Wednesday, November 11, 2015

As though they had befallen some other person - E.T.A. Hoffmann's double-novel The Devil's Elixir

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.


  1. I must read some Hoffmann some day. I do have a book somewhere. Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann is my mother's favourite and I always think of her when anyone mentions his writings.

  2. I have this lurking and was thinking about it for this month, but time is running away from me. It does sound wonderful (if rather scary - maybe to be read in broad daylight....)


  3. The devices of The Devil's Elixir have been plundered so ruthlessly by later fiction and films that I fear there may not be much fear left in the novel. Readers today will likely take it more playfully, a Gothic parody with a larger philosophical purpose.

    I'll note that I would put both novels in the second tier behind Hoffmann's best shorter works. Every anthology of the tales has a number of the best one, but is missing others.

    I do think of Hoffmann as an essential writer, in the sense that he explains a lot of what comes after him in German literature and in fantastic literature more generally.

  4. I read thus years ago and remember both loving it and finding it utterly confusing. It lead me to Hoffmann's short stories though (less confusing, often terrifying) and that's something to be grateful for.

  5. I loved this book when I read it; it's delightfully confusing. I could imagine Hoffmann having fun writing it. It has all his favourite tricks and obsessions but he goes brilliantly overboard on all the identity confusion. I especially enjoyed his attempt to clarify matters and explain everything only to confuse matters even more.

  6. The novel survived rereading. I was a bit worried at first, but it's a funny case where the novel gets better and better as it gets more confusing. The confusion provides both the narrative and philosophical interest.

    There is a great bit, near the end, which maybe what Jonathan means, where a character is explaining the complicated story of the narrator's own life to the narrator - not knowing he is talking to the subject of his story - and finally stops, realizing that his story, although it explains some of the strange events of the book, basically makes no sense. Hilarious.

  7. "passages of great strangeness"

    With E. T. A. I always wondered how much of his unfathomable (for me) nuttiness was due to his syphilitic condition.

  8. I know too little about the disease to say much.

    Hoffmann's strangeness is consistently his own, the product of an unusual imagination. But I guess I think of it as unusually rich rather than crazy.

  9. I wonder whether The private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner was influenced by this: same themes of doubles and devils, though from a calvinist rather than roman catholic view.
    Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made an extraordinary film of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and a novel by Robeertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus, involves the completion and production of an opera by Hoffmann, with Hoffmann himself emerging from the afterlife to comment on what's going on...

  10. That is my guess, too, that Hogg was encountering some of the same ideas.

    I have read The Lyre of Orpheus but I had completely forgotten that the King Arthur opera was Hoffmann's. Thanks for the reminder. Utterly blank. In fairness, it has been over twenty years, but still.

    I have not seen the the Powell and Pressburger film but would love to. I could say the same for almost but not quite all P&P movies.

  11. I do think of Hoffmann as an essential writer, in the sense that he explains a lot of what comes after him in German literature and in fantastic literature more generally.

    No kidding; I see now that Dostoevsky basically recreated this story for The Double. I'd vow to read more Hoffmann except that I'm unwilling to put up with poor writing for the sake of historical importance. I have loved some of his short pieces, though.

  12. The short pieces are the best place to see what Hoffmann is doing. There are lots of good ones, with a lot of variety of effect.

  13. Belated thanks for this mad post. You had me at "an insane monk," but your Freud crack and that bit about Matthew Lewis' The Monk made me cackle with glee...silently as it were. I'll have to read this book some day, but I probably won't review it since this post seems unattainably perfect in the writing & witticisms departments. Nicely done!