cover image Bernhard


Yoel Hoffmann. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $22.95 (172pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1389-9

In Israeli avant-garde novelist Hoffmann's startling minimalist collage, 50-ish, grief-numbed widower Bernhard Stein, transplanted from Berlin to Palestine, ruminates on his wife's death, on history and on the universe against a background of Hitler's rampage across Europe. A postmodernist kaleidoscope unfolding in 172 loosely interconnected vignettes, most of them a page in length or shorter, this experimental novel echoes Hoffmann's more conventional double-novella American debut, The Book of Joseph and Katschen. Bernhard, whose feverish ruminations hop from Spinoza to El Greco to Trotsky, is a man unhinged. His best friend, a plumber named Gustav, and Elvira Neuwirth, the cultured Viennese widow with whom he flirts, seem almost as unreal as his fictive alter ego, Moscow-born dermatologist D.S. Gregory, whose father lost a leg fighting in the American Revolution. Within these flights of fancy lies a searing meditation on loss of faith, the tragedy of modern history and life's apparent meaninglessness. Hoffmann's semantic riffs, historical excursions and self-referential metaphysical noodlings can be wearying. Yet he adds ballast to this tale by loading it with dark parables and dreams; Jewish ritual and lore; German, Yiddish and Arabic phrases (translated in the margins); and snatches of songs, childhood memories and sexual fantasies. His hypnotic prose fuses everyday events and surreal imagery with the lyrical intensity of a Chagall painting. Rights: Harris/Elon Agency. (Oct.)