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Extraordinary book; not so great edition
on 20 May 2013
E. T. A. Hoffmann, where have you been all my life? I can’t quite believe I haven’t read this author before; he’s so much part of all kinds of literary traditions I’m interested in, from the birth of historical fiction (he’s contemporary with Scott) to the whole fantastic/proto-psychoanalytic vein of nineteenth-century fiction, from Mary Shelley through Poe to "Jekyll and Hyde" and "A Portrait of Dorian Gray". I was quite disappointed when I finished to return to my own boring life, where I never seem to encounter mysterious strangers who may or may not have lived two hundred years ago, and who mutate into horrific fox masks in the middle of a conversation. (Maybe I should take more drugs.)
I read the selection of the stories in the Penguin Classics edition, of which more later …: “Mademoiselle de Scudéry”, “The Sandman”; “The Artushof”; “Councillor Krespel”; “The Entail”; “Doge and Dogaressa”; “The Mines at Falun”; “The Choosing of the Bride”. All contain an element of the supernatural or (as Freud noted in the case of “The Sandman”, the “uncanny”), and most feature transactions across time (hauntings, revisitations, real or apparent reincarnations). There’s a lot of falling instantly and indelibly in love—generally, though not always, with tragic outcomes—and quite a lot about the power of art and music, Hoffmann’s other two arts. So far, so Romantic/Gothic; yet these features are combined in Hoffmann with an irony and a sense of the absurd that I found much more unexpected. The combination is very distinctive.
Although I enjoyed the whole collection, two stories stood out for me: “The Sandman” and “Mademoiselle de Scudéry”). I can’t think I’ve ever read a better short story than “The Sandman”; it’s a complete tour de force of ambiguity, and the living definition of a classic in Calvino’s brilliant formula, a book that has never exhausted what it has to say. I skimmed through some of the secondary literature after finishing it and wasn’t at all surprised that it has provoked wildly differing interpretations. It starts mildly, then drags you very rapidly into a sinister vortex, in which there seems no way of establishing what it “really” going on. And it’s extraordinarily conceptually dense, in the manner of the best philosophical fables.
“Mlle de Scudéry” is a very different beast—much lighter, despite a few hocus-pocus elements and more murders than you can count. It’s one of the oddest ideas for a story I have ever come across—the romance author Madeleine de Scudéry, in her seventies, as a kind of seventeenth-century Miss Marple, with a bit-part appearance from Louis XIV, set in the aftermath of the real-life “Affair of the Poisons” when several dozen people were executed as poisoners/alchemists/witches, etc. (a real case of life emulating fiction, of a fairly preposterous variety).
Interestingly, I read that the German literary-critical tradition sees this story (reasonably enough) as the earliest detective fiction, whereas the English-language tradition tends to trace the genre back only to Poe, writing around twenty years later. I found an interesting article online (Anita McChesney, “The Female Poetics of Crime in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Mademoiselle Scuderi’”, Women in German Yearbook, 24 (2008)) arguing that the English-language genealogy of detective fiction had the effect of over-emphasizing logic as the key trait of the detective, whereas Hoffmann’s tale foregrounds “female-encoded qualities such as intuition, compassion, and imagination”. One could equally note that those qualities are the qualities of the (Romantic) author, male or female, along with eloquence and a mastery of melodrama and affect—qualities which Mlle de Scudéry exploits brilliantly at a key point in the story. I saw her as an authorial figure.
A word of advice to anyone thinking of buying the Penguin Classics version of these tales—don’t! It dates from 1982, but the introduction could easily have been written in 1882, and it’s criminally thin; it contains no critical analysis or discussion of context, but is simply a brief account of the author’s life. There are no notes. And the translator, a certain R.J. Hollingdale, admits to having done some “editorializing” during translation to improve the rhythms of the original, which he thinks a little slow for the modern English reader. Extraordinary! For a series that presents itself as scholarly—and generally is—this really lets the side down.