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“Why should not a writer be permitted to make use of the levers of fear, terror and horror because some feeble soul here and there finds it more than it can bear? Shall there be no strong meat at table because there happen to be some guests there whose stomachs are weak, or who have spoiled their own digestions?”
—Cyprian, The Serapion Brethren
Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776-1822), better known by his pen name E. T. A. Hoffmann (he changed Wilhelm into Amadeus out of his admiration for Mozart), was a German author of the early 1800s, the early Romanticism era, known for his Gothic and fantastical stories.
Born in Königsberg, Prussia (today Kaliningrad, Russia), he became a lawyer, following the family tradition, though without much enthusiasm, as he was drawn to music, literature and the arts. He entered a career as a civil servant in Prussian Poland, held a position in Warsaw and had a young wife, when, in the course of Napoleonic Wars, French troops captured the city in 1806 and forced the Prussian administration to flee.
This led to a troubled time in Hoffmann’s life during which he faced poverty, separation from his wife, and the death of his infant daughter, while looking for employment all over Germany. For the following years (spent in Bamberg, Leipzig and Dresden), Hoffmann worked as a theatre manager, music teacher, stagehand, decorator, playwright, and musical director, but neither of these jobs lasted so long or was so well paid as to put him out of financial troubles. In 1813, he was again overtaken by war when the family experienced the Battle of Dresden.
Nevertheless, Hoffmann in 1809/10 achieved breakthrough both as a writer and music critic. But only when a twist of fate allowed him to resume his civil service career in Berlin, he finally enjoyed financial security. He continued to write besides his day job, but alcohol abuse and syphilis – which he had contracted during his wandering years – led to his early death at the age of 46.
Hoffmann is Germany's foremost writer of what has later been called 'Dark Romanticism'. While his lighter works mix fairy tale fantasy with realism, others delve headlong into the grotesque, the uncanny, the supernatural, and horror. Some are simply weird. At the same time, Hoffmann also relished sophisticated satire, self-parody, and wry, ironic humor. You're right, Hoffmann was an European version of Poe before there was Poe.
During his life (and long afterwards as well) he remained a polarizing writer. His taste for Ghost Stories brought him the derisive nickname "Gespenster-Hoffmann" (Ghosts-Hoffmann), Goethe called his fiction “sick”, and Walter Scott likewise ended a 1827 review of his works with the conclusion that Hoffmann should have sought medical help. Notwithstanding, Hoffmann’s fiction played a key role for 19th century Fantasy, Horror, and the emerging Mystery genre.
Hoffmann's literary fame has also overshadowed that in his own time, he was a fairly respected music critic – particularly known for his reviews of Beethoven – and himself a composer of Romantic music; his probably most ambitious and successful work being the opera Undine.
Some sixty years after his death, Hoffmann also got an afterlife in fiction as the protagonist of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes de Hoffmann), which itself has seen several adaptations.
Works of E. T. A. Hoffmann include:
Stories and Novellas
- "The Golden Pot": A fairy tale novella.
- "The Nutcracker and The Mouse King": Best known as the basis for Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ballet.
- "The Sandman": The most famous of his short stories.
- "Mademoiselle de Scuderi": A Murder Mystery (but not yet a detective story).
- The Devil’s Elixir: A Gothic novel, directly inspired by M. G. Lewis' The Monk.
- The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (unfinished)
Tropes in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann:
- Author Avatar: Theodor in the Frame Story of The Serapion Brethren. Also, to a degree, Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a character that had started out as a pseudonym Hoffmann used as a music critic, and became a protagonist in Kreisleriana (a cycle of short stories) and Tomcat Murr.
- Author Existence Failure: Invoked — in failing health, Hoffmann abandoned writing The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. His pet cat, also named Murr and an inspiration for the story, had died. The book was published with a note saying that its "author", Murr, had left it unfinished at his death.
- Beast Fable: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr obviously owes much to this genre.
- Direct Line to the Author: In Tomcat Murr, Hoffmann pretends to be merely the publisher of Murr's manuscript.
- Doppelganger: His signature trope.
- Framing Device: The story collection The Serapion Brethren has a circle of friends telling stories as a framing device.
- Magic Realism: Many of his stories combine fantastic elements with realism.
- Mind Screw: Many of his stories deal with strange, weird, or supernatural happenings, without offering explanations. There are reams of interpretations of "The Sandman", including one by Freud. "The Deserted House" is even screwier.
- Overly Long Title: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper.
- Shown His Work: Hoffmann did a lot of research to faithfully recreate 17th century Paris in "Mademoiselle de Scuderi", and it shows.
- Talking Animal: Hoffmann had already used the trope several times (for example, in "News of the Latest Fortunes of the Hound Berganza"), when Tomcat Murr took it one step farther by being a Writing Animal.
- Wicked Witch: The Golden Pot, which was quite popular in an English translation during the early 19th century, was the Trope Codifier for this trope in English-speaking countries. The very wicked witch in the tale is a wrinkly old woman with the missing teeth that make her pointed nose almost meet her pointed chin, wearing a tall black hat, has a spooky black cat that she talks to, lives in a small cottage full of taxidermied animals and such, and cooks up a potion in a cauldron as a "love" charm for the young woman who comes to see her.
- Mostly contained in three collections published during his life: Fantasy Pieces in Callot's Manner, Night Pieces, and The Serapion Brethren.