The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr
Date Published: November 1, 1999
Number of Pages: 384
Print Price: $10.88
eBook Price: $10.34
If you have never read E.T.A. Hoffmann then you better stop what you’re doing right now; put down that glass of Benedictine DOM, leave that easel and untarnished canvas, turn off that recording of Mozart, stop reading this review and get thee to a bookery, one with culture enough to house this gem of an author within its confines. And what better place to start than with his magnum opus, his last novel and self proclaimed defining work, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr.
After reading its blurb and being blown away by the sheer audacity of this man’s imagination, I could not help but be attracted to what I thought was a unique gimmick of a plotline. What other book would present to its audience the autobiography of the said Tomcat whose story, via a major editing mishap, has been accidentally spliced together with the biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler? Hence we have two completely different stories weaved together, interrupting each other and the result is two distinct and original characters who emerge to take their well earned place in the reader’s heart.
Murr is the title character and author of the named text, whose vanity is combined with an almost child-like simplicity, blinding him from perceiving his own self-centredness and in the process treating the reader to much laughter. Hoffmann uses Murr and his written expression for much of the comedy while also winning our affection for this egocentric yet loveable cat. He revels in irony, and it is indeed ironic that Murr, in love with his own intellect and always eager to remind the reader of his vast learning, should have his own tale upstaged by Kreisler’s biography. Kreisler’s story is told in fragments yet as the novel progresses it is his one that receives more attention and emerges as the centrepiece. Hoffmann plays with us by abruptly breaking off at climatic moments in a scene, to continue with the alternate story, and just as we begin to reinterest ourselves in that material he does the switch again. Murr’s tales of adolescence, his first feline love and his adventures discovering the world are thus intertwined with Kreisler’s coming to the Princely Court and his slow self disclosure to the reader and those around him through his adventures, especially in battling the malignant presence of Prince Hector. Master Abraham is the unifying character in both stories, and emerges as a fascinating and strong presence in his own right.
The novel is an infusion of fantasy, comedy, satire, and whimsy, but these elements are perfectly balanced to create a world where animals discuss philistinism, give long-winded funeral orations and plagiarise Shakespeare, with it all seeming completely plausible. The sense of the fantastic is ever present too, especially through the careful composition of each human character, the spaces they occupy, and their placement in each scene, like stitches in a marvellously wound tapestry. It is here that we meet Master Abraham and his optical illusions, Madame Benzon and her intriguing court politics, Princess Hedwiga and her extreme mental instability, the humble, sweet and innocent Julia, and the treacherous Prince Hector with his impure designs. It is here that the gentle artistic soul of Kreisler is slowly revealed, with its passionate disposition and ironic humour, verging on madness. We are also given a glimpse into so many passing characters through vignettes, which pieces itself together into a fitting example of German Romanticism. The whole is a novel that draws upon folktales, myth, nature and the religiosity of music, yet giving it to us in Hoffmannesque style with a structure which displaces chronological time.
Hoffmann was a Protestant; however, his love for choral music gave him an affinity with the Catholic Tradition, and happily he presents not only a Catholic presence in his world, but a positive one. A major section of the novel is set in a Benedictine Monastery where Kreisler is taken for refuge. Hoffmann delves into the character of the monastery and its inhabitants, presenting the monks as kindly, good-natured and greatly appreciative of ‘beauty’ in life, whether it is a fine wine or a beautiful painting, all that gives glory to God. The Abbot is a well-meaning and authentic man, and Hoffmann does justice in the balance of his depiction. We see his attempt to find a religious vocation in Kreisler, and although met with skepticism, we are given an honest and positive portrayal, with a strong and impassioned invitation that is totally convincing and truthful. We are also shown another type of religious, one that is fanatical and hypocritical; however, even this example is not unnecessarily demonised but rather humanised in a depiction of the weakness of man.
Murr is a child (well, a cat) of the enlightenment and this seems to be parodied through his character. Kreisler, on the other hand, is a true artist, one concerned with ‘the higher things’. He is presented as a chaste man (although we do hear hints of a previous scandal) and in conversing with the Princess speaks of the chaste love of the artist which is consummated only in the work of art inspired by the beloved. Perhaps I am clutching at straws here, but it seems to me that this is later connected with Kreisler’s dialogue with the Abbot in which he describes music as divine expression and that aspires to ‘what is highest in devout love’.
The sense of the Divine is present in the novel, even if only because of Hoffmann’s love for music, and yet, it can be enjoyed for what it is; a unique and entertaining piece of writing that draws the reader into a fantasy world of wonder, laughter and imagination. The work in itself is worth celebrating, and like a glass of Benedictine DOM, a beautiful painting, or a symphony by Mozart, its goodness gives glory to the Divine.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 7.8 inches
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