Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tales of Hoffmann: The Golden Flower Pot

"The Golden Flower Pot" is one of Hoffmann's longer, and more critically acclaimed, stories, and a good starting point. It came out in 1814 and is his first major published work, as well. I read it in E. F. Bleiler's anthology "The Best Tales of Hoffmann," published in 1967 and still in print, and this particular tale was translated by Richard Carlyle. (My semester of college German does not leave me up to reading Hoffmann in the original language...)

Anselmus, a student from Dresden, is rushing to a local park on Ascension Day (May 14th, long a public holiday in German-speaking countries), when he accidentally knocks over a basket of apples and cookies that were held by an old peddler lady. She curses him volubly, he gives her what money he has to calm her, and then is left penniless for the celebrations. So, making the best of it, he ends up sitting alone under a tree...and ends up hearing magical bell-like voices coming from beautiful green-and-gold snakes. Enchanted, his vision opens up and he sees more than just the mundane realities of life.

He eventually finds employment and finds himself torn between the mundane, worldly Conrector Paulmann and his beautiful daughter Veronica (who love Anselmus but also wants him to become a great official and keep her in the manner to which she'd like to be accustomed) and his employer, Archivarius Linhorst, who seems to be a salamander (or fire elemental) from Atlantis, and his daughter, Serpentina, who is one of the snakes he saw on Ascension Day. Meanwhile, the old apple-lady seeks to destroy him; she is a witch and a sworn enemy of Lindhorst.

The story is really of Anselmus' choice between a mundane life as an official and government functionary, and the dreamy life of a poet. He has father-figures to guide him in either way, and all seem to appreciate his gifts in his own way. Two women desire him, but although Veronica loves him, she also has a strong desire for what he can do for her, while Serpentina sees his potential as a poet and wants him to develop that. Neither seems to want him Just As He Is but at least Serpentina's love is unselfish and she just wants to be at his side as he grows. Not to say Veronica is a bad person, but she is easily misguided and for a while falls under the influence of the old witch.

And the golden flower pot of the title? It's an Atlantean relic in the Lindorf home that's desired by the witch!

There's lots to enjoy in this story, and it's a great candy-box of Hoffmann's style. There's some light and funny parts, like the party where various people get drunk and dance about, throwing their wigs and the punchbowl hither and thither. But there's also scenes of menace and horror, like Veronica's attendance at a dark ceremony performed by the witch.

Of course, interpretations of this vary. Some say it's positive and optimistic, reflecting a embrace of art and creativity. Other say it's negative and pessimistic, the story meant as a snide satire of a pretentious artist's foibles and fantasies. Being a romantic, I like to think of it as positive, and also a reflection on Hoffmann's own rejection of an official career for one of art and writing. There's just a bit too much joyousness to the story that I saw to take it so negatively.

It's debated among critics and readers if the magical happenings in the story are really taking place in the "real" world or are part of some parallel fairyland. Personally, I think they're in the real world; it's a classic case of how being touched by the spirit of...well...Atlantis, or creativity, or whatever, can open your eyes to things you never noticed before, and how those with minds focused only on worldly, mundane things like money or just getting by don't seem to stop and smell the roses. It's just in this case the roses are enchanted and may get up and follow you around.

At any rate, this is a grand story, and worth reading. It's in a lot of Hoffmann collections and can be found free online. Good reading for those seeking inspiration.

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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1878-1950) was best known as a historical novelist, if she was known at all. Her work is largely forgotten today and didn't seem to make much of an impact at the time. However, she published a collection of macabre short stories in 1942, Couching at the Door, which for a very long time was a very expensive and hard-to-find collector's item. Now, thanks to the good people at Wordsworth, it is now back in print.

These stories aren't very antiquarian or Jamesian, but they are interesting and sometimes surprisingly original. They depend a lot on psychology and at times are strongly reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, especially as some of the stories aren't really supernatural, but deal more in a Rendell-like psychological vein when you see a hideous act about to take place.

It's a slim volume, just under 200 pages, and there's only nine stories. The title story is regarded as a minor classic, in which a man who was a long seeker of sensual delights (with hints at participation in black magic), who is haunted by a ghostly feather boa. It seems an almost absurd premise, but there's real menace as the thing keeps showing up, and you can assume it's a spiritual relic of some woman whose death the man was responsible for. He tries to shift the burden to others, and tries to escape, but it always tracks him down. It's a chilling, effective story, all the better for a fresh discovery and not anthologized to death. Familiarity does breed contempt.

"From the Abyss" deals with spiritual doubles and predestined doom, and "Clairvoyance" is a very interesting story of a psychic experiment with a Japanese katana...and how the savage personality of the katana's previous owner takes over the mind of the experimenter.

"The Window" is a fairly standard romantic tale of haunting resolved by modern sensitivity. "The Pestering" starts off slow, with a couple purchasing an old home, making a tea-room of it, and being annoyed by a persistent ghost who shows up, trying to get in...but it takes a very dark and macabre black-magic twist at the end that almost makes up for the slowness of all that came before. It's a tale that's far longer than it needs to be and the payoff at the end is almost too late. "The Taste of Pomegranates" is a rather romantic tale of time-slippage.

There's some nonsupernatural tales included..."The Pavement" is a twisted psychological tale of a woman's obsession with a Roman mosaic located on her property, and her sense of stewardship toward it. "Juggernaut" tells a tale of a pusher of wheelchairs at a seaside resort who is haunted by the guilt of a dreadful act he committed. "The Promised Land" is probably her best, a tale of a woman dominated by an overbearing cousin, who finally takes a dream vacation to Italy, only to be still bossed around. It has a classic theme of a woman's desire for self-determination, but there's the conflict with the reality that she's not equipped to deal with things on her own.

This collection has its ups and downs. Some stories, like "The Pestering" and "Juggernaut," are longer than they need to be and sometimes meander unnecessarily. Some are unremarkable and standard, like "The Window" and "The Taste of Pomegranates." But the title story alone is worth the purchase price, and "The Promised Land" is also quite good.

So, it's up to you. Thankfully, it's back in print after being obscure and lost for too long.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Drizzly December Night at the Movies!

We meet at the usual restaurant, exchanging horror stories of Christmas shopping and our yearly dread of family gatherings, and dear heaven, will it never snow??? The dank, dreary drizzle that has dominated December has destroyed our demeanor.

After dinner is over, and we've shared delicious desserts (really, that new chocolate torte is almost too much, but the certosino was surprisingly light), we head up the street to that old movie theater. In all the dreariness of the weather, it's a welcoming, almost cozy atmosphere.

Tonight's special screening: the 1933 mystery film The Sphinx.

Sure, the film may have its shortcomings, but it's got Lionel Atwill. LIONEL ATWILL, folks. He's always first-rate; one of those great actors who always gave his all, no matter what.

The movie over, we turn our collars to the drizzle and head up the street to that old cafe....

Sunday, December 7, 2014

At the Phantom Ballet

It's December, so of course we're at the ballet! It's a yearly tradition! And it's quite nice this year. We got tickets through a friend, and the production is very straightforward and traditional without being stodgy, not like last year's Nutcracker that was "re-imagined" as taking place in an alley in Montreal, or the one the year before that actually managed to make the story dull. Wasn't that a disaster?

The music is lovely as always. I don't dare put up the whole score, but here's one of my favorite parts of The Nutcracker, that is nice to play when you're watching the snow fall outside.

I know I'm late this month; I've had a very busy week and I was also trying to find a video of Pinkham's "Guardian Owl" from his Nativity Madrigals, but there isn't one to be found. I've also been slightly ill, dealing with some sort of bug that left me with an annoying lingering cough. So I fell back on an old reliable and hope everyone's having a better December than I am!