Cara Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, So Much Pretty. She is the recipient of a number of awards, including a New York State Foundation for the Arts fellowship for her work on the aesthetics of violence. She has been a visiting writer at St. John’s, Columbia, and Oxford Universities. Her new novel, Be Safe I Love You, was published earlier this week.
Off the Shelf asked Cara Hoffman to tell us a bit about her earliest memories of books. Like many of us, her story began with her parent’s library.
When I was a child my parents’ library looked like it had been entirely gleaned from free boxes put out by the Students for a Democratic Society on the University of Michigan quad in 1969. It was an odd variety of texts; Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, nonsense by Baba Ram Dass, dog-eared books of philosophy, complete editions of Victor Hugo and Zola and James Joyce, the novels of William S. Burroughs, and the plays of Samuel Beckett. They even had a copy of Wilhelm Reich’s book Listen Little Man, illustrated by William Steig. I read many of these books before I could understand them, concentrated on the language, the characters, the rhythm and meter of the prose, and learning new vocabulary.
Before I found myself lying on the living room floor trying to decipher existentialist novels and political treatises, I read mostly fairy tales. And that’s probably why Samuel Beckett, among all the authors in my parents’ shelves, became the hero of my youth. It was the one act play Endgame that completely changed my concept of what could be done with writing and excited me beyond all reason. Here it was, an important work that adults read and it was entirely insane; the main character blind, others speaking from inside trash bins, the action isolated to puttering, the dialogue seeming to be part of a much larger world of which the reader was given only a small but poignant glimpse. But despite all this, it was really just simple and beautifully written and very straightforward. Something about the mood—desolate and absurd at the same time—also amazed me. I memorized the play when I was eleven, and made my little brother memorize the part of Nagg. We put it on for our parents in our garage in cloudy upstate New York (the best possible setting for a Beckett play).
The first writing I did as a young adolescent was in imitation of Beckett, and it was through his work that I first gained understanding of the broader symbolic weight of literature. And it always made me laugh. I think that’s important. When you’re writing something heavy or apocalyptic it’s really nothing without jokes. I like to think I’m most influenced by Paul Bowles or Joan Didion or any of the heavyweight prose stylists I loved and feverishly read over and over. But I know at heart that it’s Beckett who made me see how it could all be done, in no small part because he simply didn’t care how it had been done before.