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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

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