Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An unquestionable spirit and a beard neglected: E.T.A. Hoffman's Tomcat Murr

"It is usual for the orator at a funeral to give the mourners the entire life history of the dead person, with additions and asides in his praise, and a very good custom it is, for such a recital must arouse the revulsion born of boredom in even the most sorrowful listener, and according to the experience and pronouncements of expert psychologists, such revulsion is the best way of curing any sadness, so that the orator thus performs two duties at once: he shows proper honor to the dear departed, and he comforts the bereaved. We have examples, and they are very natural, of the most afflicted of mourners going away perfectly cheerful and happy after such an oration; he has got over the loss of the deceased in his delight at being released from the torment of the eulogy."
Is this how cats actually think? Who can say? The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1822) is an autobiography. Whose autobiography? Why, E.T.A. Hoffmann's, of course. And a clever one it is. The book owes a great deal to Sterne's Tristram Shandy (a huge hit in 18th- and 19th-century Germany) and Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, as well as Voltaire's Candide and any number of satires being written around the beginning of the 19th century (and let's not forget the romances of Ludwig Tieck, author of Puss In Boots). Shakespeare is alluded to often. It's a book stuffed to the margins with other books (reminiscent of Don Quixote in that regard). That, which is pretty much a lot of stuff already, is only half of the narrative. The joke is that the pages of Tomcat Murr have been, at the printing house, accidentally interspersed with the pages of another book, the biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, which is a book written by Abraham Liscov, who incidentally is the owner of Tomcat Murr and who incidentally attempts to give Tomcat Murr to Kapellmeister Kreisler at one point early on in the narrative. So you can see that these narratives wind around each other. They also act as foils to one another, with the action mirrored in skewed ways. Which is a good reason for the complete title of the book to be The Life And Opinions Of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper.

Hoffmann's autobiography, that's what I was saying. Well, sort of. Ernst Theodor Wilhelm (Amadeaus) Hoffmann was born in 1776, studied law at university and became a low-level government official. He also studied music and composition, becoming a high-level amateur, which came in quite handy when his government job disappeared with Napoleon's conquest (Hoffmann, a Prussian living in Warsaw, refused to take the oath of loyalty to Bonaparte). After knocking around for a couple of years in Berlin and environs, Hoffmann got a gig as theater director in Bamberg, where he made his living as a musician and began to write and write and write and become the E.T.A. Hoffmann everyone's heard of. In Tomcat Murr, Hoffmann turns himself into three characters: the cat Murr, Kapellmeister Kreisler, and Master Abraham Liscov (itinerant organ builder, philosopher, and stage magician).

Each of these three characters is given a tragic romance plot, a broken vocational trajectory, and a lot of opportunity to talk about the relationship of art to life. As Hoffmann has cleverly split himself into three parts, he is able to present three perspectives on romance, labor, and art. This technique was already ancient in Hoffmann's time, but a well-used tool is never dull, or something like that.

Master Abraham's worldview is generally practical. He works with his hands and his imagination for a living, and has had a number of patrons and private customers. His one great love, a girl named Chiara, was abducted and exiled by Abraham's present patron. Yes, there is intrigue in the novel. There's also a bit of narrative slippage, as Abraham does not apparently know about the secrets kept from him, while simultaneously being the author of the story in which he is being deceived. Since (have I mentioned this yet?) Tomcat Murr is an unfinished novel (Hoffmann died not long after finishing the first two books of the story), there are a lot of loose ends and someone (not me) should finish the book. So perhaps Hoffmann had a plan to reveal how Abraham knows all the things he shouldn't know. I am digressing, I see. I blame Hoffmann.

Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler's life is remarkably similar to Hoffmann's life, if you forget that Hoffmann was a lawyer for the Prussian government. In any case, Kreisler writes many of the same musical works that Hoffmann writes, and has apparently the same relationship to music as Hoffmann had, which is a sort of irrational and mystical relationship of pain and ecstasy. Kreisler, like Hoffmann, had a hard time settling down in the real world, and was given to fits of excitement and lunacy of a sort. Neither Hoffmann nor Kreisler could keep his opinions to himself, and both were asked to resign from a couple of posts early on in their careers. Kreisler is in love with Julia, the daughter of a well-placed common woman who advises a prince (of a sort) on the upbringing of a hysterical young princess and a half-witted young prince. Julia is being aimed at the half-witted young prince, though she doesn't know this, nor does Kreisler. Kreisler is, more or less, the typical Romantic hero.
"As for my upbringing, it can be no surprise to anyone on earth if I am ill-bred, for my uncle didn't bring me up at all, but left me to the mercy of tutors who came to the house, since I didn't go to school, nor was any friendship with a boy of my own age permitted to disturb the solitude of the house where my bachelor uncle lived alone with one gloomy old manservant. I remember only three separate occasions when my uncle, a man calm and indifferent almost to the point of stolidity, made a brief sally into education, by boxing my ears, so that I actually had my ears boxed three times as a boy. Being so inclined to loquacity today, I could serve you up the tale of those three occasions as a romantic trio, but I will pick out only the central incident, since I know you want to hear about my musical studies more than anything else, and you will not be indifferent to the story of how I first composed music."
Tomcat Murr is a tomcat, and as such loves nothing more than Tomcat Murr, and why should he not, for he is the grandest tomcat to have ever lived, which makes him the grandest creature to have ever lived. He taught himself to read and write and understand German (and why not? Human children learn to speak German, and to read and write), and by the time Murr is a couple of years old, he's read a great deal of Abraham's library, and written a number of books himself (including my favorite, a play entitled "Cawdallor, King of Rats"). Murr has an intense but short-lived romance with a cat named Kitty, who leaves him for a muscular tabby with whom Murr later fights a duel, in the tradition of Prussian university fraternities.
"Heavens, O Heavens," I cried, "can this be love?" whereupon I became calmer, and decided, being an erudite youth, to get a proper understanding of the state I was in. Although it cost me some effort, I instantly began to study Ovid's De arte amandi and Manso's Art of Love, but none of the marks of a lover as cited in those works really seemed to apply to me. At last I suddenly remembered reading, in some play or other, that an unquestionable spirit and a beard neglected were sure signs of a man in love! I looked in a mirror. O Heaven, were my whiskers neglected! O Heaven, was my spirit unquestionable!
Kater, as you know, is the German word for both "tomcat" and "hangover." This long and unfocused post about The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is my contribution to German Literature Month. I was hoping to do more, but I'm elbow-deep in Chekhoviania just now.

“I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.”

That Samuel Johnson quote is being used as an excuse to buy more books, of course. Last week Mighty Reader and I took a turn or two through Trip Taylor Bookseller in beautiful Boise, and I don't know about Mighty Reader, but I unloaded $60 in exchange for about forty pounds of books:

Spring Snow Yukio Mishima (thanks, TSA, for ripping the cover when you searched through our luggage)
Modern Painters John Ruskin (this accounts for most of the weight, as it is all five volumes of MP in one book, on glossy paper with lots of illustrations and color plates, very nice indeed)
Selected Poems Robert Browning (in one of those tiny pocket-sized editions from the late 19th-century)
19-Century Russian Plays F.D. Reeve (editor and translator)
The Confidence Man Herman Melville (in a wild and wacky cover)

I was tempted by many other books there, including the usual assortment of fine editions of books we already own, but I showed admirable restraint as I bore in mind airline baggage weight limits. Mighty Reader picked up her own stack of Hemingway et al that I'm not listing because I respect her privacy.

I've already started reading Mr Ruskin, but the rest of these will have to fight their way to the tops of the already-high stacks of unread books at Aurora Manor.

Also! When we got back from Boise, I found a copy of Jeff Sypeck's The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier waiting for me. It's in verse, what fun! I don't know when I'll read it. Possibly this coming weekend. It's short but, you know, it's in verse and there are footnotes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We are well past the halfway point now, you boys. (a writing update)

This is what I have so far in the way of structure (that is to say, in the way of a table of contents and the status of those contents) for my current project, a novel-in-stories called Antosha in Prague:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (in progress)
"Kolya Must Rest Now" (hypothetical)
"In Sakhalin I Have No Family" (outlined)
"The Father of the Room" (outlined)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White-Crowned Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

This book pleases me immensely, so far. I am toying with the idea of subplots that continue across the otherwise unconnected short stories. I know, not wholly original, but I've never done it before and anything that raises the degree of difficulty is a temptation. Usually I don't even think about subplots when I write a novel. I'm not sure any of my books has a subplot; that's probably why they tend to be short.

The story "The Storm" is going to be pretty long. It will be, if I can pull it off, something of a virtuoso performance (is one allowed to make that claim about one's own work?) involving interwoven allusions to plays and romances. I'm hoping it has a sort of late Dickensian atmosphere, too. As if Dickens had written both...well, never mind that for now. Anyway, the following is from the story "Setting a Broken Bone."
Doctor Chekhonte stepped forward and bowed, offering Dmitry his hand. Dmitry stared at the hand for a moment, and then shook his head and flapped his pale arms.

"Ah-hah, you would pluck one of my feathers for luck, Doctor, but ah-hah I’ll need them all soon. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

"The honor is mine, Dmitry Nikiforovich," Doctor Chekhonte said. "I do not wish to take your feathers. I wish to shake your hand."

"Ah-hah." The patient drew himself up with dignity. "Men do that."

"I am a man, Dmitry Nikiforovich."

"And do I," the patient said, holding his arms out higher, turning his head to display his crested hair and peaked nose and chin, "look like a man to you?"

Doctor Lintvaryova stepped forward and put a hand gently on Dmitry’s left elbow. "You are a magnificent bird," she said. "Truly."

"Hence my nesting, Doctor. Did you learn nothing at your school?"

"I primarily studied humans," the doctor admitted. She took the patient’s pulse, which he allowed, apparently not seeing what she was doing. "My colleague Doctor Chekhonte, however, knows a great deal about birds."

"You are a zoologist? Ah-hah, that is quite flattering." Dmitry pursed his lips, kissing the cold air.

"I am not a zoologist," Chekhonte said.

"Surely not ah-hah a veterinarian?"

"I am a medical doctor, just like Doctor Lintvaryova. But I am familiar with the ways of birds."

"If you say you are a sportsman, I’ll peck out your eyes, Doctor."

Monday, November 17, 2014

the Uprising

Mighty Reader and I keep a wall calendar in our kitchen; we pick out a new one each year and they've tended lately to feature flowers and vegetables. Back in mid-October I looked ahead to make sure I'd marked the date of a symphony concert, and I saw written on the November calendar, on this date, the words "THE UPRISING!" in my own hand.

I turned to Mighty Reader. "Do you know what this means," I asked. "What's the uprising?"

Mighty Reader had no idea, nor did she remember when I wrote it on the calendar or why. We've done research to see if there is any sort of uprising predicted for today in literature or, maybe, in the Dr Who canonical works, and we have found nothing. Why did I write "the uprising!" on my calendar? What is significant about November 17, 2014? Yes, I know about the anniversaries of the Greek uprising of 1973 or whenever it was, and the Prague uprising, but what is scheduled, I demand to know, for today?

Perhaps it has to do with the restoration of the Myxolidian monarchy? After all, Mighty Reader and I live with Gradka, queen in exile of the kingdom of Mixo-Lydia, and perhaps she has been making Big Plans. Plans that, possibly, I overheard in my sleep and have written therefore a warning to myself on the kitchen calendar. On the whole, doubtful.

So it's a mystery. But there it is, written in my kitchen in my own handwriting, a notice/warning/call for general mobilization regarding the uprising. Be careful today, that's all I'm saying.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

His eccentric behavior: Knut Hamsun's "Mysteries"

To hell with the true interconnectedness of all things, it doesn't concern you anymore; you let out a roar at it and let things take their course.
That's from page 239 of the Penguin edition of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries (trans. Sverre Lyngstad). I am sorely tempted to call it a statement of the novel's theme.

I'm going to steal Pykk's idea and list other bloggers who've written about Mysteries:

Séamus at Vapour Trails
Jean at Howling Frog Books
Tom at Wuthering Expectations
Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
Pykk at Pykk

Those posts are all more worth reading than what immediately follows here, so off you go.

Mysteries (1892) is the tale of Johan Nagel, a stranger who steps off a boat into a small Norwegian town. The first paragraph of Mysteries declares Nagel to be "a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behavior and then vanished as suddenly as he had come." This intriguing sentence is not exactly accurate; Nagel manages to bemuse and abuse a handful of the town's citizens, and then he throws himself into the bay to drown. Between his arrival and departure, Nagel gives away money, insults the important people of the town, lies and contradicts himself, confesses his lies, tells more lies, accuses strangers of crimes, drinks a very great deal and buys a great many drinks for others, lectures about literature and in general follows whatever whim catches him moment by moment.

Why? Nagel carries a vial of cyanide in his vest pocket, because he's certain that he'll end up resolving the existential problems by killing himself. The existential problems can be solved in no other way, there being, in Nagel's view, no guiding principles to life, no point to any of it and one act is just as good as another. Except, of course, that he doesn't really feel this way at all. He has come to this little town to do something, to carry out some grand meaningful act, though we never learn what that is, if indeed Nagel has anything specific in mind, which he probably doesn't.

Nagel seems like a madman. He acts like a madman, but he isn't a madman, unless you agree that any man who has become unpinned from all social fabrics is mad. Nagel is free to act however he likes, because all is vanities and when he looks around him, he is convinced that the world is mad. Not that he claims himself to be the Last Sane Man Standing or anything. No, it's all unclear because it's all unclear. Nagel is a sort of prophet of irrationality, and he attempts to celebrate irrationality but that fails to make him the least bit happy, once he sobers up. He attempts to find meaning in the doing of good works, in falling in love, in the glories of nature, but this happiness is transitory because it's both meaningless and desperate. There is no context within Nagel's metaphysics to allow happiness. His desperation increases as time goes on and his attempts to be Dionysian playboy, charitable saint, or judgmental literary critic all go awry and he's left with nothing but dissatisfaction, spiritual emptiness and that vial of cyanide.

Some of Nagel's doings resemble episodes from the Gospels, some of them seem to parody scenes from Cervantes, Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky (though I might have that line of influence backwards; I'm a lazy scholar in that wise, I admit). At one point Nagel grabs a violin and plays an impromptu medley that affects everyone who hears it, but Nagel refuses to touch the instrument again. "It's all a fraud," he declares. Everything about Nagel is false, even when he's trying to be sincere, because there is nobody inside that yellow suit he wears; Nagel is a nullity trying to be a somebody while retaining his nullity. He's doomed to fail. There's a lot more to this book, but this is what I've chosen to write about.

I read Mysteries because Tom of Wuthering Expectations invited any and all to read it along with him. This post is my very-late-as-usual contribution to the readalong.

Friday, November 7, 2014

"a wind-propelled hat"

From the novel in progress, an excerpt from the title story, "Antosha in Prague."
Suvorin,
Have Moscow and Petersburg burnt to the ground? Has there been an outbreak of Black Plague? Has my first play been revived only to fail with a great public outcry of disgust and I am now persona non grata even to my friends? Why do you not answer my letters? Today it is cold and a wind rushes violently down every street in Prague, as if the seasons are quarreling and winter has for the moment taken the upper hand from springtime. The sky is crowded with scruffs of lumpy gray clouds, like undercooked dumplings or boils full of pus. I’m told that rain is normal for spring here, just as it is everywhere in Europe, but it is unseasonably cold these last days, and in fact it hasn’t rained in nearly a fortnight. After breakfast I wrapped myself in my winter coat and walked through the Mala Strana, a tall hillside of parkland, fruit trees, abandoned hermits’ caves, and cultivated grape which rises up south of the old royal castle. There is a church and an ancient monastery at the summit of the hill, which you mount by following a winding stone pathway with many staircases and steep granite inclines, built centuries ago by peasants during a famine in exchange for rations of bread from the king’s stores. It was windy in the park, the trees rattling like an orchestra of skeletons. My hat was blown from my head and though I chased after it, it was lost over an old stone wall that seemed to materialize from nowhere. The wall was higher than I could climb over without a ladder. I must have looked like a madman, sprinting through the trees and waving my stick while shouting in Russian at a wind-propelled hat. It was an expensive hat, Alexey Sergeyevich. I shall have to visit the Jews and buy a replacement. Just this morning I wrote to the Actress and told her that I’m considering taking a different room in the hotel, because there is too much light from the street when I attempt to sleep. I’ve been out all day—it took me forever to find my way back to the hotel once I wandered from the park—and I stopped at a large restaurant a mile or so up the Moldau for supper and a lot of local wine. The food was nothing although the rolls were excellent. I won’t bore you with a critical review of the soup and fish, however. You see how tired I am: I was writing about my rooms here, and drifted off into complaints about a meal. Half an hour ago I returned to the hotel, picked up my key and found no letters at the front desk, and then I came up to my suite. After turning up the gaslight I was overcome by the most peculiar feeling that either the management has in fact put me and my luggage into a different room while I was outside being blown about like a kite, or else every stick of furniture, every wall hanging, every rug and vase, has been shifted in a clockwise direction around the rooms by a few inches. It strikes me as both radically different and obviously unchanged. I might say it’s as if the room itself has set its mind to oppose me in some manner. Yes, this sensation is impossible to describe yet it is nonetheless real. Perhaps they merely came in and polished the floors. Perhaps it’s merely that I drank too much Bohemian wine with supper. It’s nearly one o’clock and I must sleep. There is no light shining through the bedroom window, which is good. Write to me, Alexey Sergeyevich. Remember to suggest stories for Marx, the German.
Yours,
--A Chekhonte