German Literature Month, via Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, plus a bicentennial anniversary means that I read The Devil’s Elixir by E. T. A. Hoffmann, the first of his two novels. Maybe it is just two hundred years since the publication of Part I of the novel, with the entire thing only published in 1816. Close enough.
An insane monk decides he will either be Saint Anthony or a murderous villain. He is pursued by a mysterious double who is also a villain, or perhaps a supernatural force, or possibly a close relation, or possibly the monk himself. They both lust after a beautiful woman who is – I have misplaced my family tree – the cousin of both? She may also be a saint.
A cursed bottle of wine, one of the temptations of Saint Anthony, may be the cause of some of this confusion, but as usual in Hoffmann strong drink, even when it is evil, only removes inhibitions. Hoffmann was an innovative psychologist. Sigmund Freud was his greatest disciple.
This line describes the general scheme of the book:
Such were my thoughts whenever my dreams brought back to me the events in the palace, as though they had befallen some other person; and this other person was the Capuchin again, not I. (95)
The joke behind this, again, is that the narrator here is a Capuchin monk, and the person he describes as “the Capuchin” is his double who is not a monk but who is wandering around in the narrator’s discarded habit. Probably. Unless the monk who narrates is actually the other monk, who then would be - . Anyway, radically dissociative personality, that is one of the conditions explored by Hoffmann.
Feeling turned to thought, but my character seemed split into a thousand parts; each part was independent and had its own consciousness, and in vain did the head command the limbs, which, like faithless vassals, would not obey its authority. The thoughts in these separate parts now started to revolve like points of light, faster and faster, forming a fiery circle which became smaller as the speed increased, until it finally appeared like a stationary ball of fire, its burning rays shining from the flickering flames. “Those are my limbs dancing; I am waking up.” (229)
This just under the chapter heading “Atonement.” Hoffmann is not a first-rate prose writer, but he excelled at embedding passages of great strangeness amidst his more ordinary stuff. The pattern is to start flat and add ripples of weirdness, then waves, then hurricanes. The Devil’s Elixir is a joyfully disorienting novel.
Anyone who has read Matthew Lewis’s 1796 kitsch Gothic novel The Monk will find all sorts of suspicious similarities, especially in this passage (this is the female saint writing, not the murderous monk-saint):
In my brother’s room I once saw a new book lying on the table, and opened it. It was a novel called The Monk, translated from the English. A shudder went through me at the thought that my unknown lover was a monk; never had I suspected that it could be sinful to love a priest. I felt that the book might help me in my perplexity, and taking it up, I began to read. (218)
Any character who gets her moral education from The Monk is on the naïve side and is going to run into trouble.
I read the 1963 Ronald Taylor translation, which briefly returned to print as a Oneworld Classic. It is the only modern and only complete translation. The 1824 version, which is the free one, is abridged. Too scary, I guess.