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This article is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

The Lonely Art (on Michael Hofmann) André Naffis

‘The translator, right?’ Imagine a face creasing into a grimace. Imagine the surprise. The man slid the only title of Hofmann’s they had in stock over to me – a reissue of Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums. I left thinking it was a strange turn of events. Michael Hofmann had always been something of an acquired taste, but considering the gap between his last full-length collection in 1999 and the appearance of his Selected Poems in 2008, one would be forgiven for wondering whether he had simply given up. As a translator, his productivity is semi-legendary: twenty-one volumes in under half as many years. Yet as Stephen Knight noted in a piece published in The Independent, there was a time when you couldn’t open a poetry magazine without coming across his name. In his heyday, Hofmann was a wunderkind. He was twenty-six when Nights In The Iron Hotel first appeared in 1983. It was immediately recognised as a singularly striking debut. Jamie McKendrick wrote: ‘he just vaulted over the whole messy ditch of juvenilia and knew what he was about from the start’.

I took Müller’s novel back to my lodgings: a sparsely furnished room in Hackney, the sort Hofmann himself might have lived in – ‘high up in the drafty cranium of the house’. Many of his poems took place in rooms, but they were not simple rooms. They had astronomical dimensions, a satisfying mixture of local detail and cosmic scale, such as in ...

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