On Yoel Hoffmann’s "Moods" [BTBA 2016]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by translator and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review, Heather Cleary. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Earlier this week, I returned home from a month abroad to find my hall closet overflowing with submissions to this year’s BTBA. I’m glad there were no witnesses to my cartoonish glee as I tore into the bright yellow envelopes; not nearly as glad, though, as I am that over the next few months I’ll have the chance to explore so many new translations I might otherwise not have read. To borrow a phrase from a canonical work especially dear to my heart: bring it on.
Anyway. Mixed in among the bounty of this first shipment was Yoel Hoffmann’s beautifully composed Moods, luminously translated by Peter Cole. The text is a series of numbered vignettes narrated in the first person plural by a voice that is by turns mischievous, nostalgic, cynical, reflective, and often quite funny. (At one point, for example, Hoffmann recommends using the book as a prop to pick up a lover, or as a pillow to soothe an aching back.) A few readers I know have wondered aloud whether the book should be considered a novel, a memoir, prose poetry, or something else entirely; Hoffmann, who seems to have anticipated these questions—or quite likely set out to provoke them—replies, “What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation, and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?”
My interest may have been piqued by this challenge to literary norms, but it was the spare yet surprisingly rich descriptions of Hoffmann’s narrative world that drew me in, as well as the urgency with which the book seeks to bear witness to something as vast as a life in one moment, and then unwrite itself in the next. (“If it were printed on thinner paper we’d suggest the reader use it for rolling cigarettes. The smoke would write the book in the air as it really is.”)
But let’s begin at the beginning. “Ever since finishing my last book,” Hoffmann remarks, “I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one. // Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of a tree, the work as a whole.” Following this observation, Hoffmann presents the beginning of a traditional novelistic storyline (“I know it’s a love story”) which—rather than developing toward the requisite “middle” and “end”—is quickly absorbed by a series of divergent reflections that bind the personal to the philosophical with the twine of dry humor (“It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book. The people must be very small”).
Though this narrative gambit might look like a false start, the book’s first chapter does indeed contain the seed of Moods, which is in many ways a work composed of beginnings. Not only because its vignettes could be read in any order, giving rise to new interpretations with every new opening, but also because each chapter seems to double as the opening to another, untold story that intersects with the one on the page at only a single point. And so, across its many moods, this book is—as much as any I’ve read—about what it does not say. Characters we never fully meet pass through the staunchly metonymic moments of a life that seems to remain unknown even to the voice recounting it. One of the great accomplishments of Moods is the way this negative space bears as much weight as the words on the page.
The specter of stories untold is especially pronounced in Hoffmann’s lists, each element of which seems to contain an entire universe, not unlike Hemingway’s famous six-word novel. “Here are some other things that break the heart,” Hoffmann declares: “An old door. A glass left out in the yard. A woman’s foot squeezed into shoes, so her toes become twisted.” Each image, vivid and universal in its understatement, is heavy with the moments that precede it and invites us to imagine those that follow.
It has been said that one of the most difficult things to translate is the silence of a text—those gaps made intelligible by shared cultural or historical touchstones that rarely pass without a struggle into the target system. In this sense, Cole has done an admirable job of preserving as inklings the hollows that Moods offers its readers. I gather from the English that his task must have been doubly challenging: not only is this a book of many silences, in his reflections on the limits of writing, and of language itself, Hoffmann also traffics in linguistically specific reflections. Cole’s solutions to these challenges are deft, even artful, whether he is re-Englishing Hoffmann’s adaptation of Joyce or rendering a nursery rhyme in one chapter’s paean to unadorned language (“If only we could write like that”).
(Peter Cole at the University of Rochester)
It’s a good thing, too, since a skilled hand is needed to translate a work that operates with such intention, and such self-consciousness, on the level of the word. Just as the form of the book’s opening was the object of reflection, so too is the way it will draw to a close. “This might be the last book we’ll write,” Hoffmann muses,
I wonder what how it will end. What its final words will be. Joyce, for example, finished his final book with the word the.
We’ve always thought it extremely strange that movies (and books) end with the word End. Moreover, sometimes the definite article’s added.
Maybe we’ll end with a different word altogether . . . Imagine if the word turns out to be prow. Or Binyamina. Or epaulettes. Or hydraulic. Or gurgle (which is probably onomatopoetic). Or drowse. Or you.
Given the centrality of beginnings in this book, it is fitting that Hoffmann resolves this question by deciding to close with one—THE beginning, in fact, which he describes as a “beautiful tale”:
In the beginning, when God was creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and waste, and darkness was over the face of the deep . . .
“Imagine the loneliness of countless years,” Hoffmann writes. “Like a giant, old, autistic man, He stared into what was and saw not even a crack.” Having evoked so many beginnings with his silence, Hoffmann locates silence within this beginning, and in so doing, finds his final word:
The only consolation was His name (or, more accurately, His names). But when He uttered them, He heard (because of the absolute emptiness) not even an echo.