy and pain of reading Hoffmann is discovering what these things are and why, exactly, he finds them beautiful. They are wonderfully varied and, in Moods’ vignette form, endlessly meditative, transforming the inwardness of memory into something luminously aphoristic. There is a list of things that break the heart: ‘An old door...One-eyed cats….The stairwells of old buildings...A small boy on his way to school...and when a person we love disappears.’ There are asides that cast aspersions on the ability of science to satisfactorily articulate our experience: 'It’s hard to say that Charles Darwin explained the world. The changing seasons. Day and night. The light that falls on an eel. The ends of words. A corridor.' There are explorations of the imponderable scale of loss and lack: 'We’ve heard that physicists are searching for a tiny particle that they can’t find and therefore they’ve built an enormous tunnel in Switzerland...Happy are people who lack only a tiny particle.' The mood is often quietly elegiac; however, a vein of warmth and a generous, if often absurd, humour sustains and revitalises Hoffmann’s koans.

Hoffmann, too, remains fascinated by the intensity of the ordinary, balancing the weightier passages with a genuine affection for and interest in life’s more prosaic expressions. Much is made of lists, classifications, manuals, as if only in these dusty bureaucratic texts can we find a tidying up of life’s many painful loose ends. Some struck me as Perecian: 'We don’t want to write (like the mystics) things that give off a whiff of sanctimony. We’re trying to write a kind of train schedule. Or an owner’s manual. The sort of thing they distribute with appliances.' Others locate a sort of communal redemption within the pages of our most banal indices: 'In spite of everything, the world renews itself. Phone books, for instance. Countless men and women brought together, and one could call them all.' Later Hoffmann advises 'we should read the phone book as we read scripture,' and after more than a hundred vignettes I found myself reading such passages not as ironic statements on our godless and denatured contemporaneity, but rather as thrilling and deadly serious possibilities for discovering holy resonance.

In the book’s final pages, Hoffmann admits 'each time we think that we’ve come to the end...we’re reminded of something else to say.' There is something Beckettian about this, an austere metaphysics that insists on the written act as a kind of meaningless meaning in the face of silence and death. There is too the same sense of life as a textuality, a written project of unclear provenance: 'After all, someone is writing us as well. Someone is reading us. And someone is having critical thoughts. And someone is filing us away.' It is perhaps this sense of life as possessing an authorial voice – and a narrative intent – that allows Hoffmann to communicate what he sees as thematic repetition, the representational tics running beneath our material complexity: 'Similar patterns run through the world. The lines in a leaf and the veins in the leg of a diabetic. The concave places in a woman’s body and the valleys of regions like Provence. Heavenly bodies and uncut diamonds scattered about on a large table.'

To say nothing of aesthetic fortitude, it requires a profoundly perceptive bravery to connect and exalt the disparate objects, moods, feelings and memories that comprise an existence; indeed, to realise that 'forms are found within each other, even if that involves a contradiction' seems to me to be a piece of the most dense and generous wisdom I’ve read in quite some time. Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods is just such a form within a form: its gentle humour, searing pain and unmistakable humanity ennobles the literature of life and the life in literature. Here, memory is fecund, messy, fictive and, finally, radiantly authentic. In its graces, our lives are revealed to be a species of continuing, of digressions too wild not to be linked in some cosmic correlation. In Hoffmann, if not in life, the admission feels something like a paean: 'nothing comes to an end.'