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Hoffmann, E T A

Entry updated 30 October 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1776-1822) German composer, painter, lawyer, judge and author. For many years he had thought of himself primarily as a musician, being intensely involved in all aspects of Music, including many critical works and compositions – several of his operas, including Undine (first performed 1816) were produced successfully; in 1810, for the publication of one of these compositions – the Miserere in B Flat Minor – he changed his third given name from Wilhelm to Amadeus in homage to Mozart, though he did not so sign his name for stories until 1813.

His first story, "Ritter Gluck" (15 February 1809 Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung), was not written until he was over thirty, so that it was only in the last fifteen years of his life that he turned to the artform in which he did his most significant work: the sixty-two tales, most of them containing strong elements of the fantastic, some of them of very considerable length, many of them not yet translated into English. These fictions express a grotesque, transgressive Romanticism more effectively than perhaps the work of any other writer of his time and, variously translated and assembled, have strongly influenced European literature; writers clearly affected by his work include Charles Dickens (though doubts have been cast on his direct knowledge of any of the tales despite his friendship with Thomas Carlyle [1795-1881], translator and advocate of Hoffmann), Alexandre Dumas, Nikolai Gogol [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], Franz Kafka, Leo Perutz and Edgar Allan Poe, who was also influenced by his use of tropes and hoaxes fantasticated from contemporary science. There were many others.

Hoffmann's only completed full-length novel was Die Elixiere des Teufels: Nachgelassene Papiere des Bruder Medardus eines Capuziners. Herausgegeben vom Verfasser der Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1815-1816 2vols; cut trans R P Gillies as The Devil's Elixir 1824; full trans Ronald Taylor vt The Devil's Elixirs 1963), a savagely dislocated Doppelganger tale involving Telepathy and conveying a sense that the entire world has become fatally incomprehensible, though the protagonist ultimately gains a liebestod redemption as he and his beloved die, more or less simultaneously (see Transcendence). His second novel, left incomplete but in fact more coherent than his first, was Lebens-Ansichten des Kater Murr: nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (1820-1822 2vols; trans Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight as The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr With the Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Scrap Paper 1969; new trans Anthea Bell as The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr: Together With a Fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper 1999); by representing the person and the narrative of the life of a Cat and a kapellmeister as mirrors of one another – as in fact two masks vying for lebensraum – the novel stands as Hoffmann's most profound dissection of Romantic sensibility, and as a model for the imaginative comprehension of the Psychology of contemporary humanity: a model which may appear only indirectly in the work of modern sf writers, but whose lineaments are clearly detectable all the same.

Hoffmann was especially interested in the psychological theories of Emanuel Swedenborg and the animal magnetism espoused by Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) (see Hypnosis); his stories in this vein have directly influenced later sf. "Die Automate" ["The Automata"] (5/15 January-7/16 April 1814 Zeitung für die elegante Welt) describes a Automaton, a "Talking Turk" whose powers of Prediction are neither confirmed or denied in the tale, despite a round-table discussion fully justifying its inclusion in The Serapion Brothers (see below). One of his best-known stories, Der Sandmann ["The Sandman"] (1816; comprising volume one of Nachtstücke, coll 1816-1817 2vols), features the sinister spectacle-maker Dr Coppelius and the beautiful Automaton he builds, whose cavernous blank black eyes, and uncanny vacillating between seeming animate and seeming inanimate, mesmerize the protagonist of the tale. Predating Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), "The Sandman" is an important forerunner of Robot and Android stories. It formed the basis of the ballet Coppelia (1870) by Léo Delibes (1836-1891).

As indicated above, a sense of the inherent theatricality of the self (and of the cultures we excrete around ourselves and uneasily inhabit) is central to Kater Murr and to Hoffmann's greater stories. It is in this context that his frequent references to the graphic work of Jacques Callot (circa 1592-1635) are significant: many of Callot's capering figures are taken directly from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and the use of this iconography in suites of etchings like "The Miseries and Misfortunes of War" (1633) created a vision of uncanny Mutabilitie that deeply influenced both Hoffmann and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is indeed because of the hungry hovering instability of his work (see Equipoise) that Sigmund Freud was able to instance Der Sandmann (see above; translated variously) so tellingly in his famous essay on the fantastic in literature, "Das Unheimlich" ["The Uncanny"] (Autumn 1919 Orion 5; translated variously). It might be said that Hoffmann's greatest stories are about the performance of the uncanny, savagely undermining our most secure Perceptions of the ontological density of the worlds we inhabit, fuelling fears that some Mysterious Stranger, uncannily denser though terrifyingly less placed than we are, will assert their right to the property we have usurped; and that in all these respects jagged but intoxicated flow of his narratives presciently mimes the experience of inhabiting a post-modern world. Unfortunately for English-speaking readers, most translations of his work are damagingly cut and/or streamlined.

Collections of Hoffmann's shorter works include Fantasiestücke in Callots Mannier ["Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot"] (coll 1814-1815); Nachtstücke: Herausgegeben von dem Verfasser der Fantasiestücke in Callots Mannier ["Night Pieces or Fantasy Pieces after the Manner of Callot"] (coll 1816-1817); a Club Story assemblage, Die Serapions-Brüder: Gesammelte Erzähflungen und Mährchen ["The Serapion Brothers: Collected Stories and Fables"] (coll 1818-1821; trans Major Alex Ewing as The Serapion Brethren: Volume I coll 1886 and The Serapion Brethren: Volume II 1892) and Die Letzen Erzühlungen ["The Last Tales"]. The Serapion Brethren is the most important of these volumes, partly for huge range of stories it contains (twenty-eight tales taking up more than 1,000 pages), but also for Hoffmann's complexly generative use here of a Club Story format to embed and dramatize a wide range of argument. From beginning to end of this huge collection, the members of the eponymous cénacle devote themselves not only to reciting each tale under the aesthetic and moral sanction of the presiding half-imagined hermit Serapion (who is based on more than one real saint), but on debating, in the context of each story as it is being told, his admonitions about seeing the world truly. This central intuition about seeing, which has become known as the Serapion Principle, prefigures similar injunctions by Joseph Conrad, though in Hoffmann's hands a complex Serapionesque gaze on the exempla of the world also includes the apprehension of supernatural "realities". Different tales inspire differing debates: comments on "Die Bergwerke zu Falun" (usually translated as "The Mines at Falun") reflect an Early Romantic focus, for German writers if not British, on the oneiric transformative importance of mines as portals to deeper and more profound worlds Underground, an essential part of the period's geologic sublime; and the tale translated as "Nutcracker and Mouse King" (for publication details see below) evokes, for instance, a sidebar but energetic debate on the nature of tales for children (see Children's SF), being a very early contribution to that long debate. Sadly, only the nineteenth-century translation cited above retains the frame, with individual stories now normally printed out of context, so that this debate, and much else, has effectively been submerged. The brethren, whose debates grow in sophistication through the four volumes of The Serapion Brethren, are in English currently mute.

Early English translations assembled from various titles above include Hoffman's Strange Stories (coll trans anon 1855), Hoffmann's Fairy Tales (coll trans L Burnham 1857) and Weird Tales: A New Translation from the German (coll trans J T Bealby 1885 2vols); convenient, more recent assemblies include E F Bleiler's The Best Tales of Hoffmann (coll of old trans 1967), Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann (coll trans Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight 1969 2vols), Three Märchen of E.T.A. Hoffmann (coll trans Charles E Passage 1971) and The Sand-Man and Other Night Pieces (coll 2008) – not, despite its title, a selection restricted to Nachtstücke.

Hoffmann's most famous single tale – known to many who may be ignorant of its author – is almost certainly "Nußknacker und Mausekönig" ["Nutcracker and Mouse King"] in Kinder-Mährchen (anth 1816). As "The History of Krakatuk" (1833 National Standard), a portion was translated by Thomas Babington Thackeray (1811-1863); Alexandre Dumas radically adapted it as L'Histoire d'un Casse-Noisette (1845 2vols; trans anon as The History of a Nutcracker 1847 2vols each chap) [a possible 1845 magazine appearance has not been traced]; the first English translation of the actual story was Nutcracker and Mouse-King (trans Mrs St Simon 1853), a text whose faithfulness has not been tested; a relatively faithful version appeared in Major Alex Ewing's complete version of The Serapion Brothers, where Hoffmann first collected the tale [see above for discussion, also see Checklist below], with its sophisticatedly elaborate frame story and internal Godgame narrative intact. Some later versions show the influence of The Nutcracker (1892), the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893); several years earlier, three of Hoffmann's stories had formed the basis of the opera Tales of Hoffmann (1881) by Jacques Offenbach. Tales of Hoffmann: Retold from Offenbach's Opera (coll 1913) by Cyril Falls is typical of the watering-down that obscured Hoffmann's real worth for many years. For a faithful modern translation of the tale, by Ralph Manheim (1907-1992), see Checklist below.

Offenbach's opera was filmed as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, this being probably the best and most famous of the fifty or more films based on his work. [JC]

see also: Horror in SF; Machines; Scientists; Theatre; Toys.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann

born Königsberg, East Prussia: 24 January 1776

died Berlin: 25 June 1822


novels and individually published long tales

collections and stories

  • Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier ["Fantasy Pieces in the Manner of Callot"] (Bamberg, Bavaria [now Germany]: C F Kunz, 1814-1815) [coll: published in four volumes: the first three volumes in 1814, the last volume in 1815: binding unknown/]
  • Nachtstücke: Herausgegeben von dem Verfasser der Fantasiestücke in Callots Mannier ["Night Pieces after the Manner of Callot"] (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1816-1817) [coll: published in two volumes: volume one in 1816, volume two in 1817: binding unknown/]
  • Die Serapions-Brüder: Gesammelte Erzähflungen und Mährchen ["The Serapion Brothers: Collected Stories and Fables"] (Berlin: G Reimer, 1819-1821) [coll: published in four volumes: the first two volumes in 1819, volume three in 1820, volume four in 1821: binding unknown/]
    • The Serapion Brethren: Volume I (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886) as Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann [coll: trans by Major Alex Ewing of the above: containing first two volumes of text: in the publisher's Bohn's Library series: hb/nonpictorial]
    • The Serapion Brethren: Volume II (London: George Bell and Sons, 1892) as Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann [coll: trans by Major Alex Ewing of the above: containing second two volumes of text: bound identically to above: in the publisher's Bohn's Library series: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Die Letzen Erzühlungen ["The Last Tales"] (Berlin: G Reimer, 1825) [coll: published in two volumes: binding unknown/]

early collections and stories in translation

later collections and stories in translation (selected)

  • The Tales of Hoffmann (New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1943) [coll: trans by various hands: the Heritage Press edition, sometimes listed as prior, reprints this volume: illus/hb/Hugo Steiner-Prag]
  • Tales of Hoffmann (New York: A A Wyn, 1946) [coll: trans by various hands: edited by Christopher Lazare: hb/Richard Lindner]
  • Eight Tales of Hoffmann (London: Pan Books, 1952) [coll: translated by J M Cohen: pb/Val Biro]
  • Tales of Hoffmann (Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie, 1966) [coll: trans by James Kirkup: hb/Harry Green]
  • The Best Tales of Hoffmann (New York: Dover Publications, 1967) [coll: trans by various hands: edited by E F Bleiler: pb/Menten Inc]
  • Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1969) [coll: published in two volumes: trans by Leonard J Kent and Elizabeth C Knight of various tales in volume one, and of Kater Murr (see above) in volume two: individual covers nonpictorial but contained in box with artwork by the illustrator: illus/box hb/Jacob Landau]
  • Three Marchen (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1971) [trans by Charles E Passage of three independently published novellas: Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober, Prinzessin Brambilla and Meister Floh: see above under novels and individually published long tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Tales of Hoffmann (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982) [coll: trans by R J Hollingdale and others: pb/from Carl Spitzweg]
  • The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King (London: Neugebauer Press/Picture Book Studio, 1983) [trans with adaptations by Anthea Bell of "Nußknacker und Mausekönig" ["Nutcracker and Mouse King"] from Kinder-Mährchen (anth 1816): illus/hb/Lisbeth Zwerger]
  • Nutcracker (New York: Crown Publishers, 1984) [preferred trans by Ralph Manheim of "Nußknacker und Mausekönig" ["Nutcracker and Mouse King"] from Kinder-Mährchen (anth 1816): illus/hb/Maurice Sendak]
  • The Sand-Man and Other Night Pieces (Leyburn, North Yorkshire: Tartarus Press, 2008) [coll: reprinted trans by various hands: hb/Jacqueline Vanek]
  • Choosing the Bride: A Tale of Many Improbable Events (no place given: Dragonwell Publishing, 2018) [novella: trans by Anna Kashina of "Die Brautwahl" (1819 Berlinische Taschen-Kalender; rev in Die Serapions-Brüder, vol 3 1820 as above): hb/Eugene Ivanov]
  • The Wounded Storyteller: The Traumatic Tales of E T A Hoffmann (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2023) [coll: trans by Jack Zipes from various sources: introduction by Karen Russell: illus/hb/Natalie Frank]
  • The Golden Pot and Other Tales of the Uncanny (New York: Archipelago Books, 2023) [coll: trans by Peter Wortsman from various sources: pb/]

about the author


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