Some E.T.A. Hoffmann books

(actualisé le ) by Ray

The Devil’s Elixirs (1815) [1]

Hoffmann is one of the masters of the romantic movement in Germany, he is one of my favourite authors, and this book is usually considered to be his masterpiece, so Achtung!

This novel, his first, about the doings of a strange monk who guards a mysterious elixir of the devil’s own making, is as wild and extravagant and complex as anything he ever wrote, which is saying a lot. In Hoffmann’s inimitable manner he adroitly introduces supernatural elements, or rather the possibility or suspicion of supernatural elements, into the ordinary everyday world, intermingled with fraternal admonitions to the reader to be wary of false appearances that combine with the verve of the prose to elevate this story above the more straightforward roman noir novel in the vein of M.G. Lewis’s The Monk, which had caused a literary sensation throughout Europe at the end of the previous century and on which this book is in a way modelled.

As seems to usually be the case with Hoffmann, a number of separate strains and themes run in parallel and criss and cross, and one is constantly subjugated by the vigour and originality of the prose that surges along like an unstoppable tidal force throughout the story - one can just sense the words flowing out from his pen as he frenetically writes to get them down on paper fast enough.

I have the feeling that I probably read it too quickly to savour the work in full, but somehow it left me less enthralled than his other major novel The Tomcat Murr, no doubt because of the lessened impact today, at least as far as I am concerned, of the then-irresistible supernatural theme. I suspect that I would benefit from a careful reread, preferably in the original text, a feeling that is itself a confirmation of the exceptional quality of this very original novel.

The Golden Pot (1815) [2]

A really terrific fable with a touch of the fantastic from one of the the greatest writers of the German Romantic movement. You are just swept along, caught up by the author’s enthusiasm and irresistible charm and the way the words just flow along with brio and poetry.

The Sandman (1817) [3]

One of Hoffmann’s best and best-known stories in the fantastical vein. A pure marvel as far as I am concerned, that I was ever so pleased to be able to access in the original zippy prose, with considerable help of course from the complete translation on every alternate page in this excellent bilingual edition, complete with period documents and a high-flying literary introduction of the first order.

Fantastic Tales (1817-1821) [4]

Hoffmann is a master of the short story in the fantastical vein, an inspired writer whose taste for extravagance and the bizarre, combined with his gift for imaginative writing and a way of whisking his story along with never a pause or a dull moment, make him one of the great writers of his romantic-era times.

Princess Brambilla (1820) [5]

Another masterpiece from the pen of the great German Romantic. This is a shortish novel in the fantastic vein that rushes along with brio and creative energy and a joie de vivre that are just irresistible What a writer !!

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1821) [6]

I just loved this story about - in part, but what a part! - a particularly gifted cat who is not only smart enough to learn the language of humans (something we often suspected our own cat Mistigri of being able to do too) but who was lucky enough to have a superior kind of master who reads aloud to him (unlike Mistigri) so that he learns how the letters in the book he is staring at correspond to the sounds that he is hearing, and thus learns to read as well. After that, writing is a piece of cake for this super-cat, and this book is his autobiography, recounting not only his intellectual attitudes to life (the original German title Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is literally "Views On Life of the Tomcat Murr") but the conversations of his master with his erudite friends as well as his own thoughts and escapades and involved love-life.

To help stir things up, the manuscript is presented as having been mixed up in the printer’s shop with the biography of a strange and inspired musician and writer-intellectual named Kreisler, also the theme figure in Hoffmann’s renowned Tales in the Manner of Calot, who has his own scrapes and escapades and semi-mystical meditations, so the Murr chapters alternate with the Kreisler ones in a bizarre and unsettling but totally original and intriguing way that leaves the reader quite overawed at the vigour and scope of this work like none other.

The overall result is a funny, brilliant and profound parody of a Bildungsroman (a novel of a young man’s learning-about-life process) that just explodes with the individualism and the fascination with the mysteries of life and with the world of fantasy that characterized the romantic spirit of the time, of which Hoffmann was a leading figure.

An unusual and inspired book that I rank very highly indeed.


[1Stock, 335p.

[2La Vase d’or, Folio 2€, 129 p.

[3La Vase d’or, Folio bilingue, 140 p.

[4Contes Fantastiques, GF Flammarion, 314 p.

[5Phébus libretto, 183 p.

[6Le Chat Murr, Phébus libretto, 494 p.