Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, by E.T.A. Hoffmann


Do not miss this masterpiece of experimental fiction (publ. 1819-1821). In the book you will find the funny autobiography of a self-taught cat: he was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, and he is able of writing brilliant works. This is a coming-of-age story and a satirical book, a parody of Bildungsroman; with still greater originality, it follows musical patterns, as the author was also a composer. The life of a bourgeoisified cat is intertwined with the confused story of musician Kreisler (an alter ego of the author). The pretext for the narrative experiment is completely original: the cat pulled a prank, as he used some pages from another biography, and they came out like blotting paper.
Although Kreisler is a Romantic musician, he has to deal with false courtiers; he draws on irony and humour to question the artist condition in society. On the other hand, the comfortable life of the materialistic cat is in great contrast with his erudition; writing poems in a high style does not stop him from pouncing on birds, or from partying on the roof. 

Although the central theme of the book is the conflict between life and art, there are other intertwined topics: creative power, ideal love, fear of insanity… The theme of doubles appears; there is an accentuated stylization of forms in the passage in which Kreisler sees his own reflection in the water; it is a nocturnal romantic landscape, with floating black clouds and thunder-peals. Suddenly, the face looks like Ettlinger's (the insane painter).

The reader has to fill in some narrative gaps. It is also a quite heterogeneous work; it includes parodies and the editor scolds the cat several times for plagiarizing. On the other hand, Master Abraham and Murr are alter egos of the author; Hoffmann really had a cat called Murr, and sometimes he signed off with the name of the cat. Moreover, there are some autobiographical episodes, as Kreisler’s birth and the cat’s childhood; the mention of Aunt Littlefeet refers to Charlotte Wilhelmine Doerffer, who encouraged Hoffmann to develop his abilities in music.

Some passages, such as the one in which the cat enters the awkard stage, or Murr’s speech on canine character and linguistic differences between cats and dogs will delight animal lovers. Additionally, it is a very interesting book for musicians, as various references to musical instrument makers can be found in it.The author fully realizes that his narrative experiment is ahead of his time, as Murr proudly states that his work “will be understood in a future age”. “I do not belong to these times. I am alone, as in the deepest desert.”

Friday, 8 March 2013

Stories of the Rhine, by Erckmann-Chatrian

Recently I have been reading Stories of the Rhine, jointly written by French authors Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. Above its unforgettable romantic aesthetics, these stories are a jewel of prose in which the supernatural is present, and in which mysterious characters with cock feathers in their hats chat among wine and beer barrels, in the misty old cities on the Rhine.

In some tales, music is a central theme (“My illustrious friend, Selsam”, “The raven’s requiem”,“The song of the tun”), or has a major role (“Black and White”); similarly, painting acquires relevance in “The miraculous draught of fishes”. A treasure found by supernatural means, the treasure of Gontran the Miser, is the main topic of “The buried treasure”. “The child-stealer” is a peculiar crime tale, quite different from the other stories.

The first-person narrative is often used, as the witness narrator gets involved in the action. The prose combines - in an extraordinary way – agility and attention to detail. A richness of nuances pervades the brief descriptions, fully integrated in the narrative thread. Action is often linked to a thoughtful approach, to the musings of the characters (especially in “My illustrious friend Selsam”, a really notable flight of fantasy); sometimes action is linked to the philosophical (“Hans Wieland the cabalist”).

The stories are set in the late 18th century and in the 19th century.  The preoccupation with the supernatural is similar to the one in Hoffmann’s Tales, but in Erckmann-Chatrian’s tales, the perfection of their prose makes characters unforgettable: Furbach the bookseller and Nicklausse the coachman; Doctor Adrien Selsam, professor of pathology; Andreusse Cappelmans, the seascape painter; the ghost of Van Marius; Hérode Van Gambrinus the innkeeper and Théodore Blitz the violinist. Certainly this treasure earned a place of honor on my bookshelf.