I have a weakness for tales of the supernatural, the numinous, the eerie. I’ve read most of the 19th- and early 20th-century masters of the genre, from Lovecraft to M.R. James, but I’m always interested in adding something else. E.T.A. Hoffmann, a 19th-century German author, is really something else.
I had some trouble coming up with the way I was going to write about these stories (I read Weird Tales, vol.I, and The Golden Pot, which is a great fantastic novella.) It’s easy to pinpoint, say, M.R. James, with his malevolent ghosts, or Lovecraft, with his obscene geometries. Hoffmann is not so simple. I think the reason he resists categorization is that the main feature of his writing is a kind of blurring of what is real and unreal: a satiric, jaunty commingling of dream, fantasy, reality, the occult, bourgeois life, poetry, music, alchemy, automata, nightmare, and weddings.
This is the modern fairy tale. Hoffmann doesn’t write stories that take place long ago and far away, or in another forest, or to peasants you’ve comfortably never heard of. Rather, his stories take place in Dresden, or in Sorrento, right here, right now — or some version of right here and right now that you haven’t quite got the eyes to see. You know that famous artist who got in a fistfight last week? He’s in this story, along with a doctor, a witch, the honorable Councilman, and the King of the Salamanders.
Hoffmann’s stories teem with strange, whimsical, disorienting life. He writes about artists, musicians, poets, and magicians. Music can call forth souls and link people from far away. Windows, mirrors, lenses, crystals, and eyes have special powers. Even more interesting, from a certain perspective, is the way science (or maybe I should say “science”) comes into the picture. Hoffmann talks about mesmerism, somnabulism, the interpretation of dreams, unborn children, repressed memories. He discusses the possibility that automata could be just like human beings (Blade Runner, anyone?)
And yet, the eerie and the supernatural is not a separate realm from the everyday, hardworking world of German society. Regular people come and go. A young girl calls on supernatural powers and then later becomes a councilwoman’s wife; a clerk marries a snake; a musician’s daughter’s heart stops when her violin bursts — or is it the other way around? All of this is told in a quick, satirical tone that positively (or, at any rate, mostly) forbids Romantic malingering. In Hoffmann’s world, if you stand outdoors on the blasted heath, you’re likely to catch a nasty head cold.
I’m told that The Golden Pot is widely considered Hoffmann’s masterpiece. It’s an allegory about becoming a poet and is a gem of Romantic sensibility (in a way, although that’s problematic, since Romanticism generally exalts fantasy above reality, and, as I’ve said, in Hoffmann’s work the two co-exist, neither at the cost of the other.) It is certainly true that The Golden Pot is the oddest of the stories I read, the most disorienting, the most purely fantastic. However, for my money, read “The Sandman.” That much more frightening tale of madness, automata, gleaming spectacles, and lurking childhood bogeymen has a question at its core: in many of Hoffmann’s tales, “madness” leads to happiness. But not here. Here, madness leads to a much darker fate. Which is truth and which is appearance? Is the darkness or the happiness the true story? Which is reality and which is the mimic? That is the question at the heart of every one of Hoffmann’s stories, and I’m not sure we ever get a straight answer.