A “Fiercely Rugged Thought-Quarry”: On Translating Ludwig Hohl’s Magnum Opus

LARB presents Tess Lewis’s adapted introduction to her translation of Ludwig Hohl’s The Notes: or On Non-premature Reconciliation, out today from Yale University Press.


FOR THE PAST 50 YEARS, one of Swiss literature’s best-kept secrets has been the writer Ludwig Hohl. Although praised by Elias Canetti, Robert Musil, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Adolf Muschg, George Steiner, and Peter Handke, among others, Hohl has remained a writer’s writer, if not a writer’s writer’s writer. Hohl’s prickly, demanding, uncompromising, relentless, and sui generis intellect is not for the faint of spirit. Yet those willing to take on his magnum opus, The Notes: or On Non-premature Reconciliation, have often fallen under his spell. As Dürrenmatt wrote, “Other writers have their mistresses. I have Ludwig Hohl.”

Born into a pastor’s family in the small town of Netstal in the canton of Glarus, Hohl was eventually thrown out of the gymnasium because of his “rebellious disposition” and his frequent talk of women, cigarettes, and Nietzsche. Hohl was essentially an autodidact, and his relationship with his native land was always fraught. After a falling out with his parents, he spent his early 20s in self-imposed exile in Paris and Vienna, then lived in The Hague from 1931 to 1937. It was there, between 1934 and 1936, in a state of “extreme spiritual desolation,” that he composed the bulk of The Notes. Described as a “massive, fiercely rugged thought-quarry” straddling the border between philosophy and literature, The Notes is a meticulously ordered compendium of over 1,000 observations, anecdotes, reflections, recollections, mini-essays, and quotations, bound together under his philosophical conceit of Arbeit or work, by which he meant the unrelenting and wholehearted use of one’s creative forces.

In his work and his works, Ludwig Hohl was a high priest of differentiation, a master of fine distinctions. He devoted his life to the single-minded pursuit of subtleties of meaning; his was a quest to capture, express, and understand ineffable nuances. For him, both God and the devil were in the details.

Indeed, the rigor of Hohl’s intellect is established right in the subtitle of The Notes. It would be easy to explain Hohl’s “non-premature reconciliation” as the refusal to lower one’s standards for the sake of expediency, but it is a more expansive, more existential attitude. In a preface, Hohl warns the reader that extensive engagement with this work will certainly be necessary to understand the subtitle. And yet, if its meaning still eludes the reader after such protracted grappling, “he would be well advised to put the book down, at least for a time.” Hohl will not meet his readers halfway, though he does offer them a few footholds. He explains, for example, that premature reconciliation is a kind of superficiality, an eagerness “to offer harmonious solutions when confronted with spiritual or intellectual discord,” especially if one can avoid experiencing discord oneself. Elsewhere, he presents plagiarism as a variety of premature reconciliation. The plagiarist’s reluctance to find his own answers, his reaching for convenient and appealing formulations of ideas he has not thought through himself, is symptomatic of this weakness of character. Another aspect can be found in “Optimism,” a story that Hohl wrote in Paris in the late 1920s but did not publish until 1943. In it, the talented, starving young artist Juliano responds to professional setbacks by compromising his standards or comforting himself with grand plans that he never realizes, nor in fact ever really tries to realize. He is unable to face the reality of his situation without consoling illusions that he will one day, soon, produce real works of art.

If Hohl harbored any consoling illusions, he did not let them get in the way of his writing. During his desolate years of wild production in The Hague, he filled thousands of pages with cramped writing, using whatever paper he could find. Despite his family’s disapproval of his bohemian lifestyle, they supported him with occasional funds that kept him and his wife barely above water. Even so, he had to pawn his typewriter on more than one occasion and was regularly forced to write letters home asking for money to buy paper, an irony of fate given that his mother’s family owned one of Switzerland’s most prominent paper factories. Nonetheless, he left Holland in 1937 with a bundle of handwritten jottings he called a “four and half kilo primeval forest of variations and attempts.” The typed manuscript assembled from these forest leaves, which he titled the “Epische Grundschriften” (the epic foundational texts), formed a precursor to The Notes.

He spent years culling these entries and dividing them thematically into the 12 categories that reveal the range of his interests: “On Work,” “On the Accessible and the Inaccessible,” “Talking, Chattering, Keeping Silent,” “The Reader,” “Art,” “On Writing,” “Varia,” “Pharmacists” (his shorthand for the consummate bourgeois philistine), “Literature,” “Dream and Dreams,” “On Death,” and “Image.” He then added commentary in a smaller font, as well as footnotes to qualify or explain, to trace echoing or overlapping notes across the 12 sections and to recall notes from his very first publication of the sort, Nuancen und Details (Nuances and Details), which appeared in 1939. Reading the resulting work is like entering the skeletal structure of a literary-philosophical geodesic dome: the notes are intricately interwoven in patterns that repeat with variations and form an elegant whole punctuated with light and openness. They are, in a sense, the inventory of one man’s soul.

Although Hohl published some poems, essays on literature, stories, and novellas, much of his life was dedicated to revising and reordering The Notes and composing a kind of sequel, Von den hereinbrechenden Rändern: Die Nachnotizen (From the Invading Margins: The After-Notes). He spent most of the last two decades of his life on the edge of poverty in a windowless basement room strung with a web of clotheslines on which he hung and continuously rearranged his notes and after-notes, along with newspaper articles and photographs.

Because of poor sales and friction with his early publisher, only four sections of The Notes were published in his lifetime. In the 1970s, Hohl was taken on by Siegfried Unseld of the esteemed Suhrkamp Verlag, who began publishing his works regularly, although The Notes in their entirety did not appear until a year after Hohl’s death.

For Hohl, having all the notes in one volume was essential for them to be properly understood, and the single volume seems a breviary or a numbered labyrinth of thought. Various admirers and critics have stressed the aphoristic or epigrammatic character of Hohl’s notes. And yet, to isolate any one of them as a pronouncement is to impoverish it. Hohl constantly refined and tested his thoughts by reordering them and adding footnotes to map interconnections between them. Viewed in different contexts, his concepts acquire new layers and unexpected shadings as one reads one’s way through the twelve sections. In this aspect, Hohl’s Notes resembles Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone (1898). Yet while the evolution of Leopardi’s thought can be traced sequentially, Hohl’s thinking tended to progress in a spiral. Indeed, the echoes among the various notes, especially those on his central topics — work, intelligence, art, understanding, truth — illustrate his belief in writing as an endless striving toward an impossible goal: definitive expression. Writing, no matter how authoritative, is only ever provisional. Note XII, 83 offers his most succinct summation:

Eternal task: to capture it (IT) in words that are always new. For words lose their substance, one after the other. (We hear the words of Spinoza but who understands them? How many understand the connection, the tremendousness, inherent in those commonly used words?)

My greatest challenge in translating the notes was rendering Hohl’s dance between absolute clarity and concision and intentionally labyrinthine, even tortuous sentences — sentences that are choreographed to simultaneously express and challenge his thoughts as they trace his arduous mental struggle to refine and order his intuitions into coherent, consistent units.

I tried to retain his idiosyncratic punctuation as much as possible. The dash — in German Gedankenstrich means thought-line or thought-stroke — is used sparingly in English, but it plays an active, even muscular, role in Hohl’s texts. Sometimes he uses the em dash to bind or contrast two ideas more forcefully than a mere conjunction would: “Rapid change is possible — but not on command” (II, 260). He frequently calls in a double em dash for special emphasis: “Yet imagination helps us with everything —  — helps us in the end even to imagine what we have (for that is the most difficult to imagine)” (XII, 97).

It’s tempting to see typographical symbols as notations in the dance of Hohl’s intellect. Indeed, he enlists the gamut of punctuation marks almost as rhythmic markings. His one overt mention of punctuation appears in a note comparing it favorably to silence:

Keeping silent acquires meaning only from the surrounding talk; it is like a punctuation mark, it cannot stand on its own. Like an em dash that binds two ideas.

Punctuation marks are important; does this mean that those who have written poetry using only punctuation marks have written poems? — To be precise then, punctuation marks are more than simply keeping silent, because they allow for variations while just staying silent does not (there’s the period’s crude, earthy silence and the semi-colon’s higher, more transparent silence, the comma’s clear, plain, merely postponing silence, the deep, forceful, extensive silence of the ellipsis or the em dash’s silence like an arrow shooting into the distance, among others); ordinary silence is equivalent to one punctuation mark repeated ad infinitum. (III, 7)

Five notes later, Hohl reinforces the notational aspect of silence and, by implication, of punctuation: “I would like to sing the praises of eternal silence — but, to be precise, by this I mean Bach’s music, Montaigne’s talk, and other things that make a wonderful sound” (III, 12).

Hohl uses the colon not only to introduce an item or a list but also to signify a kind of logical progression or intensification. In a discussion of the paralysis that grips a writer at the thought of not being understood, the colons in the final sentence emphasize the inevitable movement from lazy and conventional to all but dead, false, inadequate, and, finally, inarticulate:

This [paralysis] can occur even when writing a letter: you improve a passage and yet you know that you’ve made it less comprehensible to your correspondent … (What to do? Should you restore the passage’s previous version, a version you know to be lazy — conventional: therefore in large part moribund: therefore false: inadequate, sign language?) (IV, 15)

Whenever possible, I tried to preserve the intricacies of Hohl’s style and the way the internal drama of his sentences charts the path of his thought. Nevertheless, it was occasionally necessary to delete dashes and rearrange clauses for smoothness because, as concentrated as Hohl’s prose is, it is rarely awkward or stumbling. German allows for more flexibility than English in the ordering of sentence clauses, and so permits more fleeting suspensions of Hohl’s main thought.

Die ungeheure Veränderung in meiner Denkweise soll nie vergessen werden: Einst hatte ich — erst in meinem dreißigsten Jahr wurde es mir klar — ohne es zu wissen dem Bürgertrug geglaubt, die Philosophen seien —  — für die Philosophie, und das Leben regiere sich selber, sei für das Leben, und ganz … ; und stehe der Philosophie, die als unabhängiger Luxus irgendwo installiert sei, gegenüber!

A literal translation of this passage preserves the sense of epiphany experienced by the 30-year-old Hohl, who had fully bought in to the bourgeois mindset that relegates philosophers to the margins of life, but it creates a choppier sentence in which the reader could easily lose her way:

The tremendous change in my way of thinking should never be forgotten: before I had — it only became clear to me in my thirtieth year — swallowed whole the bourgeois delusion that philosophers were good for —  — philosophy and that life, which rules itself, is good for life and completely so … ; and philosophy, an independent luxury fixed somewhere outside life, is its counterpart!

My final version, while smoother, loses some of the impact of Hohl’s realization that he had allowed himself to be duped by the prevailing bourgeois anti-intellectualism:

The tremendous change in my way of thinking should never be forgotten: it only became clear to me in my thirtieth year that I had swallowed whole the bourgeois delusion that philosophers were good for —  — philosophy and that life, which rules itself, is good for life and completely so … ; and philosophy, an independent luxury fixed somewhere outside life, is life’s counterpart!

I often found myself trying to strike a balance between semantic precision and accessibility while building a bridge between the German and English syntaxes.

The density of thought and allusion in Hohl’s individual notes lends them a specific gravity that I sometimes despaired of preserving in translation. I returned again and again to particular notes, or passages within a note, in an attempt to convey a new aspect or nuance that had eluded me on previous readings, while avoiding any obtrusive explanation or interpretation of the note. One of the fragments assembled in Note II, 264, under the heading “Fragments and Variations on the Central Issue,” plays on various kinds of knowledge, recognition, apprehension, and comprehension: “Wer weiß, ob nicht die Bäume in ihrem Geist das einzige Streben kennen, die Sonne zu erreichen (sie materiell zu berühren): daraus entspringt ihre Form; man sieht endlich: ein schöner Baum.”

Aside from the perennial difficulty of translating Geist into English (we have no word that encompasses its various meanings; our equivalents capture only certain aspects, such as mind, spirit, and intellect), there are echoes of Rilke, Plato, and Goethe, to name the three most obvious, that must be preserved. There is also an intertwining of the physical and metaphysical worlds that is resolved through authentic apprehension. And finally, the texture of the initial clause “Wer weiß, ob nicht […] das einzige” is rather unwieldy in English if translated “straight.” Hohl’s German is complex, but not off-putting, and to be true to his style, I replaced the negative ob nicht (if not) with “perhaps […] but one kind.” I felt it was essential to keep the colon after man sieht endlich (one finally sees) because what we see is not just a beautiful tree, but a tree in its true physical and spiritual glory. In other words, we achieve truer vision. “Who knows, perhaps trees recognize, in their spirit, but one kind of striving, to reach the sun (to touch it physically): whence their form; we finally see: a beautiful tree.”

Only to the extent that we are able to recognize the spiritual striving of the plant world will we be able to truly see — and appreciate — it and its beauty. The ideal of striving might thus become our own. (Hohl repeatedly cites the chorus of angels at the end of Faust II: “He who ever strives / Him we can redeem.”)

In German literature, Ludwig Hohl was a glacial erratic. He was an absolutist whose thinking was both thorough and provisional; in fact, it was thorough precisely because it was provisional. He never ceased reexamining his statements and observations, refining and qualifying them, observing how they changed in different contexts, and testing them to see whether they grew weaker or stronger through repetition. An accomplished scaler of peaks, he saw many parallels between mountaineering and serious thought. As his philosophical novella Ascent (first published in 1975, though written in the 1920s) illustrates, he believed the view from the peak to be important, but more impactful and formative is the climb, and the spirit with which one approaches the mountain most crucial of all. Our perspective is always skewed, always partial. Ideas, like mountains, are there to be scaled repeatedly.

In The Notes, we can, nearly step for step, follow Hohl’s arduous journey upward, with its setbacks and switchbacks, endure the gusts of inclement weather, marvel at the unexpected sights, and finally reach an elevation sufficient to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement.


Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Walter Benjamin, H. M. Enzensberger, Christine Angot, and Philippe Jaccottet. She was awarded the 2017 PEN Translation Prize for Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion and her translation of Lukas Bärfuss’s One Hundred Days was shortlisted for the Oxford/Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She is an advisory editor for The Hudson Review and a 2021–’22 Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.