A powerful novel about prejudice, violence, and complicity in Nazi Germany, this spare and evocative work interrogates shows how a group of people can slip towards extremism and barbarity in the blink of an eye.
The time is the 1930s. Our philosopher is Herr Veilchenfeld, a renowned thinker and distinguished professor, who, after his sudden dismissal from the university, has retired to live quietly in a country town in the east of Germany. Our narrator is Hans, a clever and inquisitive boy. He relates a mix of things he witnesses himself and things he hears about from his father, the town doctor, who sees all sorts of people as he makes his rounds, even Veilchenfeld, with his troubled heart. Veilchenfeld is in decline, it’s true—he keeps ever more to himself—but the town is in ever better shape. After the defeat of the Great War and the subsequent years of poverty, things are looking up. The old, worn people are heartened to see it. The young are exhilarated. It is up to them to promote and patrol this new uplifting reality—to make it safe from the likes of Veilchenfeld, whose very existence is an affront to it. And so the doctor listens, and young Hans looks on.
About the Author
Gert Hofmann (1931-1993) was a German writer and scholar of German literature. Originally an author of radio plays, he became one of postwar Germany’s most prolific novelists, his fiction often examining the continued resonance of Nazism in Germany. His accolades include the Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize and the Alfred Döblin Prize.
Eric Mace-Tessler is a translator and educator. Born in Brooklyn, he has lived in Germany and Switzerland for three decades.
Michael Hofmann is a poet and translator. He is the author of two books of essays and five books of poems, most recently One Lark, One Horse. He has translated several books for NYRB Classics, including Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Jakob Wassermann’s My Marriage, and Gert Ledig’s Stalin Front, Kurt Tucholsky's Castle Gripsholm, and edited The Voyage That Never Ends, an anthology of writing by Malcolm Lowry.
"Hofmann explores terrifying and timeless questions through the gaze of youth...Hans, a German child in the late 1930s, knows that Herr Veilchenfeld is an elderly philosopher...whom his father, the town’s doctor, visits regularly...As he comes to understand that something is not right with his kindly, mysterious neighbor—and that something has shifted in the world during this time of great political and social upheaval—Hans experiences a private and deeply moving coming-of-age. The result is a delicate tale of innocence unknowingly lost." —Publishers Weekly
"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
“A young boy with clear, unsentimental eyes and a storybook mind tells of terrible events, the more terrible because we know more than he does.” —Paul Griffiths, TLS Books of the Year
“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
“One of the best holocaust novels in postwar German literature.” —Milena Ganeva, Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature
“This unsettling tale concerns the persecution of one man in pre–World War II Germany. . . . Hofmann never uses the words Jew, Nazi, Hitler, or brownshirt. . . . The author surrounds his philosopher with mostly nondescript townspeople who abet, approve, or only quietly, and rarely, censure. . . . A painful, powerful work.” —Kirkus, starred review
“The best novel I've read that describes events through the eyes of a child is little known and a minor masterpiece. . . . Hans, the son of a small-town doctor, watches as the life of his fascinating neighbor, Professor Veilchenfeld, unravels and is then destroyed. . . . In this learned old man, Hofmann condenses the industrialized extermination of millions. . . . To recount it through the limited and fragmented understanding of an innocent child was an inspired authorial choice.” —Ian McEwan, The Wall Street Journal