E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is in many ways quite a surprising book. In its subject matter, tone and structure it could almost be mistaken for postmodernism – except that it was written in 1819.
A riposte of sorts to Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Tomcat Murr is the autobiography of the titular Murr, an autodidact feline caught between his animalistic impulses and his literary pretensions. In writing this tract, however, he has inadvertently used as blotting-paper the tale of one Johannes Kreisler, a musician with a taste for the melodramatic; and so the two texts have become mixed up at the printers’, with the result that the text switches between narratives at seemingly arbitrary points, and sometimes mid-sentence. To confound the reader’s understanding even further, there are substantial sections of Kreisler’s tale missing; and the whole novel is truncated by the fact of Hoffman’s death in real life before he got the chance to write the third volume.
It is, then, not a novel that is particularly accessible to the modern reader: its structural tricks and the density of the contemporary archaic references it deploys renders it a text probably best enjoyed by an academic specialist. The prose, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, is dense and archaic, characterised by the run-on sentences so beloved of nineteenth century writers and by a deliberately overheated, hyperbolic style that can become quite wearing.
One reason it’s so difficult, I think, is that the concerns and ideas Hoffman’s working with are peculiarly nineteenth-century ones; the aesthetic context is just very different from our own. In particular, I think he’s examining Romantic conceptions of the self from a couple of different angles. Autobiography was an important genre for the Romantics, with their focus on the importance of the individual and of emotion and feeling; look at Wordsworth’s interminable The Prelude, in which the author describes his growth as a poet. Hoffman uses Murr’s narrative to skewer the Romantic autobiography: Murr is clearly a ridiculous figure, a pompous tomcat who believes he has important Thoughts to share with the world even as he caterwauls upon the rooftops with a raucous feline gang. The novel’s structure, too, undercuts Murr’s authority: there’s something irrepressibly catlike in the idea that his blotting paper made it to the printers as well as his memoir, and it’s something that’s impossible to take seriously. So, here we have a comedic dissection of the Romantic subject.
The Kreisler sections are a little subtler in their interrogation of the Romantic subject. At first glance, Kreisler is the archetypal Romantic hero, a sensitive artistic genius to whom extraordinary and possibly supernatural things happen, a man standing apart from the world because conventional society has no place for him. But here too the novel’s structure has a part to play in deconstructing this figure. The fact that there are pieces of the story missing, and particularly that the novel has no formal end, makes Kreisler an incoherent subject: we don’t know his full history, we don’t get answers to a lot of the mysteries the novel poses; he disappears from his own narrative at random (leaving us with the two noblewomen who may or may not be falling in love with him) and we don’t really ever find out why. As a Tortured Genius (TM) he is relentlessly unknowable in a way that works against the purpose of autobiography as it appears in Murr’s narrative, because he is not storyable; we can’t piece together the narrative of his life.
Hoffman is, then, clearly interested in exploring the knowability and coherence of the psyche that Romanticism was so invested in; we can link this to his use of madness and mental illness as thematic elements in Tomcat Murr, which, unusually for the time period, deploys contemporary psychiatric terminology. Madness was another of Romanticism’s preoccupations: think of their interest in William Blake, believed mad by his contemporaries; of Victor Frankenstein’s multiple mental breakdowns; of the madness and death of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Mental illness is figured quite commonly in Romantic texts as a break in continuity, in the storyability of the subject: Frankenstein’s first-person narrative leaves lacunae around his breakdown; Heathcliff’s madness leads to his death. Hoffman takes this trend one step further with Kreisler, who is all lacunae, all discontinuity.
So Hoffman is coming at the Romantic subject from two angles, as it were: the broadly comedic angle provided by Murr’s autobiography, which punctures and undercuts the self-centred pomposity of Romanticism; and the more serious, measured angle embedded in Kreisler’s tale, in which he engages in a sustained fashion with the Romantic figure of the tortured artistic genius. In this way he points up the contradictions inherent in this figure: the coexistence within them of louche debauchery and artistic rigour; the paradox that although their propensity for mental breakdown is one of their most distinguishing features, such breakdowns are never described or examined. It’s thus closely engaged in contemporary artistic debates, which is probably why it’s little known and little read today. An interesting take on Romanticism; better studied than read for pleasure, I think.