Monday, December 28, 2020

E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1821)

Hoffmann, of whom there are famous Tales.  A book I'd had on the radar for some time.  That title is not taking liberties with the German; it is indeed meant to evoke Tristram Shandy, of which Hoffmann was a big fan.

Definitely an interesting text, if not quite as wild as its namesake.  The idea is that this cat has taught himself to write, and uses this ability to, well, write about his life.  Opinions, also.  He has relationships with other cats and dogs, and there is social commentary.  You will probably be reminded of Natsumi Sōseki's I Am a Cat, though obviously this significantly predates that.  But!  That is only the half of it, because there's also a metafictional conceit, which is that Murr wrote all this on the back of the pages of a fragmentary biography-ish thing of a (fictional) musician named Johannes Kreisler, and dangit, it was actually published like this, so the two battling narratives alternate, generally in the middle of a sentence.  Kreisler's narrative concerns his life in the court of a noble family; he's in love with Julia, a companion of the Princess, Hedwiga, who herself is engaged to a prince who is also himself in love with Julia...sort of soap-opera-y stuff.  Kreisler eventually has to flee to a monastery after stabbing a guy in self-defense.  The two narratives aren't actually completely unrelated, as Murr's owner, Master Abraham, is part of this same court.  Still, thinking about exactly how this all works may not avail you much.  

Obviously, I love the conceit, and I enjoyed reading this, although I have to say--I suspect this is a common experience--I found Murr's narrative more engaging.  The Kreisler stuff sometimes got a li'l boring.  Still, the central problem here is that the novel is unfinished.  There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily; Tristram Shandy is arguably so, and that's fine.  But there's unfinished and there's unfinished, and this ends extremely unsatisfactorily: Hoffmann completed two out of a planned three volumes, and the epilogue ends thusly: he declares that Murr has died (I think because the real cat on which he was based had done, but it's weird because the second volume had ended with the idea that he was going to be owned by Kreisler from now on, which seems like it would be intended to connect the two narratives).  As far as Kreisler goes, it ends on a total cliffhanger, and Hoffmann declares his intention to continue his story in the third volume.   Not super-edifying. 

So...yeah.  This is really a case, I feel, where the incompleteness of the thing kind of retroactively renders what does exist much less interesting than it ought to be.  


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