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.

9 comments:

  1. I continue to marvel at your ability to read so much so quickly. As a snail-paced reader, I am envious.

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    1. I don't read quickly at all; I just read often. And my reading speed gets slower as I age, of course.

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  2. Postscript: And I an envious of your incisive critical skills. I know that envy is one of those deadly sins, so I guess I will be consigned to hell (according to Dante), but so be it.

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    1. Very likely anyone who's actually read Murr would be less impressed by my mad critical skillz. I also confess that I am leaning a lot on the footnotes for my perspicacity. Though the idea that Murr is an autobiography of Hoffmann might be my own.

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  3. Ha ha ha, spoilers, good one!

    Kreisler is certainly some kind of stand-in for the author. He dates back to Hoffmann's earliest fiction, from all of six years earlier. (Man, once Hoffmann took up fiction he got a lot done).

    And the magician figure is in so many Hoffmann stories, and has to a representative of the storyteller. He's the one who scrambles everything up and sets it all right again. I have some doubts about the author and the kitty having much correspondence, but i's been a while.

    Hoffmann's opera Undine is still performed once in a while. That's some primo amateuring!

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    1. My theory is that Hoffmann skewers his own ego through Murr's arrogance and naivete.

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  4. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hoffmann/eta/

    11 Hoffmann works can be found at Ebooks@Adelaide. In older translations.

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    1. That's an excellent resource. Thanks, Mel!

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