The stories in the Penguin collection entitled Tales of Hoffmann were the first that I read by E.T.A. Hoffmann and they got me hooked. Although I’ve re-read some of them since, I decided to re-read the whole collection recently. The Sandman is the best story in the collection and is the one most people are likely to have read, but The Entail is nearly as good and is the only other one in the Penguin book that could be called gothic. It was originally published in 1817 in German as Das Majorat in the second volume of Nachtstücke (Translated as Night Pieces or Nocturnes). The Sandman was in Volume One.
Every once in a while I try to find some more works by Hoffmann in English and a few years ago I found a copy of another collection of stories called, once again, Tales of Hoffmann, which was published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in New York. There’s no date in the book but I think it was published in 1932. I was attracted to this book because it contains many colour illustrations by Mario Laboccetta who had come to my attention as one of his illustrations was used for the cover of the excellent Oxford University Press collection of stories called The Golden Pot and Other Tales. Each story has several full-colour illustrations associated with it as well as smaller illustrations of the main characters and scenes.
This is therefore a review of the Penguin translation but with illustrations from the ‘Dodd, Mead & Co’ book. The story is translated as The Walled-in Door in the Dodd version. I don’t know who translated the Dodd version but a quick comparison of a few passages indicate that there was a bit of editing as well.
The story starts in true gothic style, the narrator, who we later find out is called Theodore, describes the desolate environs of the Castle R., the ancestral seat of Baron von R. Many of his ancestors shunned this castle as it was too gloomy and lived instead at Courland. At the start of the narrative Baron Roderich von R. is the current occupant of the castle and Theodore is a twenty year-old clerk working for his seventy year-old great-uncle, Advocate V., who is a legal advisor to the Baron. They travel to the Castle in a carriage through the falling snow. (I think that one reason I like this story so much is that this initial set-up reminds me of one of my favourite films, Fearless Vampire Killers by Roman Polanksi – the old man and his young helper travelling towards a desolate castle in the snow.) When they arrive at the castle they find that one of the walls has recently fallen down and there is rubble in the room that Advocate V usually uses on his visits. All this information has to be drawn out of the servant, Franz, to much comic effect. They go to their gloomy room in the gloomy castle and make themselves as comfortable as they can. Theodore notices a walled-up door in the room and wonders why it is no longer in use and then reads a ghost story while Advocate V. goes to bed. He’s startled when he hears something walking across the hall sighing and groaning. Theodore becomes scared even though he thinks he’s being childish. He hears voices, a horrible scraping sound and the sound of horses being led from the stables below. Theodore wakes his great-uncle Advocate V. who is having a bad dream.
The story then switches to show us some of the characters that inhabit the castle along with the Baron, noticeably two old baronesses wearing clothes long out of fashion.
It was obvious from their expressions that they believed the wellbeing of R.’s inhabitants was endangered by my youth. The visit was very enjoyable, but the horror of the previous night still clung to me.
In the evening Theodore discusses the previous night’s events with his great-uncle, expecting him to be amused, instead he takes Theodore’s story seriously and they decide to wait up for the ghost that night. Once again the sounds of something walking and scraping can be heard. Advocate V. decides to confront the ghost at the position of the walled-up door and says ‘Daniel, Daniel! what are you doing here at this hour?’ and the ghost departs. Theodore’s great-uncle obviously knows more about the events at the castle.
The Baron arrives at the castle along with his young wife, the Baronness Seraphine. The Baron is rude to Theodore and just seems to like hunting. Theodore is smitten by the beautiful Seraphine and starts fantasising about her much to his uncle’s annoyance. Theodore discovers that the Baroness loves music and she manages to acquire a piano from the local village. Theodore, Seraphine and her companion Adelheid now spend a lot of time together playing music. Theodore’s uncle warns him to be very careful. Theodore is infatuated with Seraphine whilst Seraphine is in raptures over the music they’ve been playing. Theodore feels as if he’s in a dream and tries to shake himself out of it. He decides to join in with a wolf-hunt to get his mind off Seraphine. However he doesn’t pay attention to the hunt and daydreams instead and suddenly finds himself confronted by a snarling wolf. When it attacks he manages to defend himself by stabbing it in the throat. Theodore becomes a hero and his tale is told again and again. The Baroness falls ill one night and the whole household is in an uproar. Theodore nearly makes a fool of himself but is stopped by his great-uncle from doing so. It turns out that there is nothing wrong with the Baroness. The Baron claims that the recent musical interest shown by the Baroness is actually killing her (this is a common theme in Hoffmann’s work – see also Councillor Krespel aka The Cremona Violin) and asks Theodore to cease. He also enquires about their experiences with the ghost, Daniel. His great-uncle informs Theodore that they will leave the following day. Not long after their return his great-uncle has a stroke but he recovers and one day decides to enlighten Theodore on the goings on at the Castle.
This is only just over half way through the story at this point. The rest of the story consists of the great-uncle’s account of the history behind the events – this involves murder, sleepwalkers, illegitimate children, gold and ghostly apparitions. Although the beginning of the story was quite gothic the second half is a more straightforward style, but as is common with Hoffmann, his explanations become increasingly complicated. In this case there’s a whole host of characters, very often with the same christian names (for example there are two Roderichs and two Huberts) and the time-frame keeps shifting about in the retelling of events. The story ends with a melancholic epilogue and the final paragraph sums up the story very well:
Poor, ill-advised Roderich! What evil power did you conjure up to poison in its first youth the race you thought to have planted for eternity?
When I first read the story I spent some time trying to untangle the characters and events and to be fair to Hoffmann it does make sense. But part of the fun of reading a tale by Hoffmann is, I feel, to enjoy the complexity and confusion.