Category Archives: Hoffmann

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

2014

 

What would German literature month be without E.T.A Hoffman? I recently read Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson which I thoroughly enjoyed, and since the collection opened with Hoffmann’s short story, The Sandman, it seemed a perfect addition to German Literature month.

The story is just 30 pages and begins as an epistolary. A very troubled young man named Nathanael writes a letter to his friend, Lothar, but in emotional turmoil, he makes the mistake of addressing the letter to Lothar’s sister, Nathanael’s love interest, Clara. The letter details Nathanael’s childhood exposure to tales of the Sandman;

He’s a wicked man who comes to children when they don’t want to go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes; that makes their eyes fill with blood and jump out of their heads, and he throws the eyes into a bag and takes them into the crescent moon to feed to his own children, who are sitting in the nest there; the Sandman’s children have crooked beaks, like owls, with which to peck the eyes of naughty human children.

Yes, a wonderful thing to tell children especially at bedtime.

Nathanael relates a childhood in which a strange visitor he identifies as the Sandman (a creature who, according to Nathanael’s mother, does not exist)  periodically visits his father. These mysterious visits throw an atmosphere of gloom over the family and are accompanied by foul-smells suggesting the practice of alchemy. One terrifying night, Nathanael, after getting a good look at the Sandman, realizes that the Sandman in none other than Coppelius, an “old advocate.”

Years later, in the letter to Lothar, Nathanael, now a student, is convinced that he has met Coppelius again…

After 3 letters, the narrator of the tale takes over, and we shift from the Sandman as a major threat to Nathanael falling in love with Olimpia, the strange daughter of professor Spalanzani.

We could take the tale at face value or we can, from a psychological viewpoint, consider this a tale of obsession and madness. Clara, who believes that the “demon” exists only in Nathanael’s mind,  offers her fiancé some sensible advice:

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we must never otherwise have set foot on–if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task.

Nathanael is annoyed with Clara and considers her unfeeling, but no matter, to Nathanael, Olimpia seems to be the perfect woman–she sits and listens, never argues, never expresses an opinion of her own, and it seems only a small flaw that she can’t dance well. …

At around 30 pages, this is a short tale, and for its psychological elements,  I much preferred this to Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi. Nathanael makes an interesting main character and while we can sympathise with him, it’s easy to see that he’s his own worst enemy–a man who, haunted by childhood demons, seems to rush with both arms open towards his own fate.

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Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson Edited by Darryl Jones

“But there are men, sane men, who are entirely of the opinion that it is quite within the bounds of reason to suppose that there may be what the world commonly calls spiritual manifestations–dealing with the seen and the unseen. Of such men, I avowedly, am one.”

A severed hand with murderous intentions, a portrait that drips blood, a husband out for revenge, opium-fueled dreams, and a locked bedroom in which a brother turns into a monster… yes all this (and more) occurs in Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. The book, a review copy sent to me from a friend who chose not to read this, comes with a fantastic intro from editor Darryl Jones.  I would not call myself a fan of horror and typically avoid the gore of modern horror novels–although for some reason I have a weakness for a handful of films that fall under that heading: The Shining, The People Under the Stairs, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. And this brings me back to the informative intro which adds a great deal to the selected stories.

Horror is a phobic cultural form, both in the sense that it is designed to produce a specific reaction–fear and loathing–but also in the way that it is produced by and directly reflects cultural preoccupations, fears and anxieties at any give moment, which it renders obliquely, in displaced and often highly metaphorical guises, as monsters, madmen, ghosts. A very clear example of this can be seen in the rise of colonial horror in the later nineteenth century. As the British Empire and the other empires of nineteenth century Europe reached their zeniths, so appeared the ‘reverse-colonization’ narrative, a paranoid cultural form in which conquered or oppressed colonial subjects return to the West (or to the Western officials in the colonies) to wreak terrifying revenge.

There are several examples of this ‘reverse-colonization’ in this wonderful collection, and I doubt that I would have made the connection but for this savvy intro which also explores the nineteenth century emergence of fascination with spiritualism, the “elements of terror,” the “contradictions” of Horror, and the “terror/horror binary.” Darryl Jones states that “the long nineteenth century was the great age of the ghost story,” and that the ghost story “represents a significant breach in the Victorian narrative of progressivism and modernity.” Jones, who obviously took a great deal of care in making his selections for this collection, points out that Stephen King, “by far the most prominent living horror writer” acknowledges The Monkey’s Paw (included here) as a “quintessential example of the tale of terror.” 

Horror storiesThe 29 stories in this collection are from the period 1812-1916, and while many of the author names are expected (Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson,) many are unexpected–Zola (The Death of Olivier Bécaille), and Balzac (La Grande Bretêche) are just two examples of authors I didn’t expect to find here.

As I read the stories, I was struck by how the authors keyed into our deepest primal fears. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, for example, the narrator explains how he came across this strange story through his acquaintance with a military man who owns a disturbing painting by the long-dead painter Schalken. The painting seems to capture a horrifying moment, and the owner of the painting relates the tale of a beautiful young woman claimed by a dead man. Yet another terrifying painting plays a role in E.H Benson’s creepy The Room in the Tower–the story of a man who has a recurring dream which involves being left to sleep in a tower room. Inevitably, of course, the person who suffered a lifetime of bad dreams finds himself relegated to the tower room which contains … a painting which drips blood. I’d run for the hills, but our narrator spends the night almost as though he cannot resist this moment. Zola’s The Death of Olivier Bécaille tells the tale of a young man who falls ill and enters some sort of coma state, and of course eventually he faces another of our primal fears: being buried alive. Yet another deep rooted fear is the centre of W. F. Harvey’s August Heat– the story of a man who learns the date of his death.

One of the biggest surprises of the collection was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox. A childhood exposure to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes created a lack of curiosity in Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, but I loved this clever story, and perhaps some of my enjoyment can be explained by my newfound recognition of ‘reverse-colonization.’ This is, of course, one of the best aspects of reading a collection from several authors–we are inevitably exposed to someone we’ve never read before.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s  The Case of Lady Sannox, Douglas Stone “one of the most remarkable men in England” is embroiled in a passionate affair with the notorious Lady Sannox. Stone is a “high-handed, impetuous” man, one of the most famous surgeons in London.

Those who knew him best were aware that famous as he was as a surgeon, he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patients.

Lady Sannox, a former actress, has many lovers in her past, and there’s a degree of speculation as to whether her mild-mannered husband is clueless about her affairs  or “miserably wanting in spirit.” But when Douglas Stone becomes Lady Sannox’s latest lover, there’s no attempt to hide the affair which very quickly becomes a subject of scandal and threatens Stone’s career.

As I noted earlier, I would not classify myself as reader of Horror fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Gothic fiction and the supernatural. The book’s title: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffman to Hodgson may possibly alienate potential readers, and that’s a great shame. Gothic or Supernatural Stories may have a wider appeal, and yet as the intro emphasizes, Gothic “is a term with a bewildering variety of referents.” After reading this excellent collection, the use of “Horror” in the title seems most appropriate as we move from anticipated dread (which in Gothic fiction may not materialize) to the horror of our fully realized fears.

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Filed under Balzac, Blackwood Algernon, Dickens Charles, Fiction, Hodgson William Hope, Hoffmann, Jacobs W W, James M R, Machen Arthur, Stevenson Robert Louis, Stoker Bram, Zola

Mademoiselle de Scuderi by E.T.A Hoffmann

It’s odd how reading patterns interconnect. I just finished Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi and then began reading a book about the life and work of Lermontov. And there in one of the chapters, I read about Lermontov reading Hoffmann.

After finishing Mademoiselle de Scuderi, I find myself wondering what Lermontov thought of it….

This is the first book I’ve read by Hoffmann, a German Romantic author (and other things) whose works frequently used elements of horror and the supernatural.  I read somewhere or another that the story is supposed to be one of his best. That admitted, I’ll add that I wasn’t crazy about the story, but more of that later.

Mademoiselle de Scuderi (who was a real person, Madame de Scudery) is the heroine of this story set in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV. According to the foreword by translator Andrew Brown, there are “historical realities that formed the basis” of this tale, although Hoffmann did take some liberties with the dates of Mademoiselle de Scuderi’s novel, Clelie. The tale is set after in the aftermath of the 1677 ‘affair of the poisons’ and the subsequent trial. The ‘affair of the poisons’  is detailed along with the crimes of Madame de Brinvilliers, who with her lover and accomplice Captain Godin de Sainte-Croix,  served up poisonous “dinners from hell.”  Desgrais, an officer from the mounted police eventually captured Madame de Brinvilliers by luring her from a convent for a tryst. But the episode leaves Paris infected with paranoia–everyone is suspicious of everyone else and in spite of arrests and executions, murders continue:

“At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities; at that very time the diabolical inventiveness of hell was managing to come up with the easiest possible means of bringing them about.”

Louis XIV  “wishing to put a stop to this increasingly calamitous state of affairs, appointed a special tribunal” called the Chambre ardente with the “exclusive task of investigating and punishing these secret crimes.” The president of the tribunal, La Reynie in combination with Desgrais become feared men as the tribunal uncovers another nest of poisoners along with a long list of clients–some in the nobility.

Into this scene of fear and paranoia another series of crimes take place. The victims are wealthy men, commonly on their way to visit their mistresses and loaded with gifts of jewelry. Some of the victims are knocked senseless, but most are stabbed to death. It’s assumed that the murders must be the work of a brutal gang, but then one eyewitness account attributes almost supernatural powers to the robber, and “everyone’s head was filled with the sorcery, necromancy, and pacts with the devil.” There are no suspects and more guards are set on the street, but to no avail. Louis considers extending the powers of the tribunal which already resembles  “an inquisition,” but then Mademoiselle de Scuderi discourages the idea of granting the tribunal–and the people who run it–any further power.

And then late one night, a mysterious young man arrives at Mademoiselle de Scuderi’s house with a casket. Inside the casket are jewels and a letter purportedly from the gang of thieves called  ‘the invisibles’ thanking Mademoiselle de Scuderi for her friendship and for saving them from “persecution.” Mademoiselle de Scuderi is horrified to think that she is perceived to be a friend to these murderers and she refuses to wear the jewels which she considers cursed by blood. She confides in her friend, Madame de Maintenon who recognizes the exquisite jewellery to be the work of the idiosyncratic Parisian jeweller, Rene Cardillac.  

Some months later, Mademoiselle becomes unwillingly dragged into the crimes, and she decides to seek the solution….

While Mademoiselle de Scuderi is interesting (and I do enjoy reading about this period), the novella was a little disappointing. This is basically a detective story–a point that Gilbert Adair makes in his foreword. Adair states that “there cannot exist a single history of literature in which the invention of the detective story is not attributed to Edgar Allan Poe for the Murders in the Rue Morgue, which was first published in 1841.”  Mademoiselle de Scuderi was first published in 1819, and Adair notes that its depiction of a serial killer makes this a seminal novel. Seminal novels to the genre are essential for research and for those determined to track down signposts over the centuries. Adair makes a good point when he compares Mademoiselle de Scuderi to Miss Marple, for instance. Perhaps there’s a thesis there for someone who wants to examine the development of the female amateur detective. But while some novels are perhaps ‘important’ it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily that great for the common-garden variety reader like me.

I found the peripheral/background details regarding the atmosphere in Paris the most interesting part of the story. Apart from that, the man responsible for the crimes isn’t particularly difficult to identify. Plus there’s a tepid romance thrown into the stew which serves to complicate matters in a rather silly way. The plot complication that one character stands in the way of revealing the murderer because he want to protect another is preposterous and flimsy at best, and at its worst, the novella pushes at the seams and becomes a bit of a cheap hysterical melodrama :

“Inwardly torn apart, alienated from all earthly life, Mlle de Scuderi had no more desire to live in a world of hellish delusion. She accused destiny for the bitter irony with which it had granted her so many years of life to reinforce her virtue and faithfulness, only to destroy, now that she was an old woman, the beautiful image that had shed its light on her whole life.”

I am sure that there are plenty of other people who love this story. I didn’t.

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