Thursday, July 02, 2009


I just got done reading a great book by the fabulous teller of tales, E.T.A. Hoffman: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. Below is my review, which I also posted to Library Thing:

When I was in college, majoring in Spanish literature, I had to read several works and poems that used a style I’d call “fierce satire.” They were, not to put too fine a point on it, mean. There were two Spanish poets who would write insulting sonnets back and forth to each other – Hilarious, but very dense in references, and so unkind that after reading them I had a bad taste in my mouth.

This book is a happy, gentle satire. It was really a flash of brilliance on Hoffman’s part to use a tomcat to parody a self-satisfied person of his time, who follows trends in society and believes he is a setter of them. All cat lovers will tell you that he picked the perfect animal to represent self-satisfaction.

The Kreisler story, or rather the discarded draft of the Kreisler story upon which Murr has written his autobiography, shows a very different character, one who actually has artistic genius and true depths of feeling, but who is paradoxically much less in control of his life than Murr, while being much more self-aware. The funny fake court in which the story takes place is the closest Hoffman comes to being fierce as he mocks all that must have been wrong with German aristocracy at the time.

The book is intensely psychological and in this sense it seems way ahead of its time. Even with its humorous and satirical narration, I had a sense of understanding and empathy for “bad” characters such as Mme. Benzon that I would not have gotten from other books of the period. Mostly, the backstories for these characters are hinted, and not fleshed out, which makes the book really fun. I have found that the more I read the less I want the narrator filling in blanks for me.

This is not to say that I liked the ambivalent ending. I want a sequel. Collette wrote a short story about a cat in which the cat supposedly was about to die, and she resurrected her at the very end, so that could be done again. Hint hint. Where is a modern Hoffman to carry on this tremendously funny fairy tale? A weary nation of book and cat lovers waits for you.