The message in a bottle

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In E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “The Vow” (1817), a mysterious fallen woman never removes her veil, not even for childbirth. This horrifies the upstanding Germans who take her in. Finally the veil parts, revealing a deathly mask. Lifting the veil only to confound us is Hoffmann’s master trick throughout his fictional works. What lies beneath and the consequences of its exposure vary from tale to tale. But whether the unknown reveals itself in a flash of sublime beauty or strikes a chord of deep horror, the life of the beholder is irrevocably changed.

Peter Wortsman has translated ten of Hoffmann’s pieces under the heading “tales of the uncanny”. Taken together the selection undermines the all-too-common view of Hoffmann as primarily a master of horror. We instead discover the particularly Hoffmannesque uncanny, a more inclusive category. It is, in Freud’s famous formulation, “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”. Hoffmann said it first, and more poetically, in the story “Counselor Krespel”: “[t]here are people … from whom nature or some calamity tears away the veil behind which the rest of us engage in our mad doings unnoticed”. Humankind’s common inheritance is the capacity for overpowering feeling that we pretend to ignore. We repress, however, not only trauma or horror, but also spirituality and artistic passion, which have little use in the modern urban settings favoured by the author. But we all have the ability to recover profound beauty. For Hoffmann’s characters this is unlocked by sudden triggers: a snatch of divine music; an encounter with a madman; a well-constructed story. The subsequent course of their lives depends on how they process such abysmal insights. As the clear-sighted Clara writes in “The Sandman”, our subjectivity “either damns us to hell or uplifts us into heaven”.

Hoffmann’s variations on this theme produce effects ranging from horrifying to tragic and pitiful to comical. The misunderstood Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a man “driven hither and thither by his phantasms and dreams”, and undersold as a tutor to society girls, remarks that “somebody with lungs like Rameau’s nephew is martyring a flute”. Meanwhile Anselmus, the hero of “The Golden Pot”, becomes trapped in a crystal bottle, a metaphorical prison of his own making, when his faith in poetry wavers and the dissonance of everyday life returns. The stuff of nightmares, but as the dazzling morning light threatens to blind him and he struggles to master his “dead body”, fans of Lucky Jim will recognize the symptoms. The startlingly anachronistic translation, which earlier sees Anselmus accused of “[going] on a bit of a bender”, establishes parallels between drunkenness, madness and inspiration. Elsewhere the translation is pitch perfect, conveying the fluid passage between quotidian reality and its poetic hinterland: “Right there in front of his nose, the golden yellow waves of the beautiful Elbe River went purling and burbling by. Behind that, intrepid and proud, Dresden reared its bright towers into the frothy canopy of clouds covering the city”.

Wortsman rightly makes “The Golden Pot” the title piece, as did Ritchie Robertson in his selection for Oxford World’s Classics (1992). It beautifully treads the balance between a mythic battle of epic imagination, a comically mundane courtship and an empathetic study of fragile mental health. It deserves to be as widely known as the more horrifying “Sandman”, which, alongside the page-turning detective story “Mademoiselle de Scudéry”, completes the trio of truly outstanding pieces in the collection. A further strength is the inclusion of less familiar tales reflecting Hoffmann’s lifelong passion for music, the most significant influence for his oeuvre. Music emerges as the most Romantic art because of its transient and ineffable – and so seemingly divine – beauty. “The Automaton” undercuts this with debates about artificial intelligence – still live today, given concerns over AI-generated songs. Machine-music is “a declared war against the human spirit”, with the combatants increasingly, and worryingly, indistinguishable. But neither the sacred nor its desecration are off limits to Hoffmann’s fine wit. “The Fermata”, a rewarding diversion, perfectly stages the blunder of a pianist who comes in too soon, publicly cutting short the high point of an Italian diva’s solo.

The general anglophone impression of the author as a one-trick pony badly needs correction, and Wortsman’s work is to be welcomed. Occasional idiomatic slips and editorial oversights may jolt the reader out of the narrative: the “lady shoppers” in “My Cousin’s Corner Window” struck an oddly quaint note, while a suspected criminal does not own a “curious compartment” in Scudéry’s house, but rather comports himself curiously. More’s the pity, for these are stories to be left behind only reluctantly. As Karen Russell has recently stated in her foreword to a lavishly illustrated collection of translations by Jack Zipes, “even if you believe that you are new to the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, these stories know you”. That is both comforting and thrilling.

Joanna Neilly is Associate Professor of German at the University of Oxford and author of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Orient: Romantic aesthetics and the German imagination, 2016

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