Monday, December 29, 2014

E. T. A. Hoffmann: A Portrait

I'm going to be doing an occasional series of reviews called "Tales of Hoffmann," each a review of an individual story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of the founding fathers of modern weird fiction. I think he's unjustly overlooked these days, even though at least one of his works has seriously permeated popular culture.

His works are usually classed as Romanticism, but he often wrote in the fantasy and horror genres, and he started to synthesize the elements of the detective genre, but Poe came along and did it better. Hoffmann has also had a major impact on the music world, in multiple ways: in his lifetime he was a music critic and a composer, and some of his works, like the opera Undine, are still performed today. His literary output inspired musical works by others, most notably one opera, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, and two ballets, Coppelia by Leo Delibes, and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Yes, THAT Nutcracker. The one you went to see as a kid, or took the kids to see, or just saw this season. Think of the omnipresent music from that work, played everywhere! And even of the nutcracker ornaments on the tree, or the nutcracker-ish toy soldiers used as decorations in Christmas tableaux. All of that because of this guy. It's staggering to think of the impact he had.

He was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann on January 24th, 1776, in Konigsberg, a city that was first Prussian, then Russian, then Prussian again, then German, and is currently Russian again. The boy showed promise as a writer, musician, and visual artist, but Konigsberg was something of a backwater and he never was exposed to classical forms. That probably helped him develop his own individual style, even though he read voraciously, including authors like Goethe, Schiller, Swift, and Sterne.

He eventually became a minor government official, but occasionally got in trouble for drawing slightly scandalous caricatures of military and government officials...usually being sent on to another post. His professional life was never in one spot; as a jurist, he went from one area to another, mostly in Silesia and present-day Poland. In Warsaw, he read Tieck and hung out with Friedrich de la Motte Fouque and other early practitioners of the weird. He married in 1802 and had a single daughter, who died young. His official career was sidelined by the Napoleonic Wars, and he eventually found work as a theater manager and then as the musical director of an opera company (which was short lived). He was also noted as a music critic for German newspapers, and often wrote humorously of the fictitious musician Johannes Kreisler...who later inspired a piano suite by Schumann, "Kreisleriana."

One big triumph for him was his opera Undine being performed in 1814, and ran for 25 performances until a fire broke out in the theater during a performance. He started publishing collections of his stories in 1814; a four-volume set came out that year, with further collections (and novels) continuing until his death. The most widespread story was "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" which was translated into several languages and eventually inspired the iconic ballet. His last years were very productive, with many stories, works of criticism, and musical compositions coming out, but ill health (including syphilis) caused paralysis and his last works were dictated to a secretary or his wife. He also had crises of conscience with his ideological opposition to new anti-liberal reforms in the Prussian government, and his tendency to satirize public figures in his writings often caused political difficulties for him. He passed away on June 25, 1822, at the age of 46, and his grave still stands in Berlin. (Pilgrimage? Maybe.)

His writings are regarded as the perfect examples of German Romanticism, mingling realism with fantasy that pre-dates modern "magical realism" of authors like Isabel Allende and Jonathan Carroll. His influence on later authors is immense...folks like Poe, Dickens, Dostoevski, Gogol, Baudelaire, and Kafka all credited him directly. Freud famously cited his story "The Sandman" in his work on the uncanny. His works were also marked by a wry sense of humor and satire; as much as he was part of the Romantic movement, he also poked fun at it and its followers, especially in his masterpiece novel, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, which rubbed some of his contemporaries the wrong way with its satire of artistic pretension. He also shaped the music world of his time with his writings, and set new standards for the quality of music criticism. (His musical writings were finally translated into English and collected in a single volume back in 2004. I may have to track that down.)

One thing that set Hoffmann apart, and made him a trailblazer, was how he grounded his fantasies and horrors in the everyday world. Fantasy and weird writing before that time was normally set in the distant past or in some magical otherworld, but Hoffmann's characters encountered the supernatural in the midst of everyday life of Europe of the early 19th century. And as such, they also give a nice glimpse of life in that time period. He also dealt a lot with doppelgangers and dualities. But also, he never seemed to take himself or his work completely seriously, and in the midst of an otherwise chilling tale you'll find comedic passages or episodes that may seem incongruous. But that's Hoffmann, and that's life; sometimes in the midst of dire situations and dramas, you'll find something to laugh at, even if it's rueful, reluctant laughter.

And what's with the name, you ask? He was officially E. T. W. Hoffmann, and used that on official papers, but used E. T. A. Hoffmann on his musical and literary works. According to him, the A was for Amadeus, a nod to Mozart, whom he admired.

So, keep your eyes open for the "Tales of Hoffmann" series; hopefully I'll have the first one up before January 1.

I think this is a self-portrait.

No comments: