Book Review: Eva Hoffman’s Appassionata and Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

Whether waltzing through a memoir or sprucing up fiction, Eva Hoffman demonstrates her lifelong love affair with words

Author Eva Hoffman uses vivid language to make her books come alive | Illustration: Katharina Klein

Reconciling Lost Passion With a New Beginning

Meet Isabel Merton, a beautiful, talented and successful pianist just starting her new European tour. At her first stop in Paris, she meets a Chechen representative to the EU. Two worlds, seemingly opposite, attract, and they start an affair.

The story might seem like a simple romance, yet Eva Hoffman’s Appassionata is anything but simple. For one, Hoffman, a trained pianist, reveals the hidden side of a musician’s life. We also see the inherent paradox in the lives of successful musicians: a blurry collection of airports, hotel rooms, rehearsals, concerts, and dinners with whomever happens to be there. The novel thus poses a very interesting question: Can (performing) art fill the void of a Spartan life?

To fill her void, Isabel falls for a man whose life seems to burst with something else. Unfortunately, what she thinks is a dimension she is lacking turns out to be the very source of her emptiness – a blinding dedication to one’s cause. And while her version of sacrificing oneself for a passion involves thousands of uplifted listeners, his will involve killing the innocent. Isabel falls into a black hole and asks herself: What makes life fulfilling?

Don’t expect an answer. She comes out of her black hole but is not drastically changed – she learns to accept her life and her ex-husband, and to be more open to the world around her.

Appassionata takes you on a road trip through various European cities. If you’re excited at the prospect of descriptions of Vienna, don’t be – there are none. Only of Los Angeles. In other cities, you will meet cosmopolites who trot the globe and have opinions on a range of issues. This is where Hoffman’s political commentaries are hidden, especially about the U.S.’s role in world politics.

Unfortunately, as multi-layered as this book is, the characters are one-dimensional. They remain mouthpieces for ideas, reminiscent of the ideological characters in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, or Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. This quickly makes them, their conversations, and their thoughts boring. We do not really care about them and what will become of them – which can turn the book into a slow read.

The best part of Appassionata is the language, which is colourful and complex. Hoffman’s passion for language allows her to write about music in a very special way and almost lets her achieve the impossible: bring music to life through words. She lends unique insight into the magic of classical music. Yes, it sometimes feels overwritten, but if you read Hoffman’s first book Lost in Translation, you will understand where she comes from.

A remarkable memoir, Lost in Translation relates Hoffman’s life as an immigrant. Born in Kracow, Poland to Holocaust survivors, she emigrated with her family to Vancouver in 1959. She earned a PhD in literature at Harvard and sought to build a career as a “New York intellectual” as an author and senior editor at The New York Times.

There is something honest, powerful and organic about first books, and this is exactly Lost in Translation. Like Appassionata, it has multiple dimensions: loving descriptions of her childhood in Poland; isolation, confusion and cultural shock in the new country; a portrait of a Jewish community in Vancouver; and a description of the world of the New York intellectual elite.

Most of all, it analyses the eternal alienation of the uprooted who have left their country for good and will never truly be at home anywhere. Hoffman describes this experience with such depth that readers who have experienced an immigrant life will be deeply touched, and those who haven’t will learn what it means.

Here one discovers how Hoffman passionately embraced a new language as a way of coping with her new home. She became an expert in it, dissecting it, analysing it. This coping skill opened up a remarkable professional path, making possible the beauty of books like Appassionata that strive for, possibly even suffer from, this intellectualisation of a language by a writer in love. ÷

 

Appassionata
by Eva Hoffman
Other Press (2009)
pp. 272

 

Lost in Translation:
A Life in a New Language
by Eva Hoffman
Penguin (1990)
pp. 288

Order “Apassionata” online

Order “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language” online

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