Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl


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From dross to gold, an enchanting tale of love is spun.
Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Einstein—all praised the writings of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), a mathematician, physicist and astronomer by profession, and an aphorist and satirist on the sly. In Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, novelist Gert Hofmann weaves a wondrous fictionalized tale of Lichtenberg’s real-life romance with "the model of beauty and sweetness," Maria Stechard, a flower seller he meets one day near his laboratory in Gottingen. "The greater part of what I commit to paper is untrue, and the best of it is nonsense!" says Lichtenberg, our hunchbacked hero. His daily life of "wrestling with death," of electricity machines and exploding gases, is plunged into new passion the day he encounters the Stechardess: "Something is found that was lost for a long time." Soon he teaches her to read and write, she helps him keep house... and then? Colored with Lichtenberg’s boisterous, enlightening meditations on life, death and everything in-between, this stunning fable-of-awakening was described by The Washington Post as "a quiet and convincing description of human happiness... a fine and original book."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811216951
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 07/02/2007
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gert Hofmann (1931–1993) was a German writer and educator. He worked for a time for the University of Edinburgh as a lecturer in modern German literature and has received many awards, most recently the Independent Foreign Fiction Award in 1996 for "The Film Explainer."

The poet Michael Hofmann has won numerous prizes for his German translations.

Read an Excerpt

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl

Chapter One

Once, many many years ago, Professor Lichtenerg pulled on his lecture coat and headed out. He wanted to see what the weather was doing. Because he was a vain fellow, he had silver buttons on his lecture coat. From time to time, he would lose one. Then he would go crawling around his apartment in the wing of the house on the Gotmarstrasse, crying: Where has it got to now? As he scrabbled around among the chair legs, one thing became clear: he had a hunchback! Quick, let's write about it!

The hunchback was enormous!

Lichtenberg himself can't have been much taller than four-foot-nine. And that's how he would go about in the world. That's how he would go about in the public street, and even out of town. But he always came back. Sometimes he would wear a hat, mostly he wouldn't. They called him "a little lizard of a fellow" or "our leprechaun."

He would never have been good-looking, even without a hunchback. His eyes were generally inflamed, his nose dripped from time to time, people corresponded about his ears-"like dishcloths!"-and as for his teeth ... More about them anon! His hunchback was a little beast that squatted on top of him. From there it dominated his life. Even the agitation that came over him from time to time came from there. People didn't just want to see it, they were keen to touch it as well.

What for?

Because it was lucky!

And so he trotted through the town. Stop, little chappie, they cried, and reached out their hands towards his hunchback. He wished they wouldn't insist on touching it. It made him feel terribly impatient, later sad.

Stop that, he cried, what do you think you're doing? Sometimes he ran away.

He had vile thoughts when he was sitting alone at home, writing one of his long and witty letters to a young and pretty woman. He sucked the top of his pen and thought them ... He would be wearing a wig, usually one of human hair. He wore silver buckles on his shoes. When he had been walking awhile, he cried: Air! and pulled them open. Because the wig was a little big for him-"look," he said, "my head's shrinking!"-he tugged at it from time to time. Under his arm he carried a bunch of books "that double, if not treble, the significance of the world." And now I'm going to bring the world back to manageable proportions, he cried, and tore out a few pages. Often he hated scholarliness and got all melancholy. He sat in a corner and cried: What's it all for? (He meant life and all the trimmings.) And now, he said, I'll take a turn round the block! The students he called his "little ones." I can already hear them stamping their feet with impatience, he said! Any minute I'll have to start earning money and spreading understanding!

That was ...

In May 1777. It's no longer true. It has to be made up afresh.

And where?

Why, in Göttingen on the Leine! Where the professor lived. And his books and scientific equipment with him.

His eyesight got worse. Sometimes he couldn't see anything, sometimes admittedly too much. Then he would shut his eyes and cry: That much isn't called for! His round head rather thoughtful, he hadn't been out yet that day. He preferred indoors. There he had his three desks and any number of chairs and the colossal bookcase "that one day will fall on top of me." And the windows, affording him a view of the street, and of those people who were coming down it, perhaps with a view to seeing him. (It was the custom for artists and scholars to keep open house, and offer all comers a plate of soup.) "It is characteristic of Göttingen," he wrote to Johann Gottwerth Müller von Itzehoe (1743-1828) "that even the outdoors are cramped, to say nothing of the Göttingen minds!" Because he wasn't in England anymore-and wouldn't go there again-he stopped looking out of the window. All he could see there was the German sky anyway, more white than blue.

So Lichtenberg sat in Göttingen with few friends and numerous adversaries.

And without so much as a wife?

Without a wife!

When he set foot outside the house, there was a small puff of wind blowing. The Gotmarstrasse was almost empty. The wind swept the hat off one gentleman's head, or at least it did its damnedest to. It lifted up the women's skirts, that was the best thing about the wind. Lichtenberg went out onto the street to keek under a skirt or two. To see the odd ankle and calf, and maybe even a knee. He thought: Nothing is wasted on me, not even trifles!

Was he really as tiny as people said, and as they wrote in London? Well, one thing, he had stopped growing! Or maybe his brain was still growing, he wasn't sure. His brow, when he passed his hand over it, was prettily curved, but what was behind it? At any rate, he had dainty little hands and feet, and shining eyes, sometimes. And that big head full of notions-"both scientific and other." With that, he invented an alternative world, which he often made notes about. Shame, he thought, that I'm not completely healthy!

What was the matter with the man?

Most often "an ague with fever." Then he pulled on his nightcap, and lay down in his wide empty bachelor's bed. There was a space next to him, but it wasn't possible to find a woman to occupy it. He pulled the blankets up to his throat, then his hunchback was gone. If his students came and called for him next door, he let them know: I'm grateful for the inexplicable popularity, but they're to leave me alone! I'm preoccupied with my body today, the other thing's closed! Or he was suffering from "hunchbackitis," which "left him incapable of the upright walk that is the leading characteristic of our species." Often when he should have been giving a lecture, his students had to go home empty-headed.

Once there was waiting for him in a coal-black coat a Professor Crome from Giessen, who revered him. "As his listeners," wrote Crome, "depressed by so much youthful learning, finally emerged from the lecture room, Lichtenberg tottered down from his chair, and fell unconscious into the arms of his manservant Pesti. Pesti carried the little man onto the chaise and laid him down. Thinking he was in convulsions and on the point of death, I didn't want to disturb him further and was about to take my leave," wrote Crome. "But his man assured me that he suffered this condition after most of his lectures, and it would pass soon enough. So I stayed, and we had a long and cordial discussion about electricity in rabbits, dogs and other hirsute mammals."

At any rate, Lichtenberg lay in bed a lot, wrestling with death.

"In case Heaven should really consider it necessary to withdraw me from circulation and put out a newversion," he wrote to his friend Polycarp Erxleben (1744-1777), "I would like to give it one or two useful bits of advice, in particular concerning the form of my body and the overall design of the whole thing. Straighter," he wrote, "altogether straighter!"

It was a peculiarity of his that he was forever having to set out his ideas. It was an urge contained in his large, round and now almost bald, head. That's why he was so driven, why he was always looking for this thing or that. Not buried treasures or wigs-he was always looking for them too-but words, words! When he had found one, he would write it down on a piece of paper. He would take it over to the window. Then he would shake his head and say: No, not that one! and crossed it all out again. He was always on the lookout for something, for instance, cheap writing paper. Or a quill so he could scratch behind his ear. Or, continually, for a good friend, with whom he could walk, arm in arm, albeit rather lower, through the Barfusserstrasse, telling him the while what was on his mind. Or a mistress.

Eh? The little cripple?

Why ever not?

It was the eighteenth century, and he never managed to outlive it. He was now thirty-five years old and he looked in the mirror a lot. While there, he thought: I look younger! because, as already noted, he was vain as well. In the evening, he wore his lined cap which kept his brain nice and warm. That's where all his desires were, his dreams, his thoughts. He didn't really believe in the other Being any more. But if he should have the grace, and if he really did acquire a mistress ... Maybe he would sleep better? Maybe his hunchback would go away, just not be there after a while? "I should not shed," wrote Lichtenberg, "a single tear for it!"

Such was the yearning he carried about with him, first up the Gotmarstrasse, and then back down it again, on the opposite side. God, he thought, the weight of that yearning! and he pulled his wig down a little. Then his brow was covered, his temples were gone from sight. His heart was still pounding, though, because he was walking so fast.

Where to, in God's name?

To see his little ones. That would have been in 1777, more or less. Frederick the Great-the Great, is that right?-had invaded Bohemia with his forces. Unfortunately there were no battles. The Russians had got the better of the Turks on the Pruth, and now they occupied Wallachia. Lichtenberg sat around at home. He read books and wrote a little bit.

And he taught at the Kur Hanoverian University of Göttingen. That hadn't been in existence for very long. His lecture room was on the first floor, where he also lived, ate, slept, evacuated, and "had scientific dreams." Often he would have dreams of women as well. Then he would close his eyes and say: Oh! and they would file past him. When he saw one he liked the look of, he would dream of her for weeks. Then she would grow pale and dim, and another one came along. When he felt hungry during one of his lectures, he would say: I've had a scientific idea! And he would go to his kitchen and make himself some "very substantial" bread and butter. When he'd polished it off, he would return to his students, say: I'm back! and pick up just exactly where he'd left off. He had a hundred students. When he counted them sometimes, there were even a hundred and one. Or he only had ninety-nine, and he shook his head, because then someone would have overslept. Or one of them would have closed his eyes for the last time in the night. When it was time for the fellow to be buried, Lichtenberg exclaimed: Not that as well! He slipped into his black coat, got his boots polished, and trotted off to the cemetery. At the cemetery-it was the Nikolaikirche or else the Marienkirche-he would trot just behind the dead man, so as not to lose him in the crush. He remembered him, as he had known him and would now no longer see him. He tried to remember his nose, his fingers and the words he always used to say. Sometimes he would stand still for a moment and say: Yes, that's what he used to say! Then the coffin was lowered into the grave. Lichtenberg bowed the deepest and looked the longest. Pity, he thought, shook his head, and went home.

Among the students who hadn't died yet, he had a few sons of counts and earls, whom he needed to place advantageously in his lectures. These were von Meerbaum, von Amelung, Count Nauheim, Francis Clerke, baronet, and many others. Lichtenberg had powdered his chin. He had his gold watch in his fob-pocket and he flashed it. Anyone who had seen it flash, would also hear it tick. Sometimes it stopped. Well really, he said, and held it up to his ear. He was waiting for his noblemen's sons.

This way, Your Graces, called Lichtenberg, if you would kindly follow me! If Your Highnesses will permit, he said, and tugged them by the sleeve. His hands were bony and ever bonier. Invariably they were ice cold as well.

The Counts, in the flower of their youth, were well dressed and washed. They looked down upon him. He had to take them by the sleeve and pull them into the lecture room. Others preferred to be pushed. Once in the lecture room, they were seated one behind the other, in order of rank. Lichtenberg inquired: Are Your Highnesses sitting comfortably, or are there any complaints? They remained silent. Are Your Highnesses sitting comfortably, he repeated, and they thought about it for a while, and they said: Yes, we think we are sitting comfortably!

Well then, said Lichtenberg, and he wiped his brow. That was always damp. And can Your Highnesses hear everything I say?

We think we can hear everything!

And do you understand, asked Lichtenberg, do Your Highnesses understand the meaning of what I am saying, at least in general terms?

Oh yes, they cried, some of the time we do!

Then Lichtenberg took the latecomer Thomas Swanton, the admiral's son, by the hand, and led him to the front row of the lecture room, where he could keep an eye on him. When they got on to integration and Lichtenberg was explaining something tricky, he always fell asleep. When he walked, Lichtenberg always started wheezing, and his companion-Gleim, say, or Reimarus-would ask: Is it far to go?

No further than from the Maschmühle to the Weend Gate, Lichtenberg replied.

Is that far, they asked, and Lichtenberg: I think I can make it!

Such was his life at that time. Later on it would be a different one. If visitors came, he leapt up and called out: I'm not at home! Or: Hold on, I'm just coming! Then he opened the door. His visitor would doff his hat and say: Bonjour, mon ami! It might be Count Volta or Dr. Lessing or Dr. Blumenbach, who was a collector of skulls. Sometimes he would bring one. Lichtenberg asked: Have you got a new one? and Blumenbach said: Yes! Then he sat down, took it out of its bag, and passed it around. Sometimes it was an old man's, sometimes quite a young one's. Then it would still have its teeth, and Blumenbach demonstrated how firmly they were still attached. After that, he'd wrap it up in its brown paper again and set it aside. If it was raining, Lichtenberg took his little handkerchief-big ones hadn't been invented yet-and wiped the drops off his forehead. Yes, such was his life! He taught on the first floor of the Gotmarstrasse, which was sixteen steps up. He didn't complain, though. When he couldn't manage any more, he stopped and said: Oh, still more! and he pulled himself together. Every day-except Sunday, when it was trot along to the Jakobikirche and forty winks-he had to see to his students. He put his hand on the balustrade, and supported himself on it. After three or four steps, he said: Well, this isn't a bad start! If someone was coming up behind him, he let them overtake him, and said: Lead on, young friend, I'll follow! Later, when he got even sicker, he moved out to his little holiday cottage on the edge of town. It had a view of the graveyard, so he could watch his friends being buried. "Until the very end," he wrote, "they do everything in their power to impress me!"

At home he would stand by his garden gate until the Gotmarstrasse was unoccupied. He didn't want to show his hunchback. When there was nobody near, he said: I'll chance it! Then he ran out. In Spring, before St. John's Day; the birds sang in his garden, in winter it was quiet. He was wrapped in a cloak.


Excerpted from Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by GERT HOFMANN Copyright © 2004 by Michael Hofmann. Excerpted by permission.
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