What the new Hoffmann addict read on Christmas Day …

The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Anthea Bell

Nutcracker

My mum was a huge ballet fan, and it was a much-anticipated Christmas treat to be taken to London to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, preferably at the Royal Opera House for a grander experience and better tree (see below). It was my favourite of the Christmas ballets; although I got to see bigger ballet stars in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty in other years, I loved The Nutcracker the best.

I had two favourite bits – The Russian Dance in Act II for the music and dancing, but for the real WOW! moment – it’s got to be when everyone’s gone to bed except Clara and Drosselmeier, and the Christmas tree grows.

See this clip from the 2008 production at the ROH – That’s how to do the tree properly!

I was thinking of this as I read the original story of The Nutcracker this Christmas, another classic fairy tale by German Romantic author ETA Hoffmann, whom I discovered a couple of weeks ago for the first time when I read The Sandman, (reviewed here).  Needless to say the ballet is based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père), and Hoffmann’s original is much darker.

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys.

Legal Councillor Drosselmeier ws not a handsome man; he was small and thin, with a wrinkled face, and he had a big black patch over his right eye. He was bald, so he wore a very fine white wig made of glass, a most ingenious piece of work. Councillor Drosselmeier was a very ingenious man himself. He knew all about clocks, and could even make them. So if one of the fine clocks in the Stahmbaums’ house went wrong, and its chimes failed to ring out, Godfather Drosselmeier came to call, took off his glass wig, removed his yellow coat, tied a blue apron around his waist and poked at the insides of the clockwork with various pointed instruments. …

When Councillor Drosselmeier came visiting he always had something pretty for the children in his bag, sometimes a little manikin that could roll its eyes and bow – that was a comical sight – sometimes a box with a little bird that hopped out of it, sometimes another toy. But at Christmas he had always made them something that was particularly elaborate and had meant a great deal of work for him, and once he had given it to the children their parents put it away and took care of it.

Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King saving him.

She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night the Mouse King returns and together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann obviously had an interest about mechanical toys and automata – indeed the brief notes at the end of the volume confirm this . Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares (especially in films like Magic and the ones with that Chucky doll in). I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It was perfect Christmas reading.

This edition from Pushkin Press paired The Nutcracker with a lesser known tale from Hoffmann – The Strange Child. This is the tale of two children who live in the country and have a wonderful life running wild in the woods. One day their rich relatives come to visit from the city, bringing gifts of toys. and tell their parents that they will send a schoolmaster for the children.  Meanwhile, the children abandon their new toys in the woods, preferring natural pursuits, when they meet a strange child who becomes their new playmate.  When their new evil tutor arrives, the children are banned from the woods, confining them to the stuffy schoolroom and the tutor scares them stiff, buzzing around them like a fly. I won’t say how it ends, except that it’s suitably Gothic and moralistic.

I adored the Nutcracker, and enjoyed the much darker Strange Child too, my reading enhanced by the lovely quality of the Pushkin Press edition.  I’m going to get some more tales of Hoffmann, and revisit some of his contemporaries, notably the Brothers Grimm, too to compare the style.

So another Hit from Hoffmann! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nutcracker The Strange Child (Pushkin Collection) by ETA Hoffmann, Pushkin Press 2010 translated by Anthea Bell, 206 pages.

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Mr Sandman, bring me a dream …

The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

sandman

I’m slightly familiar with the 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffmann through adaptations of his on the stage: the ballets Coppélia by Delibes, and Christmas evergreen The Nutcracker, also Offenbach’s opéra fanastique, The Tales of Hoffmann – but I’ve never read any of the source stories before. Alma classics has just published a new translation The Sandman, and sent me a copy to read.

The Sandman of Hoffmann’s imagination is nothing like that in the song by the Chordettes from 1954 win which the girls ask for certain qualities in their dream male:

“Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam,
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci,
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”

That interpretation derives from the nice Sandman in Hans Christian Andersen’s story (1841), in which he sprinkles sand or dust on children’s eyes to send them off to sleep and give them good dreams.

Hoffmann’s earlier version from 1815 is truly nasty – a complete opposite.  The boy Nathanael is traumatised as a child when his nurse tells him about the Sandman who throws sand in the eyes of children who won’t sleep and this makes their eyes fall out which the Sandman collects to take to the moon as food for his children who have beaks and peck at them.

See – there are two sides to every story!

Hoffmann’s tale starts with letters to and from Nathanael, now a young man, to the brother of his fiancée Clara, in which he recounts episodes from his childhood when his beloved father had a regular visitor in the evenings. That was Doctor Coppelius, and together they carry out alchemical experiments. Nathanael hides in his father’s room and when discovered Coppelius threatens to blind him with embers from the fire. A year later his father is killed in one of their experiments and Coppelius disappears. So a terrified Nathanael equates Coppelius with the Sandman. Then one day an Italian barometer salesman called Guiseppe Coppola appears, and Nathanael is convinced he is Coppelius in another guise and all his old fears are reawakened.

Nathanael is spiralling into depression and his relationship with Clara and her brother Lothario is threatened, especially when he becomes besotted with Olimpia, the beautiful doll-like daughter of Spalanzani, whom he sees in the opposite window… Anyone who has seen Coppélia or The Tales of Hoffman, will be familiar with the second half of this story which features in both.

I loved that in the best metafictional tradition, the author inserts himself into the story as the narrator and friend of Nathanael …

…I have done my utmost to begin Nathanael’s story in a meaningful, original and moving way: “Once upon a time” – the finest possible opening for a tale, too prosaic! “In the small provincial town of S., there lived …” Slightly better – at least it builds up to a climax. Or why not medias in res*: “‘Let him go to the devil,’ exclaimed the student Nathanael, his eyes filled with horror and rage as the barometer salesman Guiseppe Coppola …” In fact this is what I had already written, believing that I sensed something comical in Nathanael’s wild eyes – although the story is not exactly amusing. I couldn’t think of an expression that even began to reflect the glorious colours of the inner portraits, so I decided not to try. So, gentle reader, take the three letters that his friend Lothar kindly entrusted to me as a brief outline of the picture to which, by now telling the story I will endeavour to add more and more colour.

* Medias in res – a quote from Horace – in the midst of things.

This edition includes a fascinating extract from an essay by Siegmund Freud after the short tale. Freud subjects the tale to psychoanalysis, interpreting Nathanael’s fears of losing his eyes as a common, albeit terrible childhood dream, and goes on to cite blindings in literature and more. This was a big bonus to this slight volume, indeed my only regret was that there weren’t more of Hoffmann’s tales included. (9.5/10)

The end result of reading this novella is, of course, an immediate desire to read everything else Hoffmann wrote, there are two more on Alma Classics’ list. However, being a collector of luxury editions of fairy tales, I’d love it if the Folio Society would ‘do’ Hoffmann!).

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sandman (Alma Classics) by ETA Hoffmann, pub Alma classics, new translation Dec 2013, paperback, approx 100 pages.

Meet Mr Sulky

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McClintock

thomas bernhardWhen Stu announced he would host Thomas Bernhard Reading Week this week, I first thought ‘Who?’. Just a little research revealed that he was considered one of Austria’s leading writers of the post-war era, and he was also rather controversial for constantly criticising Austria – a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest). I also ascertained that he was likely to be quite difficult to read, but I liked the sound of his books, so I took up the challenge, choosing one of his shorter novels…

woodcutters

Woodcutters was written in 1984 and  the translation by American, McClintock I read was from 1987. It takes the form of one long unspoken monologue, written in one long paragraph too – I considered writing my review in similar fashion, but I shall spare you that!

The action takes place at a late-night artistic dinner-party in Vienna, hosted by the Auersbergers, who run into our unnamed narrator in town after not seeing him for over twenty years, (he had formerly lodged with them and they had fallen out).  Surprised, he accepts.  Frau Auersberger tells him the guest of honour is to be an actor, currently starring in Ibsen’s play The Wild Ducks.

However, earlier on the same day as the dinner is the funeral of one of the narrator’s dearest friends, Joana. She hanged herself, but the Auersbergers, who also knew her are continuing with the dinner. Our narrator arrives at the party in a real sulk, wishing he wasn’t there, brooding over the death of his friend and the events of the funeral, hating his hosts; he decides to sit in a tall wing-backed chair out of the way, to observe, doze and tell us about Joana and the Auersbergers.

Eventually the actor arrives after his evening performance and they sit down to dinner after midnight. The narrator hates the actor on principle – he rants to himself:

These actors are petit bourgeois nonentities who know nothing whatever about the art of the theater and have long since turned the Burgtheater into a hospice for their terminal dilettantism.

The narrator’s former lover, Jeannie, a writer of sorts, is also there – he hates her now, and she repeatedly tries to show off. She asks the actor inane questions, and the actor pontificates in response…

It was a wonder, he said, that The Wild Duck had been put on at all in Vienna – put on was a phrase he used repeatedly – since putting it on in Vienna was a risk. After all The Wild Duck was a modern play. He actually used the term modern to describe a play that was just a hundred years old, and was still as great, after a hundred years, as it was when written: to call such a play modern was patent nonsense. To present The Wild Duck to the Viennese public was not just a risk, said the actor, but a considerable gamble. The Viennese simply did not respond to modern drama. They preferred to go and see classical plays, and The Wild Duck was not a classical  play – it was a modern play, which might admittedly become a classic.

But finally the actor retorts with something that momentarily raises him in our narrator’s eyes – he wishes he was a simple woodcutter – ein holzfäller.  But that doesn’t last, and eventually, they all go home at about 4am.

Essentially that’s all that happens, but it’s the way his tells it that makes the story.   You know how it is when you worry at something, you mutter about it or fiddle with it repeatedly, and this is how it is with the narrator.  Right from the beginning, when he arrived masking an angry sulk, he wishes he wasn’t there, that he hadn’t bumped into his former friends, the Auersbergers. Looking around the apartment, he settles on the library…

The Auersbergers, who inherited this library, have probably taken out no more than twenty or thirty volumes in the past thirty years, whereas I positively fell upon these collections in the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal with all the passion of the ignoramus, as I have to admit. And perhaps what tied me to the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal was not so much the Auersbergers themselves as the extensive libraries which their forebears had founded merely for show, a show of scholarship, culture and comprehensive knowledge – the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that is deemed to go with metropolitan life – things that have always been in fashion. … They’ve always gone in for show, I thought, because they lack any capacity for reality. Everything about them has always been show.

He sulks, he mutters, he reassures himself that he’s sitting the the wing-backed chair, and he sulks some more, sitting in the wing-backed chair. He wishes he hadn’t met the Auersbergers again, he disparages them some more as he sits in the wing-backed chair.  Slowly, and with much repetition, the story gradually edges on, reaching the end of the evening.

You will have seen from the extensive quotes above, that this short novel is not an easy read, especially with no paragraphs to give natural pauses.  When I put the book down for a breather, I found I had to go back a couple of pages to get into the flow again.  It has a certain sardonic humour running through it though as the narrator constantly criticises everyone except the dead Joana – while sitting in the wing-backed chair, of course.

I’m glad I’ve read Thomas Bernhard – thanks Stu. I did enjoy it, but it was hard work and I was tiring of it in the middle, only for it to pick up again towards the end. If you like a challenge, Bernhard would be ideal – and this book could be a good one for you (6/5/10)

I shall leave you with a treat – Monty Python’s Lumberjack (ie: holzfäller) song in German, which the Pythons made for a special programme to show in Germany and Austria back in 1972…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Faber paperback.

Book Group Report – a German classic novella…

The Jew’s Beechby Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff

the-jews-beech Being a German novella from 1842, this book was an unusual choice for our Book Group. It came about in conversation because one of our group’s sons was studying it at uni, and another who teaches German, owned a copy in German which she’d never read. Luckily, translations are available from Oneworld Classics and online at Project Gutenberg.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born into Westphalian aristocracy and given an excellent education.  She became an esteemed poet and musician, however, this novella was her only work of fiction.  The central story is based on a real murder. It’s often been viewed as a prototype of the crime thriller and also has Gothic elements – you could say ‘Grimm’.

For a novel of a scant one hundred widely-spaced pages, upon reflection and after lots of discussion, we realised that a lot actually happens in this story.

It follows the life of Friedrich Mergel from birth to his death. The first half tells the story of his drunken wife-beater of a father, and how his uncle Simon adopts him after his father died, putting him over his ignored pig boy Johannes Niemand who might be his illegitimate son.

They live in a village in the middle of a heavily forested area of Germany and the first half of the story concentrates on village life, including all the gossip and tittle-tattle that thrives therein, under the eye of the local barony.  It’s a hard life for these peasants and their living relies on forestry.  It’s not until a band of tree-poachers starts chopping into their livelihood that things take on a more sinister turn, when one of the village foresters is found in the wood with an axe through his skull. Did the ‘blue-cloaks’ as the poachers are called do it? No-one is sure.

Cut to later on, and a wedding in the village. Friedrich, who’s grown up to be a bit of a dandy for a forester makes a bit of a fool of himself, especially in front of Aaron, the Jew, who demands to be paid for the silver watch bought on tick that Friedrich is showing off. Aaron will later be found murdered in the forest, near a big beech tree, and suspicion falls on Friedrich, who promptly runs away, shadowed by Johannes…

Many of the big problems of the age, seen under the lens of village life are observed – poverty, poor Johannes steals a pound of butter at the wedding feast, and then stands in front of the fire; also bigotry and anti-Semitism.   But there are also nods towards Gothic fantasy – the blue-cloaks seem to spirit themselves into and out of the woods, leaving no tracks; the dark forests themselves are foreboding and the stuff of fairy tales, Grimm’s having first been published in 1812.  The villagers are quite superstitious, and there is (to us) a bizarre episode where someone went to dig up a horse’s head that had been buried years before as a talisman against sorcery.

Here it might be appropriate to compare the two translations we read between us:

Next morning the fountain in the garden would not work, and it was discovered that somebody had moved a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse which had been buried there many years before – this was reckoned to be a guaranteed protection against witches and apparitions. (trans Lionel and Doris Thomas, 1958)

The next morning the fountain in the garden would not play, and it was discovered that some one had removed a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse’s skeleton which had the reputation of being an attested instrument against any wiles of witches or ghosts.   (trans Lillie Winter, Proj Gutenberg)

The feeling was that the Thomas’s translation was a little uninteresting, and that the Winter one had more charm despite being more directly word for word. Our German teacher commented that at least the author wrote in sentences of reasonable length unlike her contemporary Heinrich Von Kleist.

So, to recapitulate, this odd little story generated a great discussion in our book group.

Next month, we’re reading another crime novel in translation – but this time contemporary and French – Fred Vargas’ first novel The Three Evangelists.

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The Jew’s Beechby Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff, Oneworld classics paperback.

A short, sharp German legal thriller…

The Collini Caseby Ferdinand Von Schirach, translated from the German by Anthea Bell

The author of The Collini Case, a prominent German defence lawyer himself, honed his writing on short stories – case histories of gruesome and shocking crimes, of people who get away with murder and the like. His first novel, a courtroom drama, isn’t long either, but he does pack a whole lot of story into its 160 pages.

It starts with a murder. A prominent German businessman is killed by Fabrizio Collini, a quiet Italian who has worked for Mercedes Benz for decades. Caspar Leinen, a young defence lawyer takes on the case – a good result will make his name. However, after accepting it, he finds out that the victim was known to him and he is unable to get out of the case. Collini admits guilt, but refuses to give a motive – it doesn’t look good for Leinen’s reputation. We read about how Caspar got to where he is, and his relationship with the deceased. We see how the German justice system works; Leinen’s case is surely doomed – and before we know it, we’re at page 100. Then he makes a discovery. Everything changes and the rest of the novel is turbocharged by its results towards a dramatic courtroom conclusion.

It’s a taut novel, which has been a best-seller already in Germany. It doesn’t get bogged down with court procedure, keeping to the essentials only, and not over-dramatising the lawyers’ performances. There’s no melodrama here, yet the book works brilliantly as a gripping legal thriller that can be read in one sitting. I enjoyed it so much I almost wished it had been longer, but its brevity is a large part of why it was so good!  (8.5/10)

Von Schirach has an interesting history which obviously influences and informs his own writing, for his grandfather was tried for Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg. There was an interesting article in the Guardian which you can link to here, which tells more (slight spoiler alert though). You can also read Simon S’s reviews of his short stories here – I’m keen to read the first collection, Crime, in particular now.

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I received an ARC of this book from Amazon Vine.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Collini Caseby Ferdinand Von Schirach. Pub Sept 13 by Michael Joseph, Hdbk.
Crime by Ferdinand Von Schirach – short stories, 2011.