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The Boston Phoenix Cat's Cradle

E.T.A. Hoffmann's masterpiece mystery

By Jeffrey Gantz

JANUARY 17, 2000: 

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcatt Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Translated by Anthea Bell. Penguin Classics, 384 pages, $12.95.

If E.T.A. Hoffmann's unfinished (perhaps) masterwork isn't the greatest novel of the 19th century, it's certainly the one with the longest title: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr . . . together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper. Hoffmann is best known for his short stories, like "Nutcracker and Mouse King" and "The Golden Pot," and for his influence on Poe, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, and even Kafka and Thomas Mann; but it's in his two novels, The Devil's Elixirs and Tomcat Murr, that his German Romantic spirit blooms and soars, that his lacerating humor and intense spirit come into full play. Murr was translated as the second volume of the University of Chicago Press's two-volume Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann back in 1969, but that worthy edition has fallen out of print, so that this new translation from Penguin, introducing the cat and the kapellmeister ("conductor") to a fresh generation of readers, is most welcome.

Duality -- even duplicity -- is the key to this one-of-a-kind novel. As the "editor" (Hoffmann) explains in his foreword, Murr is the autobiography of a bright young tomcat who has learned to read and write and who, like any bildungsroman hero, wishes to share his genius with the wider world. Only, in writing his story, Murr took a volume from his master's library and ripped it up for blotting paper, and these pages, which tell the story of Johannes Kreisler, somehow got incorporated into the published book. The two accounts alternate: Murr goes on for five or six pages, Kreisler's tale interrupts mid sentence, then Murr returns.

Hoffmann planned this seeming chaos with great care, of course. Murr's autobiography unfolds chronologically, and it always picks up exactly where it left off. Kreisler's story is disclosed in discontinuous fragments, and the end circles round to the beginning, in anticipation of Finnegans Wake. Murr knows all, tells all; Kreisler's story is shrouded in so many mysteries that it presumes the impossibility of knowing. Murr's bourgeois life includes meeting up with his mother (and neglecting her), finding the love of his life (whom he promptly falls out of love with), joining a cat burschenschaft ("student society") and fighting a duel with a feline philistine, and making a foray into the high society of dogs. Meanwhile, Kreisler's life is centered in the tiny principality at Sieghartsweiler, where Fürst Irenäus and his wife Maria rule (sort of), where the young Prince Ignatius remains an idiot and his sister Hedwiga is subject to cataleptic trances, where Amalie Benzon power-trips while her daughter Julia sings like an angel, where Kreisler's friend Meister Abraham, organ builder and seeming magician, dreams of his lost Chiara, his "Invisible Maiden," and Kreisler himself -- clearly Hoffmann's alter ego -- is regarded as something of a madman. Murr's world is satirically immanent; Kreisler's is dizzyingly transcendent.

It's not that the two don't connect: Murr's master is Meister Abraham, and at the "end" of the narrative he's being left temporarily with Kreisler. But whereas Murr's account closes with the editor's announcement of his death (Hoffmann's own cat, named Murr, had indeed just died), Kreisler's is explosively open-ended. Is Johannes actually the son of the mad painter Leonhard Ettlinger? Might his mother be the Fürstin? Is it possible that Julia and Hedwiga were switched at birth, so that Julia really is the Fürst's daughter and Hedwiga Benzon's? Could Jonannes and Hedwiga be twins? Or does Hedwiga's sallow complexion mark her as a Gypsy or a daughter of Italy? Who is the old woman who reappears at crucial moments in her life? Why does Johannes receive an electric shock when he touches Hedwiga? Why evil lurks in the Italian prince Hector? Why is Benzon so determined that Hedwiga marry Hector and Julia marry Ignatius? Will Meister Abraham ever find his beloved Chiara? Is Angela, the daughter of the Fürst and Benzon, really dead? And what fate awaits soulmates Johannes and Julia?

The biggest mystery of all is whether Murr is complete as it stands. The first volume appeared at Christmas of 1819, the second at Christmas of 1821, with a promise that a third volume would appear the following Easter. It did not, and Hoffmann died in June of 1822, having written nothing more of Murr or Kreisler. So many clues have been given, and so much has been left unexplained, that it seems certain Hoffmann knew where he was going and meant to tell us. Then again, the circular structure of the Kreisler sections hints that life's real mysteries can never be answered.

Whatever, Murr is a fabulous novel, a biting but affectionate parody coupled with one of the best mystery stories ever. Anthea Bell's translation anglicizes Hoffmann's old-fashioned German style without modernizing it too much, and her sensibility seems just a shade truer than that showed by the Chicago team of Leonard J. Kent and Elizabeth C. Knight, though I wish Penguin didn't insist on rendering terms like tromba marina into English ("trumpet marine"?!), and translating "Fürst" ("sovereign prince") as "Prince" leads to needless confusion. Jeremy Adler's introduction is erudite and accessible, even if his conclusion that "how the novel would conclude must remain pure speculation" begs the question. I've been reading and re-reading Murr for 30 years now, and I haven't exhausted it yet. It's an experience that truly never ends.

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