Stuart Kelly is apparently a great admirer of writer, translator and critic Michael Hofmann. He says that people are wrong to think that critics are envious of authors; they are in fact envious of other critics. However it seems Hofmann is more comfortable as a writer than a raconteur as throughout the session Kelly had to work to get him to expand on his interesting but concise answers to questions.
He begins by reading a piece he wrote for Poetry Magazine, discussing the fact that he has reached the age of reading glasses and an increasing tendency to reread old material rather than looking for something new. When discussion begins he explains that he aims to write unanswerable reviews. They are not intended to receive a response and the only reaction should be a reader deciding whether or not to part with cash for the book in question. He sometimes feels like he is standing like a signpost in a desert but with the world so full of misdirection (or complete lack of direction) there is some virtue in being a signpost.
Kelly says that he finds he always want to give a first impression of a book in a review. When judging the Mann Booker Prize he was very conscious of the fact that they had all read the short-listed books three times by the time they came to a decision, something the readers were unlikely to do. Hofmann doesn’t have any set methods for writing a review and he doesn’t feel there is much difference in reviewing a novel compared to a poetry collection. He does feel that prose should aim to be like good poetry, and at one point clobbered Richard Flanagan for writing prose that read like bad poetry. He’s more likely to discuss fine details when reviewing fiction and when it came to that particular Flanagan review he felt there were sections that didn’t feel like they belonged in the same book.
When is comes to the popularity of certain writers Hofmann explains that sometimes life events become distractions. Everything is viewed through the lens of that moment when it shouldn’t be. He tries not to think of Sylvia Plath in terms of suicide or Kees in terms of disappearance. Though he does think Kees’ life is interesting. Most American poets only do poetry and they don’t try anything else. Kees on the other hand was a jazz pianist, art reviewer and his art was shown alongside Jackson Pollock’s. Hofmann is interested in people who produce something different and likes an air of homemade authenticity. He thinks Ted Hughes was the best English writer since Shakespeare, perhaps because he felt his writing had gusto.
Kelly suggests that English writing had more in common with French modernism and hasn’t had the same engagement with German literature. Hofmann feels there is a certain type of ‘thinkyness’ that is prized in Germany in a way it isn’t elsewhere. Part of the problem for a German modernist writer is that a lot of what you might try to do has already by done by Günter Grass or the French or the Russians.
Discussion moves on to the difficulties of translation and Hofmann says that the beginning of any translation is the knowledge that an absolutely true translation is impossible. Then you accept that fact and do what you can. Every translation requires a whole series of linguistic decisions, including the issues of whether or not to translate cultural references. Translation is possible but it requires infinite patience.