‘Welch herzzereißendes Glück’ [book review]

A review of Nagel im Himmel (A Nail in the Sky) by Patrick Hofmann

German author Patrick Hofmann’s second novel, Nagel im Himmel (A Nail in the Sky) is an intimate, moving portrait of a brilliant young mathematician. As might be expected – the two words often go hand in hand – Oliver Seuß, our protagonist, can also be described as ‘troubled’, yet Hofmann moves away from the traditional genius–madness trope to deliver instead a meditation on outsider-ness and identification with our origins that is deeply embedded in its setting of the former East Germany. Stuffed full of Saxon dialect and carefully researched mathematics, Nagel im Himmel is a dense read that would provide a challenge for any translator, and ultimately manages to capture something of the ‘heartbreaking happiness of being alive’.

Nagel im Himmel Patrick Hofmann

Born in the final summer of the GDR and abandoned shortly afterwards by his mother, Oliver Seuß grows up under the watch of his grandmother and largely absent father in a small, sometimes distressingly close-knit East German town. Evidently gifted at a young age, he attends a special school for mathematics and by the age of seventeen is being recognised at international competitions. Oliver is brilliant – there is no doubt about it – but he is also lazy, obstreperous and often drunk, a vice inherited from his father and other male members of the family. Even when offered generous support for a PhD attempting to solve the Riemann hypothesis, Oliver continues to be extremely difficult, pushing away those keen to help him and indulging in self-destructive behaviour apparently deliberately. Finally, slow-blossoming love and a breakthrough in his six-year-long problem-solving task delivers Oliver into a state akin to happiness.

This isn’t all, however – despite suggestions made by the blurb and all appearances throughout the course of the novel, Hofmann isn’t content to let the reader have an entirely happy ending. In the final chapter Oliver is plunged unexpectedly into illness, upon which the narrative viewpoint switches to his now-fiancée, Ina. And while we are, finally, allowed a taste of redemption, the novel has become something quite unexpected, asking challenging questions about the nature of love and how far we would go for those who mean the most to us.

Although the rest of the novel was largely enjoyable, it was this final chapter that appealed the most and which, as a result, left me feeling slightly disappointed that it hadn’t taken up more of the narrative. Hofmann’s consistently philosophical take on his characters’ inner lives and the effect wrought by their surroundings is carefully and successfully applied here, while Ina’s almost impossible situation made me engage with the novel on a level I hadn’t before. At the same time, the relatively short space in which Hofmann seeks to tackle such large questions means that the subject matter is relatively compromised – an entire book would be needed to explore properly the themes touched upon here. Perhaps a starting point for a future novel: when it comes to the human condition and the many forms it can take, it seems as though Hofmann has a considerable amount to say.

Another redeeming aspect of this final chapter was the sudden shift in narrative perspective to Ina, who is otherwise a consistently present yet remarkably sidelined character. All the secondary figures in this novel are in fact given similar treatment; Hofmann sticks closely to Oliver’s point of view, allowing us to see other characters – his parents, stepmother, Harry Potter-obsessed PhD supervisor – only through the lens of his feelings towards them. And while this is no doubt helpful in a novel so intensely about our inner lives, about the way we engage with or feel cut off from the world, it can often be a bit of a challenge – the harsh fact is, Oliver isn’t terribly likeable. That we should feel this way is a sign of successful characterisation (our main protagonist is difficult – there are no two ways about it), but it did feel like a breath of fresh air to be finally given a new, perhaps more relatable perspective.

Any difficulty we may feel in connecting with Oliver or his life is, of course, the point of this novel – Hofmann is writing about how it feels to consider oneself an outsider, and there could be no better way of doing this than to make the reader feel this way too. He achieves this in part through the distancing characterisation just mentioned, but also through repeated use of Saxon dialect – a device designed not just to set the scene, but also to make the reader slow down, even stumble – and the mathematical theory he consistently refers to in a manner just complex enough to make any non-experts feel alienated. From a young age Oliver is, of course, enamoured of prime numbers – ‘Sometimes I feel like a large prime number,’ he tells his PhD supervisor in a touchingly entertaining scene that sees him go on to describe exactly which one – and the Riemann hypothesis to which he eventually devotes his life is one of the great unsolved problems in number theory. Looking it up afterwards left me none the wiser, but feeling instead a great deal of respect for Hofmann for wanting to tackle this in a work of fiction – and managing to do so convincingly.

As a novel, Nagel im Himmel has a bit of an outsider feeling, an every-man-for-himself kind of attitude that seeks, I believe, to emulate a certain East German sentiment, as well as engaging with lives that refuse to – or cannot – line up with our mainstream expectations. A challenge on many levels, but a pleasing one at that, Hofmann has created a novel that demonstrates how life can so often be composed of ‘anger, despair and chaos’ but, also, moments of brilliance and light.

Nagel im Himmel by Patrick Hofmann is published by Penguin Verlag and available in German. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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