Interpretation sometimes poses a grave risk to its object of scrutiny. By focusing so much on what art is about, is it possible that we are losing sight of what it is? Yoel Hoffmann’s newest work, Moods, has a peculiar, provocative relationship to the act of interpretation. Following Curriculum Vitae (2009), a dreamlike retelling of the author’s life, Moods continues Hoffmann’s loosely autobiographical project. Hoffmann weaves a rich web of memories, impressions and images, interspersed with frequent ruminations on his task as a storyteller. The text is filled with doubts and second-guessings—the first page alone contains no fewer than five pairs of qualifying parentheses. A playful challenge is aimed at the reader: abandon your assumptions about how a story should be told, abandon yourself to a narrative that moves in a different way, intentionally skirting the conventions of literary form.
Above all, Moods is highly self-reflective. Hoffmann’s meditations on language and writing are constant, an indispensable part of the book’s texture. In fact, they are not so much meditations (which suggest a certain placidity) as obsessions, urgent enquiries into a frustrating but endlessly captivating mystery. Far from being wary of interpretation, Moods already contains a layer of interpretation within it. Nowhere, moreover, does one get the sense that this first layer is an attempt to preempt the inevitable second, third and hundredth layers of interpretation—on the contrary, Moods’s conversation with the reader takes place primarily, though not entirely, on the interpretive, meta-fictional level. In short, Moods invites us to surmise that it is about something.
It is also not difficult to pinpoint what this something is—Hoffmann, with his customary candor, is so explicit about it. We get an early clue, and also a characteristic example of Hoffmann’s fusion of anecdote, linguistic and philosophical observation, in the following: “Rossini (the classical station’s saying just now) was plagued by backaches in 1842. // In Japanese the back is senaka. Senaka, we think, is the perfect word for it. More accurate than, for instance, back, or Rücken.” Moods (and here I get into the perilous territory of adding my own layer of interpretation) is the search for an elusive equivalence between words and things. It is a book captivated by the sounds of words while at the same time being mistrustful of their deft illusions, frustrated by their limitations.
In life and in the book, Hoffmann lives in the lush, hilly Galilee in northern Israel. He can see a mountain from his window which, after the myriad impressions of Moods, looms toweringly in my memory. The mountain is the object of loving descriptions:
At night we hear the jackals and the moon is twice as large. Wild boars come up to the fence and dogs bark. We see the silhouette of the mountain over the house. The mountain itself is black...And it has no name. And one can see it only as it is. And it can’t be explained or criticized or made fun of.
The mountain encapsulates something crucial about Hoffmann’s relationship with language. Its namelessness shields it from obfuscation; it can be seen more clearly because there is no word attached to it. This, I think, is the most important of Hoffmann’s many complementary and sometimes contradictory understandings of language—an artificial construct that clouds the natural color, light, sound and smell of the world. The yearning that underpins Moods, and accounts for its existence, is to see things “precisely as they are”—but language is both a tool and a hindrance to this end.
The tension between these two polar ideas propels the book. Hoffmann’s doubts about language are interwoven with their opposite: a wondrous, childlike faith that language does nothing less than hold the world together. He tells the story of Kadoshkin, one of those drifters who stagger invisibly through the city. Rain or shine this man would walk down the street, stop before display windows and, one by one, name the objects assembled before him. “We believe that this man kept things in their proper place. And if he hadn’t called them by name, they couldn’t have maintained their form so precisely.”
If Hoffmann’s underlying faith in language isn’t already implicit in writing the book, it surfaces in passages like these. There is also in Hoffmann’s writing a simple love of detail and observation which has a tendency to steal the show, no matter how eloquent his interpretive efforts. Added to this is a genuine fascination for the sounds of words, not only in Hebrew but also in German and Japanese. Words are analyzed and compared, struck against each other to see if there’s a spark. Hoffmann’s longstanding translator Peter Cole has conveyed this multilingual lexicon in a way that rings true to the English speaker’s ear. Often, there is no option but to transcribe the original Hebrew and translate it parenthetically, such as in the case of onomatopoeic words: bakbook (bottle) and pkak (cork). If certain nuances have necessarily been lost in translation, Cole’s translation has the admirable quality of being invisible: connecting to the reader in a way that feels natural and uncontrived.
It is interesting that Hoffmann should evoke automatic writing, as he does near the book’s end (giving a nod to the surrealists’ philosophical zeal). Though he does not go as far as Breton and Soupault, he shares with them the idea that truth and beauty can be found in language, but only fortuitously, in the absence of intent. (Note that this remains an idea—one that lies at the heart of the book, but never becomes a full conviction.) A quote from Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being comes to mind: “Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. ‘Beauty by mistake’—the final phase in the history of beauty.”
I think it is this idea, never explicitly voiced, that accounts in great part for the meandering, searching nature of Moods. Short chapters, rarely longer than a page, provide unobtrusive structure and often welcome pause for thought. Within these bite-sized sections, however, Hoffmann often takes his hands off the steering wheel, curious to see how words will collide. This sometimes results in nonsensical but strangely hypnotic lists: “Joy. Breakers. A laughing dove. Tea bags. Bacchanalia. Miscarriage of justice. Thoughts. A hip’s rise. Pay stubs.” And there is indeed a sense, at times, that Hoffmann is writing a sort of inventory of his life—or “a kind of train schedule. // Or an owner’s manual. The sort of thing they distribute with appliances (like cell phones or pressure cookers).” In any case, the sort of thing that steers clear of ornament and commentary (notwithstanding that even a train schedule is a reflection of a certain view of the world—and this is why Hoffmann must keep searching). At other times it is as though he is improvising on a theme, trying out different combinations and collisions until he has teased out the thought he was looking for (or until it has asserted itself). Then the chapter can end.
The music he listens to consists of a single sound, like the straight line on the monitor when the heart stops beating. The scent of eternity is like that of goulash. Everything’s frozen over. Jokes one tells are revealed in full like that famous rainbow arched through a cloud. Each season extends to infinity. You stand there, and the streets run on beneath you. Women lie down forever. A faint soft sound like the fur of a foal (of a donkey) wafts through the air, and the colors are all pastel.
The notion that beauty can only come about when human interference is suspended seems bleak. Over the course of the book, however, Hoffmann’s reasons for pursuing this idea so tenaciously begin to emerge. There is an answer which can be summed up in a word: Auschwitz. Hoffmann’s own family fled Europe in the ’40s, their lives violently bisected by the Holocaust. Afterwards: “the age of ash. Beyond time. As though in a game that has come to an end. There’s no more movement on the field. Just kicks toward the goal. Everything only seems to be. A thin wash of color covers it all, and beneath that—blackness.” It seems impossible to emerge from this with your faith in language intact.
Early in Moods, Hoffmann explains that he will refer to himself as “we” from now on. This change from the first person singular to the first person plural creates a new entity: Hoffmann and his readers. At first, we readers entertain this idea tolerantly, since that’s the kind of book this is. But soon enough, we start to feel a more profound change—unwittingly, we start to feel that we are being spoken for, spoken through, spoken of. Sometimes this can be irritating; there is something grandiose, presumptuous about this “we.” At other times, however, I think it comes close to touching that universal quality for which it ostensibly strives. Here, perhaps: “How we waited each morning for the girl who sat on the third bench and all the halls in the school led to her. She came through our heart as though it were the Mandelbaum Gate, but the heart (of flesh) was smaller then because we were children.”
However we may be feeling about the “we” at any given moment, it has an important function: the reader is with Hoffmann, implicated in the ideas he is voicing, and therefore engaged, passionate, quarrelsome. Moods is a text that is read together, by Hoffmann’s own design, with all the interesting frictions this participation implies. One of “our” questions, which surfaces early and only becomes more persistent as the pages turn, is this: if we accept, for the sake of argument, that language prevents us from seeing things as they really are, then why does this book exist? Now it is our turn to challenge Hoffmann, and he is anticipating us. Failure is inscribed at the heart of this book:
The protagonist of this book is the human being. God is a minor character. And so it (that is, the book) is a total failure, since it never really gets to the heart of one or the other. 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.
The impassable problem is that we have no other tool but language with which to speak about language. What remains is to work creatively, radically, within it. Even if the world is what we see when language leaves a gap, can we somehow use language to create such fecund gaps? Can we describe everything, in the manner of a phone book or a train schedule, and what’s left—what language cannot touch—will be the truth? These questions will remain mysteries.
And suddenly the tables have been turned again: from the most dispiriting doubt emerges an urgent, lively inspiration to see what language has to offer in answer to these challenges. In Moods, doubt and faith in language are like two sides of a coin, scintillating in turn when one side catches the light. Hoffmann twiddles this coin incessantly, in a variety of moods—reflective, playful, tense, even aggressive. What emerges is a kind of kaleidoscopic manifesto, rich and multifarious in its ideas, inflections and intuitions.
Here’s what I think, though—were he to toss the coin, which he never does and probably shouldn’t, it would land on the side that compels us to write out of passion, not frustration. To me, this is also when Hoffmann is most convincing as a writer (as opposed to a philosopher)—when he takes evident pleasure in his craft. He discovers in these instances a concentrated power—and it is here that Moods is not only about something, but that it is something vigorous and alive.
Mona Gainer-Salim is a writer living in London.