Varieties of Silence

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula

I often wonder what it would take to enumerate the varieties of silence that descend on human speech. There’s the omnipresent silence against which all speech is a rebellion. There are the micro-silences of words omitted from a torrent of speech, words that would alter the meaning of the whole. There are the silences of elision, whole disclosures suppressed or withheld, and there are the silences of obfuscation, whereby words on overdrive work so hard to conceal what has been left out that they end up casting light on its absence. There are, of course, many other varieties. If only the English language had the capacity to name them. German does, a little, or at least a little better. In the opening lines of her translation of Sandra Hoffman’s Paula, Katy Derbyshire makes the daring decision to spell this out for Anglophone readers, in a break with the author’s original text:

We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet. Schweigen offers nothing to hold on to… You hear, from somewhere else or from inside yourself, the dark sounds of muteness turning against you; you hear them as rumbling, as murmuring, as ongoing grumbling, muttering, somewhere far away and yet also near. As though all the unspoken words were seeking ways out of that mute body and into the room, forging their way to you. They rob you of your peace and of your sleep. Schweigen, when someone lives close beside you and remains so silent, swallows down every word so unrelentingly that there is nothing left over, not for you or anyone else.

Sandra Hoffmann, Paula.
Translated by Katy Derbyshire.
V&Q Books, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

At a certain point around the third sentence, this passage dissolves into a faithful translation of Hoffman’s original text; but, as Derbyshire writes in her translator’s note, the first sentence-and-a-half is more experimental than most translations, and as such it gives a slightly different shade to the atmosphere of the opening pages. While the tone of the original is declarative, the tone of the translation is more explanatory and, as a result, a little more intimate. Obviously, such a tonal shift wouldn’t be appropriate for every translation, but it does seem appropriate for this one, since Paula is so much about the relationship between silence and intimacy — the intimacy of the narrator’s involvement in an intergenerational silence, and her use of intimacy as a tool with which to chip away at it.

The narrator appears to be a version of Hoffmann herself, so that her English-language publisher — V&Q, a small press recently established by Derbyshire — describes Paula as a work of autofiction. The silence, however, belongs not to the narrator but to her grandmother, Paula. Paula died at age 82, eighteen years before the writing of the book, and quite literally “never talked about herself, not to the very end. She took her whole life to the grave, all her secrets and all her troubles.” Her silence was not the silence of die Stille, a calm stillness, but indeed of schweigen, of being silenced, of choosing silence, of maintaining it — of silencing oneself and steadfastly swallowing one’s words.

Of course, it’s not strictly the case that Paula was silent about herself. She told her story, in her own way; it was just so brief as to be virtually empty of meaning. “Paula was born on All Hallow’s Day”, the narrator writes,

in a small village in the middle of Catholic Upper Swabia. She was her parents’ first child. … [H]er family did not have much money. She grew up with two sisters and a brother, who died on the front in the Second World War. She did talk about his death. Over and over, more often than I wanted to hear it.

He died, in the war.

That was Paula’s story. Five words long.

On one level, then, Paula is an answer to the question of what Paula was concealing: as the narrator says, “I want to get to the bottom of it”, and so she begins to dig. On another level, though, Paula is the narrator’s account of why her grandmother felt the need to silence herself — and how Paula’s resolute silence poisoned the air between her and her descendants, as she and they lived cheek by jowl in “the house where nothing gets better”.

In this last sense, Paula makes a nice companion piece to On Chapel Sands (2019), Laura Cummings’ investigation into the community-wide silence surrounding the temporary abduction of her mother as a three-year-old child. Much as Cummings’ line of inquiry leads her to a wartime shame, the hint of an illegitimate birth, so too does Hoffmann’s narrator find herself following a trail back into the interwar years. She recalls asking her grandmother about her absent grandfather, only to be fobbed off. She recalls, too, opening a box of her grandmother’s photographs and finding a picture of “three dark-skinned men”. When she sets that picture beside her mother’s communion photo — a photo in which “anyone can see how different my mother looks, how unlike the rest of the family” — she is startled by the similarities between the girl and “the man whose skin is lighter”. It’s not hard to see where this narrative is going. There are other surprises along the way — an alcohol addiction, a lover present in Paula’s life long before the narrator’s mother was born — but the direction of travel is clear from early on. Thankfully, there’s more to Paula than the pursuit of a mystery, and the novel is at its best when it trades investigation for rumination, turning over questions that have no hope of being answered by dogged research.

Hoffmann is especially good on the materiality of memory — material phenomena as triggers for a resurgence of memory, and as unreliable repositories of it. Paula, for instance, is remembered often in terms of sounds and smells, or furtive movements glimpsed at the edges of vision. A forbiddingly pious woman, she is often represented as a figure of almost statuesque stillness but for her surreptitious fingering of rosary beads: “Her hand would move in her apron pocket like a small creature, unwilling to show itself at work.” And yet even the strength of her connection to those rosary beads offers the narrator no insight into her innermost nature. Nor, for that matter, does Paula’s hoarding of precious photographs: “I count 419 photos in my grandmother’s boxes and albums”, the narrator says, but she comes to resent her false hope that they can teach her anything, “[a]s though the sheer number of mute pictures might belie the lack of stories told about them.”

Equally impressive is Hoffmann’s treatment of the infectiousness of Paula’s silence. The narrator recalls that Paula didn’t just maintain silence over her own history, but also maintained a silent presence as she moved about the house. This secondary silence led grandmother and granddaughter to the brink of open conflict, as the puritanical Paula would sneak into her granddaughter’s bedroom while the girl believed she was alone, privately listening to music, and then would wait to be seen instead of announcing herself. “I don’t notice the rustling until it’s close at hand”, the narrator recalls of one incident. “It’s my grandmother’s stockings, rubbing against each other between her hefty thighs. … It’s as though I’d been touching myself and my grandmother saw me. I’m ashamed and I stammer something, shocked.” Not only that, but she turns off the music and leaves in a hurry, without another word — leaves her own bedroom, in an embarrassed silence of her own — and when she complains to her mother, a broader silence is the result. “I don’t want her just coming in without knocking”, she says. Her mother’s advice is blunt: “Tell her that.” “I have told her”, she says, and what she really wants is for her mother to speak up in her defence. But the narrator can’t summon the resolve to tell Paula again, and her mother doesn’t have it either. Indeed, her mother hushes any words that might generate the slightest friction between persons — so that Paula’s silence obtains a radiant power, demanding both that others submit to it and that they adopt silences of their own. This situation reaches its nadir in a scene that verges on comedy, but for the sadness at its core. The narrator, her parents, and Paula all sit down for a family therapy session. However, despite the therapist’s efforts to spur discussion, Paula refuses to let her silence falter — and, as a result, it consumes them all:

Silence is carried down generations. When everything that has to be said is not said, and everything that would be better left unsaid is spoken. … You know that in this house, [the] fear [of death] is sometimes the other side of anger, fear of anger. Anger at everything that has never been said, anger at your own inability to ask in such a way that prompts answers, anger at the others, who are silent in the same way she was silent, and as you are silent along with them now.

Where Paula really shines, though, is in its narrator’s capacity for doubt, as Hoffmann carves out spaces in which to question the worth of hoping to know a person by eroding their armour of silence? “What makes a person?” the narrator asks at one point, apparently in despair, unsure about whether stripping back the silence surrounding her grandmother will finally yield anything worthwhile — unsure, that is, as to whether it’s a valid method of developing a sympathetic imagination or merely an engine of fantasy. “And how can a woman add up… if she’s done her utmost to reveal nothing of herself”, she continues, “as though she could still say: No, I won’t give you permission. No, you may not know me. No, you may not tell my story. How far do vetoes extend? How far does silence reach?” There are no ready answers to these questions, and their unanswerability tears holes in the integrity of Paula. It is to Hoffmann’s credit that her narrator is able to leave no stone unturned in its investigation of Paula’s legacy — historical, emotional, and psychological — while also accommodating the possibility that the entire thing is a folly.

At not quite one hundred and fifty pages, Paula is brisk and bracing, just long enough to not outstay its welcome. Given the relatively weak mystery around which Hoffmann builds her narrative, she wisely avoids manufacturing suspense and instead cuts right to the point, resolving the issue of her narrator’s mother’s parentage halfway through, with a jolt. Beyond that point, she devotes much of the rest of the book to the suffering caused by Paula’s silence, the weight the narrator has carried with her for the eighteen years since her grandmother’s death. The result is not a book that enacts schweigen, nor one that conjures die Stille, but rather something that leads Paula, in retrospect, from one form of silence to the other. Though she remains encompassed by silence even at the end of the story, her granddaughter’s imagined intimacies at least bring about a softening of it, dissolving Paula’s carapace of silence into an atmosphere that affords contemplation of her mystery.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.