‘O, it has happened little by little, as many things simply happen little by little, Mother said, and told us everything about Herr Veilchenfeld, as far as it was known to her.’
Germany, late 1930s. Walking into town on a hot summer evening, the elderly professor Herr Veilchenfeld encounters a group of local drunks. He is humiliated and assaulted; his hair is shorn. The police ‘don’t interfere in such minor matters’.
What happens to Veilchenfeld is recounted by the young son of the doctor who attends the professor. The boy observes, listens in to his parents’ conversations, and asks for ice creams. He cannot know the true import of the events he witnesses.
Veilchenfeld, first published in Germany 1986 and now translated into English for the first time, is a salutary masterpiece about the destructive effects of persecution not only for the victims, but for the community as a whole.
‘In a startlingly pertinent description of how a group of people can slip towards extremism, Hofmann depicts prejudice as resulting from the erosion of reason and thought. Already in the opening, the adults are unable to answer the children’s questions. And soon they come to doubt what they themselves have seen and heard ...
‘For Hofmann, persecution abases the perpetrator as well as the victim, and the more the latter is humiliated, the more the people hate him … Hofmann shows that fascism is not a German affliction, but a foreign body that attacks like a virus … His failure to pass judgment means everything we notice is the work of our own empathy, and thus our rage and sorrow are all the more keen. And by leaving us to consider the aspects he has not mentioned, Hofmann is intent on a reconstruction job – through the art of this novel, he seeks to create a greater compassion in us.
‘In our wish for the best possible ending, we readers disdain Veilchenfeld, as if there were no other hope for him. Hofmann catches us in the act. Hatred being so ubiquitous and anonymous, we stop railing against it – and as we let our better instincts yield, become complicit.
‘Hofmann’s is a world twilit by bourgeois civilisation and shocking barbarity. It allows us to understand fascism better, to better lament its hatred, and perhaps, to help us recognise it when it returns. His success is testament to his masterly eye and head and heart.’
– Tom Conaghan, Review 31 (full review here)
‘“Reality as gruesome rumour” is critical in Gert Hofmann’s novel Veilchenfeld … The “reality” imposed on Veilchenfeld – a reserved, principled philosopher – is one which he is helpless to oppose. He is the wrong sort of person and in 1930s Saxony that means being shunned and ostracised by both society and those in power … Hofmann’s writing has a pleasing formality and subtlety (in an excellent translation), which brings us through both depths of thought and violence with the same patient clarity.’
– Declan O’Driscoll, Irish Times
‘A quiet book that in uncanny ways makes the moral vacuum that it treats almost physically palpable to the reader.’
– Die Zeit
‘One of the best holocaust novels in postwar German literature.’
– Milena Ganeva, in Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature
Also published by CBe: Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl
‘Europe's belated answer to Lolita.’
– Gabriel Josipovici
‘Gert Hofmann's final book translated by his son is delightfully anarchic and imaginative in its exploration of an unlikely love found and lost.’
– Eileeen Battersby, Irish Times