Tales of Hofmann

Blake Morrison

  • Acrimony by Michael Hofmann
    Faber, 79 pp, £8.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 571 14527 2
  • Idols by Stephen Romer
    Oxford, 48 pp, £3.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 19 281984 4
  • Opia by Alan Moore
    Anvil, 83 pp, £4.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 85646 161 X
  • New Chatto Poets edited by Andrew Motion
    Chatto, 79 pp, £4.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3080 6
  • A.D. Hope: Selected Poems edited by Ruth Morse
    Carcanet, 139 pp, £3.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 85635 640 9
  • The Electrification of the Soviet Union by Craig Raine
    Faber, 69 pp, £8.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 571 14539 6

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’.

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[*] Carcanet, 232 pp., £8.95, 0 85635 581 X.