The acrimony in Michael Hofmann’s book is that of a son towards his father. Like a family photograph album, the sequence ‘My Father’s House’ records the son’s growth from childhood to manhood, and the father’s from early to late middle age: each poem denotes some new phase, and usually low point, in the relationship. The father’s absences and absent-mindedness, his tempers, adulteries and workaholism, his patronising of his wife and children – these sins and omissions are meticulously totted up. No physical detail is spared: with the peeled senses of adolescence, we smell the father’s ‘salami breath’, observe the ‘bleak anal pleats’ under his eyes and the ‘red band of eczema’ across his chest, hear him chewing and snorting his way through meals. The son, with his ‘thin, witty, inaudible voice’, seems a pale shadow beside him, the usual fate of sons in filial accounts of this kind: it is almost incidentally that we learn of his education in an English public school (his parents return to Germany) and of assorted part-time jobs in his teens. His mother appears small and shrewish, Gertrude to a Morel not a Claudius, in awe of her husband’s animal cunning; the son takes her side and does the necessary (‘It’s up to me to be the man of the house’), but she is allowed only two poems to voice her own complaints. It is left to her son to do most of the accusing:
It was a fugitive childhood. Aged four, I was chased
round and round the table by my father, who fell
and broke his arm he was going to raise against me.
This is a little more theatrical than the rest of the sequence, and a little less linguistically flat (that pun on ‘fugitive’), but it is indicative of a generally antagonistic spirit. The opening poem has the eight-year-old son keeping a ‘tough diary’ and owning a ‘blunt knife’, and the logical Oedipal outcome of the sequence, we feel, would be the father’s death. In the event, it ends more amicably, with a group portrait in a thunderstorm, the family trio (like Tony Harrison’s in the poem ‘Illuminations’) forced into a brief moment of intimacy. But the overall tone is certainly parricidal, as the son betrays his need to emulate the father, and the full bickering agony of family life is laid bare.
It might be any father, any son, the niggling particulars serving the common stock: this sequence of a mere 19 poems achieves something of the spaciousness of a Buddenbrooks, or at any rate a Life Studies. It adds to the tension that father and son should pursue the same career, that of literature. Up writing at four or five, the father endures a self-punishing regime and refuses to involve his family in his ‘creations’ (children, as he thinks of them) except when indulging his monstrous ego.
Once you offered me your clippings file – the human touch!
What next: a translator’s essays, a printed interview?
Despite this, the son also ends up a writer: the penultimate poem shows him holding his father’s pen, its ink ‘thicker than blood’, and the last, in which the two of them share a joke about the plights of their profession, is called ‘Old Firm’.
Not quite any father, any son. It is telling no tales to suggest that the old firm here must be that of Hofmann and Hofmann. Acrimony is a very confessional book, if not a wholly untheatrical one, and we are left in no doubt that the relationship described is that of Michael Hofmann (born 1957, author of one previous volume of poetry, Nights in the Iron Hotel) and his father Gert, whose fiction has lately begun to earn him an international reputation. Gert’s novel The Spectacle at the Tower, a Gothic allegory which is in part about a man who doesn’t want the child his wife is pregnant with, was published here last year in Christopher Middleton’s translation.More recently, PN Review published Gert Hofmann’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal’, a short story translated by his son, about the return of a poet to his father’s house: the son begs the father for love, recognition, money, forgiveness, anything, but meets only a stony, godlike silence and is eventually ejected as a troublemaker from the family home. It is to be hoped that Michael Hofmann’s fate will not be the same. Perhaps his father has superhuman tolerance, perhaps his English comprehension is as bad as the son says (‘his vestigial phrase of English after ten years in England, Bye, bye’), perhaps there is a stronger tradition of literary parricide in Germany. But it is hard to imagine any English son writing with such unkind candour about his begetter, especially when that begetter is a public figure. Hofmann’s book comes in the footsteps of Tony Harrison’s Continuous, Craig Raine’s Rich, Paul Muldoon’s Quoof and Hugo Williams’s Letters Home, all of which voyage round the paterfamilias: that tradition is much more pious and affectionate. The Williams offers the closest comparison: it too is about an overbearing writer-father and adopts a laconic, confessional voice. But Hugh Williams (1904-69) is not around to complain about the fairness or otherwise of the portrayal. Michael Hofmann runs greater risks, aesthetic as well as familial.
That his sequence succeeds triumphantly, its acrimony leaving no bad taste in the mouth, is due in part to its obsessionalism, which implies a love no outward protestation of disgust can conceal: the poet trusts that his bitterness will also convey something sweeter, which it does. His desperate need for his father’s attention and approval; his almost naive longing for a ‘normal’ family life; above all, his sadness that there isn’t more to show for the relationship – these are the fruit behind the thorns:
To come upon by chance, while emptying the dustbin,
the ripped, glittery foil-wrapping of his heart-medicines ...
The heart-medicine discloses a heart complaint, the son’s as well as the father’s. There is a pang in the passage like that in Larkin’s ‘Love Songs in Age’, or ‘Reference Back’, as love is glimpsed still promising to solve and satisfy, and father and son are linked by a sense that if they had acted differently their relationship might have flourished. It won’t now, but this marvellous sequence of poems will provide it with a lasting memorial.
The poems in Part One of Acrimony are necessarily overshadowed by what follows, but they also concern patrimony of a kind: the poet’s feelings towards England, his adoptive fatherland. It, too, disappoints him. Derelicts in tea-rooms, hamburger heavens and Chinese takeaways, lamp-posts and phone-booths with the sticky labels of call-girls, crapping starlings and pigeons, the ‘pubic scrub’ of London streets, bedsits gone sour with ‘the yellow of unlove’: from the attic rooms of soon-to-be-demolished houses, Hofmann makes acute notes on our inner-city decay. On weekends away, he sees ‘frivolous blush-pink’ rectories and ‘dog-eared, dog rose’ corners of the countryside hanging on vulnerably under the noise of fighter-planes. There is something anonymous about the way Hofmann registers anonymity: ‘I was not myself, I was just anyone,’ he writes, an exile even to his own feelings and experiences. Where others might point the moral, he merely points, or lets his sentences dwindle to three full points. This aposiopesic method is part of a prosey casualness that also expresses itself in uncapitalised line beginnings, sprawlingly long sentences, and a lack of rhyme: rhymes, uppercase letters and completed sentences would seem too confident and authoritative. But Hofmann has begun to acquire real authority as an observer of contemporary Britain: he is one of the best we have.
For all that, his book is a much travelled one (as was his last), cosmopolitan in range and allusion: if the Heaney-Harrison-Raine generation’s is a poetry of roots, his generation’s is a poetry of rootlessness. One can see this from the first books of Stephen Romer (born like Hofmann in 1957) and Alan Moore (born 1960), and from the two outstanding contributors to New Chatto Poets, Adam Thorpe (born 1956) and Alan Jenkins (born 1955). One might call these four poets ‘sophisticated’, though this perhaps means no more than that they are all, in one way or another, Francophiles, and that they write without inhibition of affaires de coeur. Only Thorpe among them seems at all attracted to the local or parochial: the others are drawn to silk, elegance and high art.
The first half of Romer’s Idols is given over to a love-sequence in rhyming couplets. Stephen Dedalus (‘We even share a name’) is invoked in the first poem, Proust, Flaubert and Corbière in others, but the tone is not unlike that of Metaphysical love poetry: the clever, wounded, slightly narcissistic suitor bewails his lot, relishes memories of his lover’s body, occasionally becomes cynical (‘if you want to get deep in your girl,’ he tells us, ‘you have to dig deep in your pocket’), sometimes sends himself up (‘Iambic youth, you put your oar in everywhere’), and eventually moves south to learn ‘the sybaritic virtue of forgetfulness.’ Alan Moore’s Opia ranges more widely: to put it less kindly, it’s all over the place – buoyant and ambitious, but not sure what poetic dress to wear, sometimes setting out in a borrowed Martian spacesuit. Moore is at his best in the ‘Seine Sonnets’, where he joins his near anagram Romer to roam Paris and maunder over absinthe in its brasseries. Romer is the edgier, wittier, more introspective of the two, reminiscent at times of early Gunn. At his best Moore is less restrained, less prissy:
We will whisper rude secrets to each other.
Wear your red beret and the woollen dress.
The Aran one. The one with easy access.
Alan Jenkins’s poems throng with sensuous, druggy, anorexic girls. Some of what he fancies seems borrowed from Paul Muldoon, but not the moving elegy to his father, ‘Ties’, nor the girl in ‘Song’,
Turning in the lathe
Of my hands like a length
Of seasoned wood ...
A.D. Hope would surely approve of the eroticism, cosmopolitanism and allusiveness of these young poets, though he was never strictly speaking a young poet himself, his first book of poems appearing when he was 48. The wit and sexual explicitness were youthful, however, lingam and yoni ‘walking hand in glove’, and gave offence to readers in Australia in the Fifties, as the disenchanted poem ‘Australia’ (‘a vast parasite robber-state’) must also have done. Typical of Hope’s cleverness is ‘The Elegy’, in which he rewrites Donne and Marvell by having a hungry lover plead with his mistress to get out of bed (‘Madam, no more! The time has come to eat!’), the reversal no less erotic, as it turns out, than what it reverses. Or there is ‘The Brides’, which works out to every last wheel-tread a conceit of brides-to-be as cars on an assembly line (‘Room for his knees; a honey of a clutch’), yet manages not to be prurient or in other respects ideologically unsound. He is a smaller talent than Auden but a highly attractive one, and he shares some of the same scientific preoccupations. The Selected Poems has a useful introduction by Ruth Morse.
Craig Raine’s libretto The Electrification of the Soviet Union might be seen as a further strand in his continuing argument with Tom Paulin over The Faber Book of Political Verse. On the one hand, Raine here shows himself to be a writer who can step out of the domestic tunnel into the stadium of politics and history. He takes Pasternak’s novella The Last Summer, set in 1916 with flashbacks to 1914, and lets the shadow of the Russian Revolution fall across it, adding an epilogue set in 1920 or 1921. It becomes a far more overtly political work in his hands than in Pasternak’s (or in the translation of the novella by George Reavey), with Pasternak himself putting in an appearance to comment on the sacrifice of lives to political causes. On the other hand, all the imaginative sympathies here are with those who stand for the preservation of family life. The central character is Serezha, a poet, too naive to be either Pasternak or Raine, but sensitive and gifted and more to be admired than his hard-headed sister, whose song in praise of the New Man, 1917 model, is undermined by the facility of its rhyming:
He’s broken away from the past.
The old world has spoken its last,
the old world is broken at last.
The repressed Nordic Mrs Arild, who refuses Serezha’s love and ends up – gun in holster and jargon on her lips – in the uniform of a Party official, is also unsympathetic, though her behaviour is ‘explained’ by her moving widow’s lament ‘I died the day my husband died.’ Considerably more warmth goes into Raine’s portrayal of Sashka, a prostitute, the third woman in Serezha’s life, who is seen peeing on a chamberpot and who talks of clients who ‘come all over my face’. One of Raine’s most attractive qualities is his readiness to give offence, especially where the sensibilities to be offended concern reticence about bodily functions. Sashka is otherwise characterised with impeccable conventionality (she has drifted into prostitution after being seduced) and the scenes in which she appears, and which include her drunk, Edmund Heepish husband, are those which carry most voltage. The Epilogue, about the Revolution’s aftermath, seems crude in comparison, as do most of the politics, the current scarcely switched on at all. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to observe what Raine drops or develops from Pasternak, and if the theatrical power of the piece must remain in doubt until next summer (by which time the composer Nigel Osborne should have got his act together), three or four of the lyrics make the libretto well worth reading.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.