Imagine the scene we are all familiar with: you are writing up a C.V. to send out to those who might judge your capabilities, your efficacies, and the quality of your existence to date from what you were able to condense onto a single side of a sheet of letter paper. Imagine adding, among sections detailing work experience and education, sections that enumerate your preferred breakfast cereals, your ongoing spiritual conundra, and personal illustrations that are little more than impressionist contour doodles. Imagine allowing yourself a healthy dose of humor; it can’t hurt to make your assessors laugh a little. Now imagine reading such a thing.
I have just opened Yoel Hoffmann’s Curriculum Vitae at random, somewhere in the middle. Having finished the book and wondering where to begin if I am to describe it, this seems an appropriate opening gesture, one I hope to justify as I continue. In any case:
At night we slept (we and Yolanda) back to back while each one saw, as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic-strip character, different dreams.
Yolanda most likely dreamed of great gardens. Clay pots. Dalmations.
We (which is to say, I) saw heavier dreams. Landslides in the mountains and an entire town with its golden church spires buried beneath the dirt. Men spreading newspapers out on the floor and reading things in them that make the heart tremble.
It’s all so self-evident why Joyce wrote, for some twenty years, a book without any real words in it. After all, one could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another: Pot. Skyscraper. File. Scandal. Dentures. Scabies. Snow. Old age. Flute. Cobalt. Socialism.
Sometimes we made instant coffee with three teaspoons of sugar (as Yolanda liked it) and put it before her.
Note the first two parentheticals, which clarify the two uses of “we.” Early in the book, Hoffmann advises us that he will often be referring to himself in the first person plural. He maintains this distinction vigilantly, on the one hand rendering the “royal we” so humorously, and obviously, obsolete, but also bringing around a fresh aspect of self-scrutiny: the simple, almost constant reminder that he is using the same pronoun for two subjects stresses the importance of his own life in relation to his life together with his family.
Next, note the grandiloquent generality of “reading things in them that make the heart tremble,” against the minute twentieth-century contextual analogy, “as though in a bubble emerging from the head of a comic strip character.” Such range of figuration is characteristic of Hoffmann’s writing in Curriculum Vitae, a sharp specificity as of the latter which justifies the appropriate use of the former. Consider this range of figurative device along with the next point: “One could die from the clear-cut borders between one word and another.” In one sense, it may be Hoffmann’s own solution to Finnegans Wake. In another, this is one among countless aphoristic conclusions about life, about language, spirituality, writing—all of the biggest concerns of this writer’s existence. It is a conclusion that seems more a restatement of the problem, an unsolvable riddle, than an answer: it is like a zen koan, which is a significant point to which I will return. But philosophical bombshells like this one would surely misfire without being carefully juxtaposed against equally weighted statements of utter mundanity and real-world particularity of the final sentence, set off in its own paragraph, about instant coffee with sugar. Because this book is a condensed picture of a life, where the particular way one’s wife takes her coffee carries just as much existential weight as the crises of faith which keep one awake at night.
This is the entirety of section 34 of the book. There are one hundred sections, all of a similar length, and there are no page numbers. The book is thin, the margins wide, and the prose, as is evident in the above passage, exceedingly light. It can be read in a single (perhaps lengthy) sitting, such as a long train ride or an afternoon off in the park. It has the feel, reading it, of a book of aphorisms, or of zen koans, the latter which must be no coincidence because the author, Yoel Hoffmann, is Professor of Japanese Buddhism at Haifa University. His travels and studies in Japan are treated at length in the book, although it may be inaccurate to use the term “at length” at all. Textually speaking, there is nothing “at length” about the book, and yet the material carries the reader into realms far beyond the text: realms of humor, family life, travels, varying religions and peoples, and childhood in a distant past.
I realize that I have described the book above as a condensed picture of a life. According to the back cover blurb, it is “part novel and part memoir.” This is an accurate description: the subject is Hoffmann himself and his memories. But it is also part other things which fall into no easy categories. The book resists my simple description, and Hoffmann himself would surely scoff at it. He writes,
If I were able (by means of a deeper covenant than that which exists between author and reader) to fall on people’s necks and say to them Come, let’s sit while the tea is steeping, then drink, and you’ll tell me about your lives and I will tell of mine, I’d toss this manuscript into the trash and do precisely that. In such a world the law would forbid the making of fiction.
In no way is the novel driven by the usual devices one associates with fiction and novels: there are no motivating conflicts, no themes, and the “characters” do not exactly invoke the sympathies that generate a reader’s interest. It would seem that the book is more the memoir, with its frequent tone of reminiscence and reflection. But then again, having finished it, I cannot say I have a clear picture of the life of Yoel Hoffmann. It is largely autobiographical, but one could hardly call it an autobiography. This, I think, is one of the book’s greatest strengths. A reader may only be interested in an author’s memoiristic novel or novelistic memoir if that reader were already familiar with the author’s other work; I can certainly say that this is my first experience of the work of Yoel Hoffmann and as far as I can tell, it is as good a place to enter this Hebrew writer’s not inconsiderable oeuvre as any other (this being the sixth of his books to be published by New Directions, in English translations by Peter Cole). Indeed, I am eager to dig into some of his other works.
Part novel, part memoir, part neither, Curriculum Vitae is a frolicking dive into the self of the writer, where he finds his life’s collected works in the form of unsolvable riddles that, like a good zen koan, taste like wisdom and provide as much entertainment and satisfaction as the reader cares to draw from them.
A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of
his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t
to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here. . .
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