The name E.T.A. Hoffmann is probably not one that most readers will immediately recognize. But the odds are good that they have encountered him, at least indirectly. In 1816 he published a story titled “Nußknacker und Mausekönig”—in English, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” About 75 years later it inspired Tschaikovsky to write his popular ballet The Nutcracker, performed now in countless variations every year at Christmas.
There is much more to Hoffmann’s legacy than The Nutcracker, which was not even considered one of his best works, and which Tschaikovsky altered considerably for his ballet. When Hoffmann died exactly 200 years ago, on June 25, 1822, at 46 years old, he was perhaps the leading figure in German Romanticism, and his influence on subsequent writers, both in and outside Germany, was powerful.
Hoffmann was a remarkably talented and multifaceted figure. He studied law and had a successful, albeit short, career, ultimately becoming a councillor to the Prussian Supreme Court in Berlin, where he helped investigate suspected treasonous activities. Alongside these official duties, however, he pursued the arts with an almost manic fervor.
His first love was music, which he considered the noblest of the arts. His name bears witness to this: originally Ernst Theodor Wilhelm, he became E.T.A. Hoffmann when he changed “Wilhelm” to “Amadeus” in honor of Mozart. Hoffmann’s musical criticism, including a well-known essay on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that shaped the composer’s later reception as a heroic genius, was highly regarded. He was active as a director in Bamberg, Leipzig, and Dresden. And he was himself a composer of considerable skill. One can find performances of his work on YouTube, including recordings of his Symphony in E-flat major, his Quintet for Harp and Strings in C minor, and the overture to his opera Undine. Later composers also paid him homage. Jacques Offenbach wrote an opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, based on his stories, while Robert Schumann, a great fan, named his Kreisleriana after Johannes Kreisler, a highly emotional and semi-autobiographical composer who appears in several of Hoffmann’s works.
Hoffmann was also a talented drawer, painter, and caricaturist. Readers of German can find digitized collections of his work through the Berlin and Bamberg state libraries. But a simple Google Images search for “E.T.A. Hoffmann drawings” will also turn up plenty of images, including well-known self-portraits and one of his own illustrations to “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
Beginning around 1814, after a series of frustrating failures as theater and opera director and the disruptions of the Napoleonic wars, Hoffmann turned his attention primarily to literature. In the eight years that were left him, he produced about a dozen volumes, mostly collections of stories and novellas. They are characterized by a wild, Gothic fantasy, a lively sense of humor, and a noteworthy combination of imagination and realism, in which a supernatural or mythological world impinges upon the everyday, empirical one, a combination that came to be called “Hoffmannesque. The translator Ritchie Robertson has called this “duality” the key principle of Hoffmann’s writing, raising the “unanswerable question of where to draw the boundary between inner and outer reality.”
Readers interested in exploring this Hoffmanesque duality have two good options readily available. Robertson has collected five of Hoffmann’s stories in The Golden Pot, and Other Tales, published by Oxford World’s Classics, while Penguin Books has published Tales of Hoffmann, collecting eight stories in translations by R.J. Hollingdale, Stella and Vernon Humphries, and Sally Hayward. The two collections share only one story in common. “The Sandman” tells of a young man, Nathanael, whose father had died years earlier while conducting mysterious experiments with a disturbing fellow named Coppelius. Later, Nathanael encounters Coppelius again and descends into a state of depression. At the same time, he falls madly in love with Olimpia, the daughter of a neighboring scientist. Olimpia is beautiful but oddly stiff and cold, never saying anything more than, “Oh! Oh!”—an expression that the smitten Nathanael interprets as a sign of her great sensitivity. One day, upon entering the scientist’s home, Nathanael finds him fighting with Coppelius over the young woman, and when he rushes to rescue her, he discovers that she is in fact only an automaton, a robot. Together with his re-encounter with Coppelius, this discovery drives Nathanael insane and, ultimately, to his doom.
This is an inadequate summary of a story that can only be described—to use the technical literary jargon—as very, very creepy. So creepy, in fact, that an analysis of it would later provide the basis for a famous essay by Freud on “The Uncanny”—yet another striking instance of Hoffmann’s wide-ranging influence. (Those interested in Freud’s treatment might enjoy a podcast series about the essay from the Freud Museum in London.)
The Robertson anthology also includes some of Hoffmann’s modern “fairy tales,” among them the delightful “Master Flea,” whose plot defies easy summary but includes rival scientific magicians battling each other with microscopic lenses, a romance between a resurrected Eastern princess and a thistle transformed into a human being, and an intelligent talking flea. It also got Hoffmann into trouble with the Prussian censors, who believed—not without reason—that Hoffmann intended one episode from the novella as a satire on the justice system (about which, of course, he was quite well informed). When the main character is arrested on suspicion of kidnapping a young woman, his prosecutor argues that what is really important is simply to get hold of one’s suspect, after which it can surely not be too difficult to discover some crime or other of which he must be guilty. Hoffmann appears to have had second thoughts about the episode, since he wrote to his publisher asking that it be excised. When his request was discovered, the authorities took it as evidence of his satirical intent, and he received a reprimand. The excised passages were rediscovered and restored to the published version of the story only after Hoffmann’s death.
The Penguin anthology, for its part, includes what may be Hoffmann’s best-known tale, the short thriller “Mademoiselle de Scudery.” Among the first instances of the detective story and a source of inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s later “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it centers on the pathological goldsmith and jeweler Cardillac, who, unable to bear seeing his marvelous creations in the hands of others, sets out to regain them by secretly murdering his customers. When one of them thwarts and kills Cardillac, the jeweler’s apprentice is wrongfully accused of murder. But the elderly Mademoiselle de Scudery, persuaded of his innocence and touched by compassion for his bride-to-be, Cardillac’s daughter, takes her appeal directly to King Louis XIV and eventually unravels the mystery.
The bicentenary of Hoffmann’s death this weekend is a fitting time to curl up with either of these collections and acquaint one’s self with this master of literary fantasy. His wild flights of imagination intermingled with sharp observation remain as fascinating today as they were 200 years ago. Reading him, one recalls a comment made by the narrator of “The Sandman”: “Perhaps you will then come to believe, O reader, that there is nothing more marvellous or madder than real life, and that all the poet could do was to catch this as a dark reflexion is caught in a dull mirror.”