E.T.A. Hoffmann's masterpiece mystery
by Jeffrey Gantz
THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF THE TOMCAT MURR, by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Translated by Anthea Bell. Penguin Classics, 384 pages, $12.95.
If E.T.A. Hoffmann's unfinished (perhaps) masterwork isn't the greatest novel
of the 19th century, it's certainly the one with the longest title: The Life
and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr . . . together with a
fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of
Waste Paper. Hoffmann is best known for his short stories, like "Nutcracker
and Mouse King" and "The Golden Pot," and for his influence on Poe, Baudelaire,
Dostoyevsky, and even Kafka and Thomas Mann; but it's in his two novels, The
Devil's Elixirs and Tomcat Murr, that his German Romantic spirit
blooms and soars, that his lacerating humor and intense spirit come into full
play. Murr was translated as the second volume of the University of
Chicago Press's two-volume Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann back in
1969, but that worthy edition has fallen out of print, so that this new
translation from Penguin, introducing the cat and the kapellmeister
("conductor") to a fresh generation of readers, is most welcome.
Duality -- even duplicity -- is the key to this one-of-a-kind novel. As the
"editor" (Hoffmann) explains in his foreword, Murr is the autobiography
of a bright young tomcat who has learned to read and write and who, like any
bildungsroman hero, wishes to share his genius with the wider world.
Only, in writing his story, Murr took a volume from his master's library and
ripped it up for blotting paper, and these pages, which tell the story of
Johannes Kreisler, somehow got incorporated into the published book. The two
accounts alternate: Murr goes on for five or six pages, Kreisler's tale
interrupts mid sentence, then Murr returns.
Hoffmann planned this seeming chaos with great care, of course. Murr's
autobiography unfolds chronologically, and it always picks up exactly where it
left off. Kreisler's story is disclosed in discontinuous fragments, and the end
circles round to the beginning, in anticipation of Finnegans Wake. Murr
knows all, tells all; Kreisler's story is shrouded in so many mysteries that it
presumes the impossibility of knowing. Murr's bourgeois life includes meeting
up with his mother (and neglecting her), finding the love of his life (whom he
promptly falls out of love with), joining a cat burschenschaft ("student
society") and fighting a duel with a feline philistine, and making a foray into
the high society of dogs. Meanwhile, Kreisler's life is centered in the tiny
principality at Sieghartsweiler, where Fürst Irenäus and his wife
Maria rule (sort of), where the young Prince Ignatius remains an idiot and his
sister Hedwiga is subject to cataleptic trances, where Amalie Benzon
power-trips while her daughter Julia sings like an angel, where Kreisler's
friend Meister Abraham, organ builder and seeming magician, dreams of his lost
Chiara, his "Invisible Maiden," and Kreisler himself -- clearly Hoffmann's
alter ego -- is regarded as something of a madman. Murr's world is satirically
immanent; Kreisler's is dizzyingly transcendent.
It's not that the two don't connect: Murr's master is Meister Abraham, and at
the "end" of the narrative he's being left temporarily with Kreisler. But
whereas Murr's account closes with the editor's announcement of his death
(Hoffmann's own cat, named Murr, had indeed just died), Kreisler's is
explosively open-ended. Is Johannes actually the son of the mad painter
Leonhard Ettlinger? Might his mother be the Fürstin? Is it possible that
Julia and Hedwiga were switched at birth, so that Julia really is the
Fürst's daughter and Hedwiga Benzon's? Could Jonannes and Hedwiga be
twins? Or does Hedwiga's sallow complexion mark her as a Gypsy or a daughter of
Italy? Who is the old woman who reappears at crucial moments in her life? Why
does Johannes receive an electric shock when he touches Hedwiga? Why evil lurks
in the Italian prince Hector? Why is Benzon so determined that Hedwiga marry
Hector and Julia marry Ignatius? Will Meister Abraham ever find his beloved
Chiara? Is Angela, the daughter of the Fürst and Benzon, really dead? And
what fate awaits soulmates Johannes and Julia?
The biggest mystery of all is whether Murr is complete as it stands. The
first volume appeared at Christmas of 1819, the second at Christmas of 1821,
with a promise that a third volume would appear the following Easter. It did
not, and Hoffmann died in June of 1822, having written nothing more of Murr or
Kreisler. So many clues have been given, and so much has been left unexplained,
that it seems certain Hoffmann knew where he was going and meant to tell us.
Then again, the circular structure of the Kreisler sections hints that life's
real mysteries can never be answered.
Whatever, Murr is a fabulous novel, a biting but affectionate parody
coupled with one of the best mystery stories ever. Anthea Bell's translation
anglicizes Hoffmann's old-fashioned German style without modernizing it too
much, and her sensibility seems just a shade truer than that showed by the
Chicago team of Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight, though I wish Penguin
didn't insist on rendering terms like tromba marina into English
("trumpet marine"?!), and translating "Fürst" ("sovereign prince") as
"Prince" leads to needless confusion. Jeremy Adler's introduction is erudite
and accessible, even if his conclusion that "how the novel would conclude must
remain pure speculation" begs the question. I've been reading and re-reading
Murr for 30 years now, and I haven't exhausted it yet. It's an experience that
truly never ends.
For Jeffrey's review of a new release of Hoffmann's stage music, see
"Off the Record"