Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Tales of Hoffmann

by ETA Hoffmann

selected & translated with an introduction by RJ Hollingdale

As I was finishing the second half of William Hope Hodgson’s ‘the Night Land,’ I began reading Penguin Classic’s selection of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short stories. I was finding ‘the Night Land’ difficult to finish, and decided to get a head start on another book. I’d picked up this title at the Free Book Thing over two years ago while I was still living in Baltimore. It was picked up on a whim, and I honestly only began reading it last month out of a stubborn obligation peculiar to obsessive bibliophiles. These stories offer a wide berth of German Romanticism’s extravagances. And they really are incredibly entertaining. I wasn’t expecting these stories to be as funny, insightful and coy as they are. The charm of these tales is not too far removed from such exemplars of storytelling as ‘the Decameron’ or ‘the Arabian Nights.’ Hoffmann taps into a similar whimsy, as well as those tales’ occasional frightfulness. These stories can be outlandish, while still echoing the basic necessities and realities of life. E.T.A. Hoffmann possesses an enviable flair for both the grotesque and the picturesque, with one often providing a slantwise perspective on the other. There is, then, a pleasing wholeness to these stories, amidst all the flamboyance.

None of the stories lack narrative twists or exotic color either. The short story ‘Mademoiselle de Scudery’ weaves together secret societies, hell-bent detectives and even hints of Satanism. In ‘the Sandman,’ Hoffmann throws together alchemy and insanity, with a dash of swashbuckling for good measure. There is an emphasis throughout on psychic depravity and creative delirium. While these stories possess a baroque charm that may veer close to the precious to the contemporary reader, it is important to keep in mind Hoffmann’s radical affront to the tenets of the Enlightenment. German Romanticism does not just mean mad violinists and alchemists, but is more importantly a challenge to rationalism and its capacity to explain the world.

If the cruel logic of the Marquis de Sade mercilessly satirizes the methodic rationalism of the Enlightenment by using its own tools at cross-purpose, then the unhinged carnality and mystery of Hoffmann’s tales question the rational extent of the world by showing us the delirious alternatives. The Marquis de Sade takes the Enlightenment’s rationalism to a logical extreme, while Hoffmann shows us the shadow world outside rationalism’s grasp. Existence, in these stories, cannot be contained by the explainable. But to Hoffmann’s credit, he never stumbles into naïve spiritualism. Hoffmann is too much of a skeptic for that. Instead, he offers a bemused world of coincidences and contradictions. Let’s look at some of the more fantastic turns in his stories.

For instance, lets focus on ‘the Entail,’ one of the longer and more amusing stories in the entire collection. This story contains one extremely clear supernatural element - the phantom of the deceased castle servant, Daniel that is supposedly seen shambling through the rooms he once inhabited. But Daniel’s specter, despite looming over all the logistical affairs at Castle R., is only actually seen by an elderly man who very well may have been dreaming. We hear of Daniel’s bizarre somnambulism, his possible trafficking in alchemy and sorcery, but nothing preternatural is substantiated. Everything is suggested.

‘The Entail’s’ narrator is a somewhat foolish young man accompanying his uncle, Herr Justitiarius (the afore-mentioned elderly man), on the uncle’s yearly call to Castle R., the foreboding estate of the Lord Roderich and his frail, young wife, the Baroness. The young man becomes entangled in a sordid scandal of inheritances and familial, while yet remaining witlessly on the sidelines. One evening at dinner, our narrator excuses himself after having drunk too much wine. As he stumbles down the empty corridors leading to his chamber, he is animated by the strange ambiance of the castle. What exactly is the power of the grotesque? of the suggested? Our narrator considers “…we all know what power the unusual has to grip the mind; even an idle imagination comes to life in a valley surrounded by strange cliffs, within the gloomy walls of a church; it anticipates experiences such as it had never had. If I add that I was then twenty years old and had drunk several glasses of strong punch, you will easily believe that my baronial hall filled me with strange sensations… I was indeed likely to have felt that a strange kingdom might now rise up visibly and tangibly before me. Yet this feeling was like the pleasurable chill one experiences at the vivid telling of a ghost story; and it occurred to me that I had never been in a better mood to read a book which, like so many others at that time, I carried in my pocket. It was Schiller’s ‘Ghost-Seer.’ I sat and read and heated my imagination more and more.” Our narrator has passed from the rational world to a shadow realm of impressions. The borderland shifts – it has no clear boundaries.

At this point “…there came a scraping, and louder, deeper sighs, as if emitted in the dread of death, and they came from behind the new wall.” Ah! So literature, art itself, is able to affect reality! The rational world is beset by the overbearing ghost of history that this story revolves around, which is, this scandal of inheritance, by mind-altering substances, in this instance alcohol, and most importantly by art, exemplified by the Romantic writer, Schiller. But it is important to remember that our narrator is beset by a phantom of impressions. Impression is also of preeminence to Hodgson, whose epic ‘the Night Land’ I covered in this blog’s previous post. Both writers are concerned with the impression of immensity – something beyond rationalism’s capacity to contain.

Hoffmann courts the supernatural as an affront to rationalism, but he doesn’t subscribe to any mythos – that, of course, would simply be another set of explanations. Remember those characters in Hoffmann’s stories who most exist in the supernatural sphere- Torbern, the old man of stone in ‘the Mines of Falun,’ or Leonhard Turnhauser, the sly goldsmith, in ‘the Choosing of the Bride.’ Both characters hint at a supernatural presence, if not exactly a malfeasance, beyond the comprehension of human rationalism. These characters’ morality is ambiguous, and it’s exactly in lieu of such ambiguity that one is better able to understand Hoffmann’s relation to the supernatural. The very ambivalence of the world.

At the climax of ‘the Choosing of the Bride,’ Turnhauser, who has been orchestrating the whims of the story’s various characters, delivers a telling monologue. He cautions the assembled crowd that “…I have never admitted that I am the Swiss goldsmith Leonhard Turnhauser of the sixteenth century. These people are therefore free to assume that I am a clever trickster and to seek an explanation of any supernatural events that occur…” What is important to Hoffmann, of course, is suggestion, rather than actuality. Semblance is privileged precisely because of its instability. Art, then, thrives upon the associative.

A young Hoffmann devoted himself to painting, and then music before eventually turning to literature. This polyglot of interests is evident throughout these stories. Music in particular of all the arts holds sway over these stories. In fact, Hoffmann himself composed an opera, ‘Undine,’ which was performed in Berlin in 1816. He earned a good deal of his livelihood giving music lessons. These are musical stories, both in content and Romantic extravagance. The young narrator of ‘the Entail’ is an amateur pianist; the title character of ‘Councillor Krespel’ devotes himself to acquiring and then taking apart master violins, while his precious daughter suffers from a rare ailment where she will perish if she were to use her exquisite singing voice. Offenbach used many of Hoffmann’s stories, including the here collected story ‘the Sandman,’ as the basis of his famous opera, ‘Contes d’Hoffmann.’ The musical provides a world of the sensual and the intangible to these stories. They are fugues.

Hoffmann’s prose is endlessly digressive; his stories do not possess gravitational centers. Instead, they manifest as emanations from a fixed point – a point that may in fact be inconsequential. Take the novella, ‘Doge and Dogaressa.’ This, “….according to the catalogue of the September 1816 Exhibition of the Berlin Academy of the Arts was the title given to a painting by the excellent C. Kolbe, Member of the Academy, which so fascinated visitors to the salon that the space before it was rarely empty.” Hoffmann provides a dry description of said painting, “A Doge of Venice, in sumptuous robes, the equally splendid Dogaressa by his side… a man with an open sunshade… [as] a young man is blowing a horn like a triton shell, and on the water at his feet floats a richly accoutered gondola flying the Venetian flag, while two oarsman stand by in attendance.” We move out from this dry description to the conversation of a couple of friends upon the meaning of this painting. A flamboyant stranger joins them and proceeds to tell the story of the Doge and Dogaressa in the painting before them. This leads to various digressions as we follow the serendipitous fates of each figure in the painting – all of which culminates in a watery grave for two lovers. Reading through Hoffmann, I now have a better understanding of the tableau Raymond Rousseau was working with in his endlessly digressive novels.

The fatal ending of ‘Doge and Dogaressa’ highlights the bold skepticism that causes Hoffmann’s tales to transcend mere dalliance. Hoffmann’s cynicism often led to personal and professional trouble. In his novel, ‘Meister Floh,’ he included “…a satire on the proceedings of the Commission of which he was himself a member. This interesting intelligence came to the ears of the president of the Ministry of Police… [the manuscripts] were seized by the Frankfurt Senate and transported to Berlin…” Hoffmann only escaped prosecution due to his early death from a neural disease. This same cynicism is on wonderful display at the end of ‘the Choosing of the Bride.’ After winning his true love Albertine’s hand in marriage through the machinations of Leonhard Turnhauser, the young artist Edmund travels to Rome for a year in order to further his painting. But, Hoffmann tells us “Edmund has already been in Rome for over a year, and they say his letters to Albertine have grown steadily rarer and cooler. Who knows whether anything will ever come of the idea the two young people had of marrying one another? Albertine will in any event not remain single; she is much too pretty and much too rich for that… Perhaps Albertine will marry the nice junior barrister once he has attained to a decent position. We must wait and see what happens.” Yes, that, after all, is the real charm of Hoffmann’s tales- they mix the fantastic with the practical, while always retaining a healthy skepticism.

NEXT: Chelsey Minnis' Bad Bad.

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