Tag Archives: E.T.A. Hoffmann

E.T.A. Hoffmann: ‘Master Flea’ (Feuding Telescopes Excerpt)

I had hoped to post a full review of Hoffmann’s riotous novella, Master Flea, and maybe I still will, but Lockdown Lethargy has taken root and a blogging weariness has set in. However, to save this blog from going into complete hibernation I thought I’d share this brilliant excerpt from the story; it’s too complicated to explain in detail but in summary two rival scientists, Leuwenhoek and Swammerdamm, have encountered each other in the hallway of a house—and a feud ensues.

…Swammerdamm drew a small telescope from his pocket, extended it to its full length, and assailed his enemy with a loud cry of: ‘Draw, you scoundrel, if you have the courage!’
   Leuwenhoek promptly had a similar instrument in his hand, likewise extended it, and shouted: ‘Come on, I’ll fight you, and you’ll soon feel my power!’ The two put the telescopes to their eyes and fell upon each other furiously with sharp and murderous strokes, lengthening and shortening their weapons by pulling the extensions in and out. There were feints, parries, turns, in a word all the tricks of the fencer, and they seemed to grow ever more infuriated. If one of them was hit, he screamed, leapt into the air, and performed the most wonderful caprioles, and the most beautiful entrechats and pirouettes, like the best solo dancer in the Paris ballet, until the other focused the shortened telescope on him. If the same thing happened to the other, he behaved similarly. Thus they alternately displayed the boldest leaps, the wildest gestures, the most furious outcry; the sweat was dripping from their foreheads, their bloodshot eyes were protruding from their heads, and since no cause for their St Vitus dance was visible, save that they looked through the telescopes in turn, one was obliged to conclude that they were lunatics escaped from the madhouse. For the rest, the duel was a most pleasing sight.

This translation is by Ritchie Robertson from the Oxford University Press edition of The Golden Pot and Other Tales first published in 1992.

Below is an illustration of the event from an edition of the novella available on Project Gutenberg.

Image source: Project Gutenberg


Filed under Hoffmann, E.T.A.

‘The Lost Reflection’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann

GLM-V 2015The Lost Reflection is a story from the 1932 collection of tales ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ published in 1932 by Dodd, Mead & Co. I started posting reviews of the stories from this collection earlier this year, which was really an excuse to show the lovely illustrations by Mario Laboccetta. I have already posted reviews on The Entail and The Sandman. I thought I’d use GLM V as an excuse to post some reviews and images of the other stories in the collection.

The story reviewed here, The Lost Reflection, is also known as The Night of New Year’s Eve or The Adventures of New Year’s Eve. The original German title is Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht and was published in 1815. Sometimes the story contained within this one (i.e. Erasmus’s story) is published separately as The Lost Reflection or The Story of the Lost Reflection. It’s all a little confusing, I know, so I hope I’ve got it correct.

So, the story begins on New Year’s Eve and it’s worth quoting the opening sentence:

I was delirious with fever: the cold of death pierced my very heart, and heedless of the fury of the storm I ran through the streets hatless and cloakless like one escaped from a madhouse.

Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-01-500pxThe narrator recounts how he came to be running throught the streets like a madman. He’d attended a ball hosted by the counsellor of justice where he met Julia, a woman he’d previously been in love with. He acts like an ass, bumps into people and when he finally gets to talk to her he faints. When he awakes he discovers that Julia is married. This totally freaks him out and he rushes through the streets until he reaches a tavern. He settles down and orders some beer and tobacco. Before long a tall, thin man comes in, keeping his back to the wall, and sits down at the narrator’s table. Then a short man enters the tavern and he asks the landlord to cover the mirror. The two men know each other and argue about obscure topics. By the time the tall man leaves, the narrator realises he is Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow to the devil.

The narrator seeks out a room for the night at another tavern. In the room there is a large mirror and when he looks into it he sees Julia’s image and cries out ‘Julia!’. Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-02-900pxHe realises that there is another person in the room and is surprised that it’s the short man from the other tavern. He’s having a bad dream and is calling out ‘Giulietta!’. The narrator wakes him and the man asks him to cover the mirror. The narrator is curious about the man and it turns out that he has no reflection, but rather than selling it like Schlemihl, he gave it away for love. He promises to tell the narrator his story but they are both too tired. The narrator has vivid dreams and in the morning he finds the man has gone. He has, however, left some written pages. The man was called Erasmus Spicker and we now switch to his story.

Erasmus had decided to leave his family to go travelling and so he heads for Italy. In Florence he makes friends and frequents parties. His friends all take mistresses but Erasmus loves his wife and wishes to remain faithful. The others mock him and they decide to test him by calling in Giulietta. Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-04-900pxErasmus is intoxicated with desire and declares his undying love for her to the astonishment of his friends. Upon returning home he encounters a strange man called Signor Dapertutto who mocks him. His friends think he’s making a fool of himself and decide that he should return home before he does something foolish but Dapertutto convinces him to meet with Giulietta before he leaves. He decides to stay. Erasmus ends up getting in a fight with an ugly Italian over Giulietta and inadvertently kills him. Somehow he escapes with Giulietta. In her boudoir she says he must leave or he will be arrested, but he must leave his reflection with her as a sign of his love for her. Although confused by this request, he agrees, and his image is detached from himself and he sees Giulietta disappear into the mirror with his image.

Erasmus leaves but soon finds that it’s difficult moving about as he is mobbed whenever it’s discovered that he has no reflection. He finally gets home to his loving wife and child and hopes to forget about what has happened. However, one day his missing reflection is noticed and both his wife and child are Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-03-600pxhorrified. He flees from his house in a distraught state and Dapertutto appears before him. He says that Giulietta still loves him and will be happy to give his reflection back if only he will poison his wife and child. Giulietta also appears to him later in a vision in an embrace with his image. She says if he can’t poison his wife then he should sign a contract in blood allowing Dapertutto to do it. He nearly signs but is prevented by the ghost of his mother. Giulietta and Dapertutto disappear but his reflection is still missing. His wife says that he can only return to her when he has found it. He now searches the world for his reflection along with Schlemihl who is looking for his shadow.

This probably isn’t the best Hoffmann story as it’s all just a bit too manic and contrived, even for Hoffmann, but that may have something to do with the translation. I’m not sure who the translator is but I’d love to compare it with a new translation. The translations of two of the other stories in this collection, ‘The Entail’ and ‘The Sandman’, seem to have parts missing from the stories so I wonder if something similar has been done with this story. Still, if read in the right mood it is quite a fun tale and has all the obsessions of Hoffmann: stories-within-stories, identity problems, magic, madness, coincidences, obsessive love etc. You can’t really go wrong with that combination, can you?


Filed under Art, Fiction, Hoffmann, E.T.A., Laboccetta, Mario

‘Little Zaches, Great Zinnober’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann

I was hoping to read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr for GLM4 but as I feared I ran out of time. However, I wanted to squeeze in a Hoffmann review of my own before it ended so I plumped for this tale Little Zaches, Great Zinnober. As far as I know it’s not readily available in English in any published work but a little while ago I found this great translation online by Michael Haldane which can be retrieved from his website here along with some other translations. The original German title is Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober and was originally published in 1819.

The novel is one of his more fantastical pieces in the style of The Golden Pot, The Nutcracker and Mouse King and Master Flea and it involves many of Hoffmann’s favourite themes: fairies, confused identities, magic, Romantic students, strange beings etc. The tale begins with an old peasant woman collapsing by the roadside with a basket full of twigs on her head. She laments her fate and we find out how she gave birth to a strange little child that has ‘spidery little legs, and instead of talking, he growls and miaows, like a cat.’ This is Little Zaches, and he crawls out from the basket that the old woman has been carrying. A more detailed description of Little Zaches follows:

The thing’s head was set deep between its shoulders, it had a pumpkin-like outgrowth in place of a back, and its hazel switch-thin little legs hung down directly beneath its breast, so that the boy resembled a split radish. A dull eye would discover little about the face, but looking more closely, you would become aware of a long, sharp nose jutting out beneath shaggy black hair and a pair of small, darkly flashing eyes that seemed — especially when one considered the otherwise quite old, furrowed facial features — to reveal a small alraun [mandrake root].

So Little Zaches supposedly looks like a mandrake root; these appear in witchcraft and folklore and are supposed to have magical properties. Anyway, along comes Fräulein von Rosenchön, a nun, who takes pity on them both, she picks up Little Zaches, combs his hair then sprinkles holy water over him, then leaves. When the woman wakes up she’s pleased with Zaches’ nicely combed hair and they walk on where they meet the local priest who is so impressed by Little Zaches’ looks and erudition that he offers to raise him as his own.

It turns out that Fräulein von Rosenchön is also known as Rosengrünschön (is there a German pun here?) but is really the Fairy Rosabelverde. Yes, she’s a fairy who escaped the ‘fairy purges’ that were instigated by Paphnutius when he tried to enforce Enlightenment values throughout the land and to get rid of all undesirable elements. Fairies are particularly offensive because of their ‘unbearable police-unfriendly habits’ and for their propensity to ‘drive in the air with harnessed doves, swans’ and ‘even winged horses’. If Hoffmann has a dig here at the expense of the Enlightenment then with the start of chapter Two he has a dig at Romanticism by introducing the student Balthasar, a poet and a student who is in love with his tutor’s beautiful daughter Candida. He likes going for lonely strolls in the forest alone when his friends are all enjoying themselves. Things start to escalate now because Balthasar and his friend see a horse approaching that seems as if it has no rider but is in fact being ridden by Zaches who strikes the students as preposterous. When Zaches appears in town (Kerepes) instead of being laughed at by everyone they thinks he’s wonderful. Zaches, now known as Zinnober, wheedles his way into a plush job as a minister to the Fürst (prince) by taking the credit of several people, including Balthasar, and he even ends up getting betrothed to Candida. Only a few people can see Zinnober as he really is; for most people he is a perfect gentleman, poet, scholar, diplomat and lover.

One day when Balthasar and his friend, Referendarius Pulcher, are walking in the woods they hear a strange musical sound and then see a man dressed like a Chinese man with plumes on his head in a cart that looked as if it was made of sparkling crystal, pulled by two unicorns and driven by a silver pheasant and at the back is a large rose-beetle which is cooling the man by fluttering its wings. It turns out that the man is Doctor Prosper Alpanus. The students get to know him and hope that he will be able to help them in their attempt to break the spell that Zinnober has over the townsfolk.

There are so many wonderful and humorous episodes in this short book such as when Zinnober is awarded the ‘Order of the Green-Spotted Tiger’ and it takes the best minds of the land over a week to determine the best way to fix it to his coat. And there’s Fabian whose coat sleeves end up shrinking and whose coat tail keeps growing until he is threatened with expulsion from the town for his outlandish behaviour. Alpanus flies about on giant dragonflies, Terpin studies why wine doesn’t taste like water and there is even an incident where someone dies by getting stuck in a teapot. This is fun stuff but one of my favourite episodes is when Fräulein (or Sister) Rosenchön visits Alpanus and there’s an incident with the coffee.

Prosper asked if she, as it was still early morning, would perhaps take a cup of coffee; Rosenschön said that a Nun never spurned such things. The coffee was brought, but however hard Prosper tried to pour it out, the cups remained empty, notwithstanding that coffee streamed out of the pot.
“Well, well,” smiled Prosper Alpanus, “this is naughty coffee! Would you, my dear Fraulein, be so good as to pour the coffee yourself?”
“With pleasure,” replied the Fraulein, grasping the pot. But despite the fact that not a single drop poured out of the pot, the cup became fuller and fuller, and the coffee flowed over on to the table, on to the Nun’s dress. She quickly put the pot down; the coffee immediately disappeared without a trace.

They’re using their magical powers to tussle with each other. A few more incidents occur until Alpanus declares that Rosenschön (Rosabelverde) is now in his power and we get this great scene.

  “In your power,” cried the Fraulein, angrily, “in your power, Doctor? Foolish conceit!”
And with these words her silk dress spread itself out, and she floated up to the ceiling as the loveliest Camberwell beauty. But at once Prosper Alpanus was buzzing and rushing after her as a huge stag-beetle. Totally exhausted, the Camberwell beauty fluttered down and ran around the ground as a little mouse. But the stag-beetle sprang after it, miaowing and snorting, as a grey tomcat. The little mouse rose once again as a dazzling hummingbird, when all sorts of strange voices were raised all around the country house, and all sorts of wonderful insects buzzed in, along with strange wood-fowl, and a golden web was spun over the window. Then all at once the Fairy Rosabelverde, radiant in all her splendour and eminence, in a glistening white garment fastened by a sparkling belt of diamonds, white and red roses woven in her dark locks, stood there in the middle of the room. Before her the magus in a gold-embroidered robe, a glittering crown on his head, the cane with the fiery-beaming knob in his hand.
As Rosabelverde strode up to the magus, a golden comb fell out of her hair and shattered, as if it were made of glass, on the marble floor.
“Oh my! Oh my!” cried the Fairy.
Suddenly Sister von Rosenschon was sitting once more in a long black dress at the coffee table, and opposite her sat Doctor Prosper Alpanus.

As it happens the golden comb is quite important but I won’t reveal any more of the plot. Will the students, with Alpanus’s help, manage to break the spell that Zinnober has over the town? Will Balthasar marry Candida? What will happen to Zaches/Zinnober? Will they all live happily ever after? As with many of Hoffmann’s stories this is such a fun read that it’s difficult to resist reading it. Isn’t it?



Filed under Fiction, Hoffmann, E.T.A.