Recalling Past Life is a brief collection of assorted thoughts and musings by German-born mathematics professor and classical composer Franz Rothe.
The topics Rothe addresses range from his cat, his father, and blurry childhood memories to philosophy, literature, and music. Some read like diary jottings or fanciful dream sequences, some like short stories or anecdotes. Others are exchanges of letters with friends that include comments on Germany’s political scene or discussions of Kafka’s story “A Country Doctor.” A short section reflecting on his father’s career in the electronics industry pays respectful homage, and a concluding section discusses Rothe’s flute performances and the various pieces of music appearing on the CDs he has released (links for purchase are included).
The collection rests on Rothe’s assumption that his recollections and opinions will hold general interest. There is some amusement for general readers in the memory sequences that play with the influence of Kafka. There are also occasional gentle insights, for instance when he concludes a speculation on the troubled life of George Cantor, founder of set theory, by quoting a woman who told Stephen Hawking, “Stephen, you are not God. Remaining on firm ground doesn’t seem the wrong thing to me.”
But these moments are rare. And while discussions of mathematical problems, philosophical figures, or musical pieces might interest practitioners in those fields, Rothe’s exchanges with friends on their reading material or reflections on dated political struggles will do little to illuminate general readers.
The language feels translated from German, with a charming inflection of the author’s voice. The translation is not always fluent, however, although the occasional odd construction rarely occludes meaning.
Overall, without thematic or symbolic coherency, an emerging dramatic arc, or compelling subject matter with broad appeal, there’s little for most readers to do but listen politely as Rothe holds forth. The amused and quiet reflections will interest family, friends, and acquaintances, but are unlikely to reach a wide audience.