Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Sand-Man and Other Night Pieces reviewed

Following on from Douglas Campbell's review of Machen's Dreads and Drolls, we are pleased to be able to post here another review intended for All Hallows, but which was never published:

Many thanks to Doug and to Barbara Roden for letting us reproduce it. 

The Sand-Man and other Night Pieces, Tartarus Press, 2008.
The Sand-Man and Other Night Pieces by E.T.A. Hoffmann; Translations by J.T. Bealby, A. Ewing, Thomas Carlyle, E.F. Bleiler and Helen Grant; Edited and Introduced by Jim Rockhill; 531+xviii pages; Tartarus Press; 2008; £35.00/$70 ; ISBN 978-1-905784-08-0

Reviewed by Douglas Campbell.

A key German Romantic writer, E.T.A Hoffmann (1776-1822) is a name that any student of weird fiction will sooner or later have to come to a reckoning with. His stories cast a long shadow: The ballets The Nutcracker and Coppelia are staples of middle class British childhood, and based on Hoffman plots; Wagner’s Meistersinger Von Nurnberg derives in part from Hoffmann’s tale ‘The Singer’s Contest’; and  the title piece of this collection is the basis for Freud’s essay Das Unheimlich, still a touchstone for many an academic study of the weird genre. Despite this, and the fact that a token Hoffmann story is often to be found near the start of any historical anthology of weird fiction, I’d venture to say he may be more referenced than read in English. As a generally intrepid teenage reader, I remember coming off very much the worst of a  tussle with a vintage Hoffmann anthology that has remained undisturbed on its shelf ever since: despite my best efforts, I found the language dry and the narratives laboured and baffling.  This always rankled with me. In consequence, I approached this new collection from Tartarus with a certain set to my jaw.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1776-1822
From what I have been able to glean from the web,  it seems that there are problems with many early English translations of Hoffmann; these were frequently carried out by enthusiastic amateurs, and Hoffmann’s style leans heavily on the rich idioms of  spoken German, which can be hard to for any but a native speaker to capture. Moreover, his contemporary translators felt compelled to bowdlerise and elide much that could not have been expressed in polite English at the time, effectively blunting comedy scenes and obscuring plots. I’ve no doubt that the very best translations available have been selected, including one, ‘The Abandoned House’, new to this volume, but I still felt there were times when the above factors seems likely to be in play.

Over and above all of this, Hoffmann manages to disconcert in ways that can’t be blamed on the translation. ‘The Sand-Man’ starts in an epistolary format, which Hoffmann abruptly breaks off to address the audience directly, continuing into the story of the sand-man himself, an account of childhood trauma which has such a shocking intensity that you feel it must have some basis in real experience, all folded in with the relatively light social satire of Olimpia, the robotic debutante who later became Coppelia.

The collection follows this puzzling genre landmark up with ‘The Legacy’, a Gothic flavoured tale of apparent ghosts and curses, set in a partially ruined castle deep in the North German woods. Our hero accompanies his great uncle, an advocate, there to sort out the business of the estate. The story revolves around the legal concept of entailment, not one that is much talked about these days, and certainly not as it applied in early nineteenth century Germany. Despite this, it’s atmospheric stuff, the setting is superbly evoked, there are ghosts, wolves, a beautiful baroness; it all seems to be rolling along nicely, until the hero is abruptly pulled out of the action and gets to hear the resolution of the story at third hand from another lawyer. At which thumping anti-climax, I must admit, the book was laid aside for a week or two.

The Sand-Man by Mario Laboccetta
Returning after a break, I started on the section subtitled from The Serapion Brethern. At this point, the nature of Hoffmann’s game started to dawn on me. The bibliography included in this volume shows that Hoffmann published four volumes of stories under the title Die Serapionsbruder between 1819 and 1821. The introduction indicates that the first volume opens with a tale not included here, The Story of St. Serapion, a madman whose conviction that he is the martyred Saint is sufficient to win over audiences despite all rational evidence to the contrary. This inspires the foundation of the Serapion Brotherhood, who proceed to tell tall stories to one another. The stories they tell lead into one and other, and are often interrupted. Even though the pieces selected here are out of sequence, having this context makes them more accessible. For example, at the end of ‘Automatons’, the narrator, Theodore, breaks off without resolving the story of the mechanical fortune teller at all. He explains that he prefers to leave it as a fragment, and that it is distasteful to him to have the stage ‘swept clean’ at the end of a narrative: “ ...a fragment of a clever story sinks deep into my soul, and [...] gives me a an enduring pleasure...” Theodore apparently “read second volumes only, not troubling himself about the firsts or thirds; saw only the second and third acts of plays; and so on.” This tells you a lot about Hoffmann, and his ideas about stories. It suggests to me that the volumes of The Serapion Brethern, taken as a whole, may make up an extended reflection on the nature of storytelling along the lines of The Saragossa Manuscript, and that to snip out individual tales from this patchwork may be doing them something of a disservice.  However, the tales are by no means all such teasing fragments: ‘The Mines of Falun’ is a perfectly formed fairy-tale of the strange underground spirits known only to miners. ‘The Vampire’ is a fine piece of Gothic blood and thunder, with a cracking graveyard climax. ‘The Singer’s Contest’ is a powerful and bizarre tale of medieval knights striving to outdo each other in a song contest to the death; the sorcerer Klingsor is a magnificent villain, and his magical activities are vividly imagined. Music is a key element in many of these stories: in his day, Hoffmann was widely known as a music critic and composer, and his music is still performed, and available on CD. Complex romantic entanglements are another common feature, one which is extended into farce in ‘The Life of a Well Known Character’ and ‘Albertine’s Wooers’. It may be a problem with the translation, but I’m afraid the effect for me of was a succession of scenes of the gentlemen of a comic opera chorus laughing it up to signpost that, yes, these are the jokes.

Moving on from the excerpts from The Serapion Brethern, the collection rounds off with four more stories, for me the most effective of the collection – or was it just that I had finally become acclimatised? ‘The Cremona Violin’ deals with the magical powers of music, and a gifted singer who may die if she continues to sing. This seems to prefigure aspects of Poe, who – scholars assert - definitely may (or may not) have read Hoffmann. ‘A New Year’s Eve’s Adventure’ is the tale of a lost reflection. ‘The Abandoned House’, smoothly translated for this volume by Helen Grant, deals with a man’s obsessive love for a face seen at a window, and makes effective play with Hoffmann’s preoccupations about the psychology of perception. Best of all is ‘The Golden Pot’, which appears in a vintage translation by Thomas Carlyle. Our hero, at the point of breakdown in then-modern Dresden, believes he has fallen in love with a green snake, and is taken on by an eccentric local scholar to transcribe occult and exotic texts. The imagery here is amazing, a tale full of wild magical transformations, which made me think of alchemical engravings brought to life by the animators responsible for Popeye or Betty Boop. Carlyle’s language has a verve and a colour to it which none of the other translators can quite achieve.

Try as I might, Hoffmann’s tales defy summary. There are fifteen titles here, but probably not the same number of beginnings and endings; many, many more stories are packed up inside. Dark and complex reflections on the distance between appearances and reality frequently resurface amid wild fantasy and comic confusion. This can all make for a challenging read, but ultimately a rewarding one, which left me wondering about the unabridged volumes of The Serapion Brotherhood.  If, like me, you’ve fought Hoffmann before, and lost, this collection may leave you on better terms with him. Jim Rockhill’s scholarly and impassioned introduction will certainly give you a better idea of the brilliant, complex and maddening character you are dealing with. If you’re already convinced of his genius – well, it’s a Tartarus anthology, with all the finely detailed production that that implies, and you’re going to want it on your shelves.

Copies of The Sand-Man and other Night Pieces are available direct from Tartarus Press here.


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