Mention the name Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to anyone who isn’t well acquainted with the history of science, or a lover of aphorisms, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Not so in the 18th century, when Lichtenberg was known throughout Europe as a pioneering scientist, an audacious lecturer at the University of Güttingen, and a formidable man of letters. Today he’s remembered mainly for the brilliant, cantankerous philosophical journals he kept throughout his lifetime (1742-1799). He called them Sudelbücher, a word that has been translated as “waste books,” and they have been admired by the likes of Goethe, Tolstoy, and Einstein. Like many an oddball in his era, Lichtenberg had an irregular private life, which included his courting, at the age of 35, a 13-year-old named Maria Stechard, who eventually agreed to live with him. Gert Hofmann’s lovely, fable-like novel Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl imagines their domestic situation and the frenzied, tender thoughts that ran through Lichtenberg’s mind as he fell in love with his “heart beetle.”
Lichtenberg was a dwarfish hunchback embarrassed by his appearance, and in Hofmann’s story his excitement that a young girl might take an interest in him is barely containable: “Something has happened, all of a sudden!” he writes to a friend. “I’ve met a girl, a girl, a girl, a girl!” Naturally, he takes on the “Stechardess” as a student, and she provides the professor with a semblance of domestic stability. When Lichtenberg is called away from home by King George III to survey his land holdings, the Stechardess is devastated, but when he returns, the two remain anchored to Lichtenberg’s apartment, particularly his four-poster bed: “Let’s creep back to where we lately emerged from with tired eyes,” he says to his inamorata. By the book’s end, with the Stechardess violently ill, this man of reason is forced to contemplate the ephemeral nature of love—which, of course, exceeds all rational thought.