LICHTENBERG AND THE LITTLE FLOWER GIRL

By Gert Hofmann

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

New Directions. 245 pp. $23.95 Happiness is notoriously hard to describe, and few novelists even bother with such an inherently boring condition. Happy families are all alike, etc., etc. But misunderstanding, rivalry, jealousy and hatred -- now these offer the full panoply of interesting plot options. In most novels happiness arrives only in the final chapter, when the right lovers are finally united, the orphan identified as the old millionaire's long-lost child and the hero welcomed home by his faithful Penelope. Alas, should a blissful young family appear in chapter one, nothing but horror and disaster can possibly await them. In chapter two, the husband will almost certainly be dragooned by mercenaries who've wandered in from the Thirty Years' War, the delicate wife will be duly gang-raped before being sold as a concubine, and the couple's flaxen-haired daughter -- a dancing, blue-eyed pixie-child of 6 -- will be traded to an evil plutocrat who believes that quaffing the blood of pre-pubescent virgins will extend his life. But 400 pages later everyone will be back together, and all's well that ends well.

Yes, that's a Real Novel.

By contrast, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl merely recounts the growing affection between a dwarfish hunchback and a young girl who becomes first his servant, then his lover. Nothing dramatic happens. Really, nothing at all, unless you regard philosophical conversation between 18th-century German academics as dramatic. But about a third of the way through Gert Hofmann's novel, one realizes that here is a quiet and convincing description of human happiness.

The misshapen Lichtenberg is a professor at the University of Gottingen and "because of his hunchback, he had to be clever the whole time, people expected that of him." But the "little man" yearns for tenderness. Sometimes he puts on his wig and trots off to a concert. "There were pretty young ladies sitting there, maybe he would catch one? Lichtenberg went right up to them, but he didn't manage to catch any. They were only there for display purposes." That touch of dry humor, by the way, is wholly characteristic of Hofmann's glancing, indirect style: "Professor Kastner (1719-1800) liked to stand by the window. He was twenty-three years older than Lichtenberg and of course much, much taller."

One day the ill-favored Lichtenberg notices a pretty 13-year-old flower girl named Maria Stechard. He dubs her the Stechardess, and soon begins to spend more and more time with her. Finally, one mild spring night, the shy beauty moves into his house, where she helps out in little domestic ways. Time passes, and Hofmann touchingly suggests the pathos of the heartsick Lichtenberg's growing desire for the girl, a mere servant, after all, illiterate besides, not of his class, and he a cripple too. And yet.

"At night he often stood in front of her door, pressing an ear to it. He wanted to hear her breathing. Every sound that reached him, he would match up with some movement on her part. Because she wore straw-soled shoes, he could hardly hear her. Her bonnet was green and laced under the chin. Her chin was white and soft, and he would have loved to stroke it. Her skirts were black and dark-green, and reached almost down to the floor. That's how I'll picture her to myself, thought Lichtenberg, when she's booted out of my life again."

But the Stechardess doesn't abandon him. Instead, as the seasons pass, she slowly grows to love the little man. By this point, if not earlier, the modern reader has come to realize that this isn't Lolita but Beauty and the Beast. Lichtenberg teaches his darling her letters; she prepares his meals; they talk and talk. And their love continues to grow, until one night they eventually sleep together. Afterward, they find themselves, suddenly, unexpectedly, even more happy. For a while Lichtenberg tries to keep their relationship a secret -- and here one feels he should have been more courageous -- but eventually Gottingen society knows what's going on and tacitly accepts it. There's a "sad" ending to this tender story, but it arrives so fast that it hardly matters; one remembers only the delicate portrait of a kind of marriage, a little civilization created by two needy people who have somehow managed to find each other.

Hofmann builds his compact novel with short scenes and observations, which together grant the story speed, lightness and a certain emotional distance. But this darting, apparently haphazard form also allows him to emulate a diary, and thus to incorporate actual passages from Lichtenberg's so-called "Waste Books," the name given to his collections of notes and aphorisms: e.g., "The most important things in the world flow through tubes." Indeed, the novel incidentally provides a good brief introduction to its hero's life and thought.

One of the luminaries of German culture, Georg Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was in his heyday internationally respected as a scientist, a wide-ranging polymath who worked with electricity, studied the heavens and surveyed the towns of Hanover and Osnabruck. Yet this "cripple" of Gottingen was also an important writer and is today revered as a master of the aphorism as well as an astonishingly imaginative critic of the English artist William Hogarth. (See The World of Hogarth: Lichtenberg's Commentaries, translated by Innes and Gustav Herdan, who describe the book as "an ingenious reading of the tales found in Hogarth's engravings." Ingenious isn't the half of it -- Lichtenberg makes every detail of "Marriage-a-la-Mode" or "The Rake's Progress" into an occasion for a mini-essay on 18th-century mores and customs.) The aphorisms have been translated several times, by Louis Kronenberger ("The fly that doesn't want to be swatted is most secure when it lights on the fly swatter") and more recently by R.J. Hollingdale ("He moved as slowly as an hour-hand in a crowd of second-hands").

Throughout Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, Gert Hofmann deliberately toys with the reader by never giving in full his hero's most famous observation: "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is unlikely to look out." A true enough statement, most of the time. But not in this fine and original book (lovingly translated by the late novelist's son, the poet and critic Michael Hofmann). The 18th century might describe Lichtenberg as an ape, as it did that other dwarf-genius Alexander Pope, but in Hofmann's pages he is kind-hearted, lovable, funny and absolutely devoted to his Stechardess, not quite an apostle, perhaps, but surprisingly close to one nonetheless. *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.