Confidence Men

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

by R.E. Raspe, illustrated by Ronald Searle, Introduction by S.J. Perelman
Pantheon Books, 139 pp., $7.95

Selected Writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann

edited, translated with an Introduction by Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight, illustrated by Jacob Landau
University of Chicago, two volumes, 768 pp., $20.00

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 Munchausen is the carpet salesman of travel; if the reader’s brow hints a fault, the offending article is withdrawn in a flash and replaced by another one, ostensibly more respectable.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.

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.