Hoffmann, E T A

Tagged: Author

(1776-1822) German composer, painter, lawyer, judge and author. For many years he had thought of himself primarily as a musician, being intensely involved in all aspects of Music, from composition – several of his operas were produced successfully – to criticism; in 1813 he changed his third given name from Wilhelm to Amadeus in homage to Mozart. His first story, "Gluck", was not written until 1809, so that it was only in the last fifteen years of his life that he turned to the artform in which he did his most significant work: the sixty-two tales, most of them containing strong elements of the fantastic, some of them of very considerable length, many of them not yet translated into English. These fictions express a grotesque, transgressive Romanticism more effectively than perhaps the work of any other writer of his time and, variously translated and assembled, have strongly influenced European literature; writers clearly affected by his work include Charles Dickens (though doubts have been cast on his direct knowledge of any of the tales despite his friendship with Thomas Carlyle, translator and advocate of Hoffmann), Alexandre Dumas, Nikolai Gogol [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], Franz Kafka, Leo Perutz and Edgar Allan Poe, who was also influenced by his use of tropes and hoaxes fantasticated from contemporary science. There were many others.

Hoffmann's only completed novel was Die Elixiere des Teufels: Nachgelassene Papiere des Bruder Medardus eines Capuziners. Herausgegeben vom Verfasser der Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1815-1816; trans R P Gillies as The Devil's Elixir 1824; vt The Devil's Elixirs 1963), a savagely dislocated Doppelganger tale involving Telepathy and conveying a sense that the entire world has become fatally incomprehensible. His second novel, left incomplete but still more coherent than his first, was Lebens-Ansichten des Kater Murr: nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (1820-1822 2vols; trans Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight as The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr With the Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Scrap Paper 1969; new trans Anthea Bell as The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr: Together With a Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper 1999); by representing the person and the narrative of the life of a cat and a kapellmeister as mirrors of one another – as in fact two masks vying for lebensraum – the novel stands as Hoffmann's most profound dissection of Romantic sensibility, and as a model for the imaginative comprehension of the Psychology of contemporary humanity: a model which may appear only indirectly in the work of modern sf writers, but whose lineaments are clearly detectable all the same.

Hoffmann was especially interested in the psychological theories of Emanuel Swedenborg and the animal magnetism espoused by Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) (see Hypnosis); his stories in this vein have directly influenced later sf. His best-known story, Der Sandmann ["The Sandman"] (1816; comprising volume one of Nachtstücke, coll 1816-1817 2vols), features the sinister spectacle-maker Dr Coppelius and the beautiful automaton he builds, whose cavernous blank black eyes mesmerize the protagonist of the tale. Predating Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), this story is an important forerunner of Robot and Android stories. It formed the basis of the ballet Coppelia (1870) by Léo Delibes (1836-1891).

As indicated above, a sense of the inherent theatricality of the self (and of the cultures we excrete around ourselves and uneasily inhabit) is central to Kater Murr and to Hoffmann's greater stories. It is in this context that his frequent references to the graphic work of Jacques Callot (circa 1592-1635) are significant: many of Callot's capering figures are taken directly from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and the use of this iconography in suites of etchings like "The Miseries and Misfortunes of War" (1633) created a vision of uncanny Mutabilitie that deeply influenced both Hoffmann and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is indeed because of the hungry hovering instability of his work (see Equipoise) that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was able to instance Der Sandmann (see above; translated variously) so tellingly in his famous essay on the fantastic in literature, "Das Unheimlich" ["The Uncanny"] (1919 Orion; translated variously). It might be said that Hoffmann's greatest stories are about the performance of the uncanny, savagely undermining our most secure Perceptions of the ontological density of the worlds we inhabit; and that the jagged but intoxicated flow of his narratives presciently mimes the experience of inhabiting a post-modern world. Unfortunately for English-speaking readers, most translations of his work are damagingly cut and/or streamlined.

Collections of Hoffmann's shorter works include Fantasiestücke in Callots Mannier ["Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot"] (coll 1814-1815); Nachtstücke: Herausgegeben von dem Verfasser der Fantasiestücke in Callots Mannier ["Night Pieces or Fantasy Pieces after the Manner of Callot"] (coll 1816-1817); a Club Story assemblage, Die Serapionsbruder (coll 1818-1821; cut trans J T Bealby as Weird Tales: A New Translation from the German 1885 2vols UK; full trans Alexander Ewing as The Serapion Brethren 1886 and 1892, 2vols) and Die Letzen Erzühlungen ["The Last Tales"]; early English translations from various sources include Hoffman's Strange Stories (coll trans anon 1855) and Hoffmann's Fairy Tales (coll trans L Burnham 1857); convenient, more recent assemblies include E F Bleiler's The Best Tales of Hoffmann (coll of old trans 1967), Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann (coll trans Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight 1969 2vols), Three Märchen of E.T.A. Hoffmann (coll trans Charles E Passage 1971) and The Sand-Man and Other Night Pieces (coll 2008) – not, despite its title, a selection restricted to Nachtstücke. Three of Hoffmann's stories formed the basis of the opera Tales of Hoffmann (1881) by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880); Tales of Hoffmann: Retold from Offenbach's Opera (coll 1913) by Cyril Falls is typical of the watering-down of Hoffmann that obscured his real worth for many years. The opera was filmed as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, this being probably the best and most famous of the fifty or more films based on his work. [JC/PN]

see also: Germany; Horror in SF; Machines; Scientists; Theatre; Toys.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann

born Königsberg, East Prussia: 24 January 1776

died Berlin: 25 June 1822


novels and individually published long tales

collections and stories

early collections of works in translation

later collections of works in translation (selected)

  • The Tales of Hoffmann (New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1943) [coll: trans by various hands: the Heritage Press edition, sometimes listed as prior, reprints this volume: illus/hb/Hugo Steiner-Prag]
  • Tales of Hoffmann (New York: A A Wyn, 1946) [coll: trans by various hands: edited by Christopher Lazare: hb/Richard Lindner]
  • Tales of Hoffmann (Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie, 1966) [coll: trans by James Kirkup: hb/Harry Green]
  • The Best Tales of Hoffmann (New York: Dover Publications, 1967) [coll: trans by various hands: edited by E F Bleiler: pb/Menten Inc]
  • Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1969) [coll: published in two volumes: trans by Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight of various tales in volume one, and of Kater Murr (see above) in volume two: individual covers nonpictorial but contained in box with artwork by the illustrator: illus/Jacob Landau: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Three Marchen (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1971) [trans by Charles E Passage of three independently published novellas: Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober, Prinzessin Brambilla and Meister Floh: see above under novels and individually published long tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Tales of Hoffmann (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982) [coll: trans by R J Hollingdale and others: pb/from Carl Spitzweg]
  • The Sand-Man and Other Night Pieces (Leyburn, North Yorkshire: Tartarus Press, 2008) [coll: reprinted trans by various hands: hb/Jacqueline Vanek]


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