E.T.A. Hoffmann
E.T.A. Hoffmann; drawing by David Levine

Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia was first published in 1785. The author, Rudolph Erich Raspe (1737-1793), had money in mind, and thought it might be brought to the pocket by a book of tall yarns. In Chapter 14 the Baron claims to be a descendant of “the wife of Uriah, whom we all know David was intimate with,” but the claim admits a doubt. What is much clearer is Raspe’s debt to Gulliver’s Travels, quietly acknowledged in Chapter 17, not a minute too soon. In other respects, the Baron is not only a liar but a traveling liar. As Johnson said of another traveler, “he carries out one lie; we know not how many he brings back.” In Turkey the Grand Turk vouches for Munchausen’s veracity, a fact which the reader may take as he pleases before committing himself to accompany the famous traveler to Sicily.

Meanwhile the tales are charming. If a particularly tall tale is offered, the offer is made so swiftly that refusal is pedantic. Munchausen is the carpet salesman of travel; if the reader’s brow hints a fault, the offending article is withdrawn in a flash and replaced by another one, ostensibly more respectable. At one point Munchausen describes how he flogged a black fox, a wondrous creature, until it leaped out of its skin; this adventure in the skin trade is accomplished in ten brisk lines. It would be tedious to complain of ten gruesome lines.

The only visible moral in the book is that God helps those who help themselves. The incidents come in a rush, and are ideally received by a reader content to suspend his judgment with his disbelief. In turn, Raspe is prepared to arrange the incidents in any tolerable order; it makes little difference whether one reads them straight through or in snatches. It may even be appropriate to take them as Johnson took Twiss’s Travels in Spain, reading those pages which happened to be cut. “I have not, indeed, cut the leaves yet,” he conceded, “but I have read in them where the pages are open, and I do not suppose that what is in the pages that are closed is worse than what is in the open pages.”

The only problem is that every leaf in the present Adventures, thanks to Pantheon Books, is impeccably cut. The Johnsonian effect is possible in this edition, however, by having recourse to Ronald Searle’s illustrations: sustained attention to these has the admirable result of impeding the rush of Munchausen’s narrative. A curious feature of these brilliant drawings, incidentally, is that Mr. Searle’s animals look like freaks of a nature essentially human; his gods and goddesses also. Perhaps the reason is that the animals, gods, men, and women, different in every other pictorial respect, seem to possess the same eyes when Mr. Searle has finished with them.

Hoffmann (1776-1822) cannot be satisfactorily read by attending to the closed pages. He is one of the most demanding of German writers. A failed composer, he succeeded in literature, his second choice, by making failure his theme. His fiction, not his music, inspired the composers: Offenbach in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Schumann in Kreisleriana, Tchaikovsky in the Nutcracker Suite, Hindemith in Cardillac. Eliot said of Coleridge that it was his vocation to be a failure. Hoffmann’s heroes are failures, in the public sense, by virtue of artistic conscience and private vision. Their artistic fate is their scruple, so they live in the common world by recourse to dreams, masks, and grotesquerie. Doubles, they live by duplicity.

So it is impossible to take this fiction lightly. The ideal reader is patient, conscientiously ready to follow where the words lead. The question of belief arises, indeed, ten times in as many pages, but Hoffmann is not a liar, merely an idealist. “The observer infects the observed with his own mobility,” Samuel Beckett writes in his study of Proust. To be a German idealist is to spread one’s infection with zest. It is a pity that the matter cannot be treated lightly; fiction which traffics in basilisks, revenants, salamanders, somnambulists, doubles, and palingenetists could perhaps afford to dispense with gravity. But Hoffmann is grave. Sardonic, too, but that note is occasional.

The natural way of receiving Hoffmann’s fiction is to think of it as implicated in the perennial conflict of bourgeois and Bohemian values. The conflict is embodied in an archetypal story somewhat as follows. A young man, often a musician or a poet, is divided in his allegiance to rival worlds. The daily world is empirical, bourgeois, a tolerable rote, its strains are sweet. The “world elsewhere” is a private place, visionary, imperative, profound, occult; its higher intimations are paradisal, its lower moments identified with evil and guilt. In the daily world the young man meets, loves, and marries a handsome girl, but his secret life persists. The same occult world is represented by a vision, sometimes a doppelganger, sometimes a Queen (as in the story “The Mines of Falun”). The two worlds cannot be kept in harmony, the poor man must choose between them.


To be specific: the bourgeois values are found in Weber’s cafe in Berlin, the fireworks at Anton Garden, Veronica’s voice in “The Golden Pot,” Mademoiselle Bethmann’s shoes, the Linke Baths in Dresden, marriage to Klara, and the Hönsning at Göteborg. The secret life is represented by art, dream, Atlantis in “The Golden Pot,” magic, the sound of crystal bells in elder trees, Antonia’s voice in “Councillor Krespel,” the holy vision which the composer in “Ritter Gluck” feels he has betrayed “to the unholy.” So the issue is defined. The daily world is sustained by custom, history, continuities of relation, and “the thinking of the body”: it needs little support from theory, having every support from practice. The secret world is maintained by occult desire, it exists because of the spirit’s need. A footnote in the first Book of his larger novel Kater Murr quotes from Ludwig Tieck’s Phantasus:

Believe me, my friends. Life has a higher origin and it stands in our power to elevate it and maintain it in a way worthy of its noble birth, so that dust and annihilation may never triumph over it. Yes, there is an eternal youth, a longing which abides forever, because it is never fulfilled, neither deceived nor cheated, but only not fulfilled so that it will not die.

Kreisler, in Kater Murr, is Tantalus at his own behest. The imperative is associated with music, a point made in one of Kreisler’s early conversations with Benzon. Later versions point ahead to Schopenhauer in the third book of The World as Will and Idea. Julia’s dream involves, in Kater Murr, a garden, radiance like moonlight, and music in which the will is dissolved. “Then I became aware that I myself was the melody that was drifting through the garden; but as the splendor of the sound faded, I had to vanish in painful melancholy.”

In the second Book of Kater Murr Kreisler tells Meister Abraham that musical sound “is also a look which shines forth from a world of light through torn veils of cloud.” “I have nothing in my head but musical notes,” he says, “and in my heart and soul their sounds.” The rift between the two worlds is complete. It would be splendid, Kreisler maintains, if the artist could love “the good people,” the ordinary folk, but it is out of the question; and he says that Ettlinger is wrong in trying to have life both ways. True, Kreisler is merely going through the motions of debate at this point, and he thinks of his conversation with the Princess as a duet “in which each voice must remain true to its own peculiar character,” but his position is congenial to the rhetoric of Hoffmann’s fiction. “The real” is subjective; objects are merely impure functions of subjects. “A sacred harmony with nature” is the ultimate aim, but meanwhile a man must take thought, lest he succumb to phenomena.

There is a sense, indeed, in which Hoffmann’s fiction is more deeply attuned to opera than to literature. Many of the long paragraphs, like Abraham’s description of the festival, or his account of Severino and Chiara, are like arias; composed and sung with fervor, they sound as if they were designed to postpone as long as possible the rigmarole of quotidian life. It follows that objects which are accorded independent status are regularly mocked in that character. In Hoffmann’s fiction the condition of being finite and historical is acknowledged, but it is not praised. The only character who lives in fellowship with the daily world is Murr the tomcat. To be human is to be out of place in the given world; only “the crowd” is at ease, wandering along the Lindenstrasse, “dandies, solid citizens with their wives and adored children, all dressed in their Sunday best.”

If the real world is subjective, its nature depends upon poetic sensibilities capable of apprehending it; there are heroes of this cast, and there are other people. Sometimes, even the heroes are mocked, but only in the consideration that their freedom is illusory. In “The Sandman” Nathanael broods because he feels himself “the horrible plaything of dark powers which it was vain to resist.” Deodatus in “The Doubles” feels that he must submit to everything the dark powers have ordained, and resents their “unknown, remote, arbitrary control.” But these moods are rare; mostly, the secret life seems much livelier than the Lindenstrasse, despite the teasing question of its source.


It can hardly be claimed that the conflict in Hoffmann’s stories is remarkably intense. The rival worlds rarely meet, Dresden shows no sign of fearing Atlantis. The only dramatic question, for what its suspense is worth, is the hero’s choice, the ordinary world or the occult world.

In the story “The Golden Pot” the question is amiably resolved. Anselmus, the poetic lemming in bourgeois Dresden, veers between Veronica and Serpentina. There is nothing of Aesop in these conjunctions. Hoffmann’s stories are not bestiaries or moral parables. Lindhorst is a salamander because this is his nature in the occult world. Serpentina narrates the events of that world, and Anselmus believes her, as he must. For us, the association is a matter of imagery, but there is a complication; even beyond the dream, the occult linkages enforce themselves upon minds hardly prepared to receive them. Heerbrand, for instance, asserts at one point that Lindhorst is a damned salamander “who strikes fiery flashes from his fingers,” and Paulmann a screech-owl. But Heerbrand is a citizen of the bourgeois world. So we are not allowed the consolation of assuming that the occult and the finite worlds are strictly separate. A man is not protected from occult events merely by living a comfortable life in Dresden. In the end, it must be conceded, Veronica marries Heerbrand, and Anselmus chooses Serpentina; arrangements hardly consistent with the earlier incrimination of the two worlds.

Thus recited, the story sounds dubious, but in fact the excitement is a matter of detail, the style, line by line. The plot is not thrilling, but thrills have secreted themselves in the diction. Episodes are replaced by paragraphs, the interest assiduously held by the minute particulars.

In “The Sandman” Nathanael is drawn to Klara, finite and desirable, but she is not enough. At one point he chastises her for conducting herself like an automaton, a charge which means more in Hoffmann than in other writers. The Bohemian girl is Olympia, daughter of Professor Spalanzini, but “a lifeless doll.” To the general eye, she is clockwork, but Nathanael thinks her a wonder. The miracle is his creation, he puts his own life into her while watching her through a telescope. Eyes abound in this story and elsewhere in Hoffmann, presumably the all-seeing eyes of the visionary, poet, mighty seer. Arguing with Siegmund, who finds Olympia tedious, Nathanael says, rather loftily, that “the poetical soul is accessible only to the poetical nature”; a relation mutually satisfactory, since “her adoring glances fell only upon me and irradiated my feelings and thoughts.” “I discover myself again only in Olympia’s love,” he continues, speaking more accurately than he knows. This part of the story is a vivid parable of the subjective imagination, its reflexive nature, and the love of Olympia and Nathanael becomes a living tautology. Nathanael goes mad. The whole story is Hoffmann’s greatest work, it never breaks key or loses balance, the fable is wonderfully poised.

Most of Hoffmann’s stories present themselves finally as idealist fables of the poetic imagination in an iron time; iron, because the success of the bourgeois world seemed so complete and so empty, the resistance of art so desperate. Some of them move in that direction because the author insists. But “The Sandman” and, in a rather different sense, “Mademoiselle de Scudéri” seem to move by their own momentum. “Mademoiselle de Scudéri” recites the parable as a detective story; its criminal hero, René Cardillac, artist and goldsmith, cannot bear to give up a piece of his own jewelry and murders the men for whom the glorious things have been made. This story is unusually simple for Hoffmann, it has none of the intricacy of detail which dazzles in “The Sandman.” But it is a masterpiece. “The Sandman” is extraordinary, mainly because the density of the narrative is suspended above a void; the bright images live “where there is nothing.”

Kater Murr is Hoffmann’s big novel, the most thoroughgoing treatment of his “one story and one story only.” The present editors have placed it by itself, comprising the second volume, putting the short stories in the first. This is appropriate. In the novel, all the grand themes and motifs are fully orchestrated; some of them in Kreisler’s sections, some in the ironic distance of the tomcat’s narrative. Generally, the editors have made an excellent selection, and the result is a book of great distinction. The short stories give a lively impression of Hoffmann’s development; “Ritter Gluck” (1809), “The Golden Pot” (1814), “The Sandman” (1816), “Councillor Krespel” (1818), “The Mines of Falun” (1819), “Mademoiselle de Scudéri” (1820), and “The Doubles” (1822). In an ideal world there would be room for more, perhaps for “The Devil’s Elixirs” (1815-16), “The Jesuit Church in G” (1816), and “Gambler’s Luck” (1820). Meanwhile we have Hoffmann in excellent translation, two beautiful volumes, spirited illustrations by Jacob Landau, the entire work an admirable enterprise.

Hoffmann’s significance is indisputable, but it does not consist in his direct influence upon Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Longfellow, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and other writers. René Wellek remarks in a brief introduction to the present edition that “a time which appreciates Gogol and Kafka, Dostoevsky and Beckett, might well go back to Hoffmann.” Yes, indeed, especially since the grand materials of his art are the occult, self-division, duplicity, and alienation. Hoffmann points to the Mann of Felix Krull, the Kafka of Metamorphosis, but he maintains his own tone. Like Beckett, he refuses to bargain with the daily world, rejects “the farce of giving and receiving.” Sir Walter Scott found him morbid, a charge now received as a testament; we admire morbidity. It is probable, then, that the new edition will establish Hoffmann as a modern spirit, and that Kater Murr, “The Sandman,” “The Golden Pot,” and other fictions will now assert their fabulous presence.

This Issue

December 4, 1969