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.”

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