Your CV is not Your Life!
Review by Rachel S Harris
Curriculum Vitae is a remarkable novel by Yoel Hoffman, one of Israel’s most original avant garde writers; an autobiographical tour de force that toys with the conventions of this form of writing.
The story starts with the author’s earliest memories – the remarriage of his father following his mother’s death, and then takes us into a trip through the major and more importantly, minor events of his life; his children’s births, his loves, his flimsy reflections or serious thoughts about literature, Japanese Buddhism and mortality. Comic reflections on life are juxtaposed with serious contemplations of God and tied together through language: “take, for example, the extended family named Buchbinder. In fact not all of them bind books. And there are, remarkably, bookbinders with other names entirely. ..The only logical thing in the world is the prayer Barukh ata adonai (Blessed art Thou O Lord out God). Not because of its religiosity. But because of its sounds, as each one leads to the one that follows.”
Curriculum Vitae is preoccupied with man’s quest for love. The narrator reflects on childhood longing, women he married, women he didn’t marry: “Lotte’s laugh is the nicest memory-sound of my childhood. If she hadn’t been twenty years older than me (flaming balls passed then from the eastern part of the Sharon plains toward the sea), I’d have married her.”
The novel depicts events, with vivid imagery, but shies away from the deep emotions felt through them. This is part of the writing’s strength – implying as it does that there are things which words cannot capture and moments of beauty that are too personal to be the topic of flippant prose: “When we got to Sharm al-Sheikh, the only woman there – among some one thousand men – hugged me all evening long (I’ll never forget that act of kindness). We sat (I remember) under the demolished cannon … At eleven, all at once, all the lights went out (and here the temptation grows very great to write something that ends with “stars”).”
The hyper consciousness, the author expresses towards the act of writing, is part of the game played throughout the text. The book draws its title from the central European notion of an extended CV which demands personal history, and not just a professional one. It is in marked contrast to the single line entry style resume common in Anglo-Saxon countries. But this book questions whether a life can be reduced to bullet points and moments in time, even personal and familial records. Instead, it is the in between processes that really characterise a life. Yet the text remains fragmented as if to show that the creation of any such narrative is a mythical exercise.
Hoffman commemorates the notable events, and clearly those that would be of interest in recording the life story as in a bildungsroman. But he comically, and gently, presents such events through a context that envisages them. However, his reflections are often surreal and dissociative and are as much about the Age as they are about his own experiences: “Sometimes (during the sixties) the earth spun too quickly and therefore the sun rose and set swiftly. In roughly an hour. Maybe forty minutes.”
Throughout the book, powerfully constructed imagery reads with the delicacy of a haiku, a form at which he is highly accomplished: “A Japanese monk came to Ein Kerem and we sat with him for a week, like frogs.” Hoffman’s writing can be considered philosophical meditations on the beauty of living. “There is no limit to the beauty of things. Stooped people. Trees. All sorts of things in the courtyard (an old motorbike, for instance). I remember a man crossing the waiting room at the train station.” But he never descends into the prosaic, and his witty satire keeps the text light.
This book is hard to capture and impossible to categorise. Hoffman’s poetic prose style is unlike any of other contemporary Israeli writer and I found that the book requires several readings – though each time I picked it up, I read it cover to cover in a single sitting. Its rhythm almost demands such attention. Like his other books, this one shares the influence of Japanese literature. However, unlike his other writings this text is considerably more accessible. One of the finest and most original works to appear in English translation – it is certainly a must read for Hebrew literature aficionados, or for those who like music in writing: “The setting of this book ( I neglected to mention) is the world. Bugs are in it. Nor is history ignored. Agamemnon, for instance. Textile stores- in their places – come into it. On Paris Square for instance. In Haifa. And countless envoys (with pizza, and so forth). Some ride bikes. Although it is nearly flat, the dimensions of space in the book are infinite. It’s impossible to mention all the stars, but they too enter into its equation.”
- Curriculum Vitae by Yoel Hoffman, Translated by Peter Cole, A New Directions Book, Keter Publishing House and Harris/Elon Agency of Israel, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8112-1832-0 $14.95