tirsdag den 5. december 2023

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr - E. T. A. Hoffmann (1822)


The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

“The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr” is one of the more bizarre books on the List, at least at face value. It pretends to be the memoirs written by a cat, Murr, but in the publishing process the manuscript got mixed up with a story about Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler with whom Murr was staying for a while. Amazingly, it is actually this second story which is the wild one.

The actual author, E.T.A. Hoffmann, uses the two stories both to tell an amusing tale, but also to make a thinly veiled satirical portrait of the world he himself lived in. The context is the fragmented world of the German mini-states after the Napoleonic wars. On the one hand there was the traditional polite society where noble birth and polished mannerism still survived from before the wars and on the other hand the upheaval and sense of opportunity in society, politics and science caused by war and revolution. The juxtaposition is a source of friction but also of hilarity and Hoffmann uses the latter to get to the former.

Murr is a very literate cat, staying as he is with the learned Master Abraham. He is also very much a cat, which means that he is absolutely convinced of his own brilliance and genius. Although he grudgingly has admit that not all his affairs have been the smartest, in fact more often than not he blunders abysmally, his self confidence is unshakable and he must be admired by everybody. I am very much a cat-lover myself and this description fits practically every cat I have ever known. With the exception that none of them were able to write. That I know of…

Murr tells his life story, how he was adopted by Master Abraham, his affair with Kitty, how he joined the brotherhood of cats and finally how he attempted to join the polite society of dogs. In this respect the cats represent the progressive liberals, students and artists and the dogs are the conservative society, the nobles and the police. Murr looks with scorn at the empty life of the poodles when they obey their masters and spend a life full of nothing, yet he is also drawn to it to get that flattering attention. The same with the brotherhood of cats, representing the revolutionary student fraternities of the time. The playing with fire is gratifying but also very dangerous.

The Kreisler story centers on a music composer, Hoffmann’s alter ego, who gets involved in the affairs of the court of a principality that does not even exist anymore, swallowed up as it is by the larger neighboring duchy. Yet, Prince Irenaeus insists on maintaining the illusion and pretense of a court although he rules nothing more than the lands of his castle. It is of course a mockery of the myriad and complicated German mini-states of the period and ridicules the strict adherence to past glories. Kreisler’s friend is Master Abraham (yes, Murr’s master), who taught him music as a child. Abraham is a man of mechanical arts and sciences which makes him a bit of a wizard, something the Prince is absolutely fascinated by having at his court.

Johannes Kreisler is a modern character, like Murr, but with much less confidence. Yet his presence at court as a music teacher and composer is a bomb to the stiff and ridiculous formalities there. His refusal to avert his eyes from the Prince’ gaze convinces him that he must be of noble birth which earns him the respect of the Prince. The court adder, Madame Benzon, is less impressed. Her schemes to control the court is thrown to pieces by Kreisler’s presence, not least because a romantic affair blooms between Kreisler and her daughter, Julia.

The intrigues and escapades reach new levels with the arrival of the playboy, Prince Hector of Naples and it gets both very confusing and immensely amusing.

I appreciate the unconventionality of the format and style of this novel, it is truly refreshing and while I can see the point of the cat biography, it is the Kreisler story that captivated me. It is fragmented so we never get any resolutions, but it builds up with mysteries and intrigues and absolutely hilarious characters throughout that I just wanted more. This may also be the biggest problem with the novel. It consists of two volumes and a third was planned, but never written as Hoffmann had the audacity to die before writing it. We will never know how it ends, if Kreisler gets his Julia, if Abraham finds his Chiara and if Madame Benzon succeeds in taking over the principality entirely. The book ends as each section ends, with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved, and we are left to just enjoy the ride. Fortunately, it was a very enjoyable ride indeed.


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