Fellow local blogger James Warren recently posted a seemingly depressing list of “top books” listed on Cambridge students’ Facebook pages. But I’d not be too downhearted. Probably the moral is: don’t believe all you read in Facebook entries! I know that when I was still a college fellow and “director of studies” and so able to get to know a few students very well over their three years here, I’d repeatedly be surprised when they eventually opened up about the books that they really loved and which meant something to them. I learnt a lot that way, about the students themselves, and about books too.
Just a couple of weeks ago — I can’t at all recall how it came up — one of our graduate students warmly recommended to me the Hollingdale translation of excerpts from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. This version was quite new to me, and is a real delight. I had a much shorter collection of excerpts translated by Franz Mautner and Henry Hatfield almost forty years ago; and I first came across the aphorisms and their author in a favourite book that I had when a student, J. P. Stern’s Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions. But the pleasure of re-discovery after a good few years is enormous.
I was moved too — having found a number of enthusiastic reviews — to send off for another book, Gert Hofmann’s novel Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl (this indeed was the contents of the packet that should have contained Leopard!). But I found this really rather disappointing.
The novel is based on Lichtenberg’s relationship with Maria Stechard, the thirteen year old girl he met selling flowers (he, a hunchback, was by then in his mid thirties); she became his housekeeper, then his lover, and died shortly after her seventeenth birthday to his intense distress (the story, though, is Beauty and the Beast, not Lolita). But the Lichtenberg in Hofmann’s tale is just too far from the Lichtenberg I thought I knew from the Waste Books — he seems a diminished and much less substantial figure than the highly successful and popular teacher, the science professor at Göttingen, who inhabits Stern’s pages (he lives in too distant an alternative possible world). And die kleine Stechardin remains almost as blank in Hoffman’s novel as she does in Lichtenberg’s handful of references to her.