Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Tales of Hoffmann

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Tales of Hoffmann

Article excerpt

Translator's Introduction

A defender of Romanticism and leader of the Parnassian movement, based on the notion of l'art pour l'art, or art for art's sake, Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was a great admirer of the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (1 776-1822), who is known today especially for his role in the development of the literary fairy tale. Hoffmann's influence is most evident in Gautier's fantastic tales "La cafetière" ("The Coffeepot," 1831), "Onuphrius" (1832), and "Le pied de momie" ("The Mummy's Foot," 1840). On August 14, 1836, Gautier published "Les contes d'Hoffmann" ("The Tales of Hoffmann") in the literary review Chronique de Paris, which had been recently purchased by Honoré de Balzac, who took Gautier on board as part of his editorial staff.

What one realizes at the end of the piece is that "The Tales of Hoffmann" essentially is a book review, praising the recent French translation of Hoffmann's tales by Massé Egmont. But Gautier begins the piece by criticizing the misguided opinion albeit mostly positive - that French bourgeois society has formed of Hoffmann, which reads like a caricature of the image "good society" fabricates of the "eccentric" artist. In order to go beyond such superficial views of Hoffmann, Gautier spends much time trying to get at what it is about Hoffmann that has appealed to the French, despite their national character based on a rather stubborn rationality. The result is an essay in which Gautier, like a good Parnassian, beautifully teases out the aesthetic qualities of Hoffmann that make his stories so irresistible and tantalizing.

A defense of Hoffmann, the essay also gives us a sense of nineteenth-century notions of the fantastic. In many respects, Gautier 's characterization of the fantastic tale (or what he considers to be a more appropriate label for Hoffmann's tales, the "whimsical" tale) anticipates the literary cñtic Tzvetan Todorov's seminal 1970 work, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil) - translated by Richard Howard as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973) - which in fact draws heavily from the work of writers like Gautier and Hoffmann. As Todorov will do more than a century later, Gautier locates the fantastic within the liminal space where the boundaries dissolve between reality and illusion, the plausible the implausible, and the natural and the supernatural. For Gautier, it is precisely this uncertainty - and the uneasiness that it triggers in the reader - that distinguishes Hoffmann's fantastic tales from the classical fairy tale firmly grounded in the marvelous of fairy castles and magic wands.

The text used for the translation is Théophile Gautier's Souvenirs de théâtre, d'art et de critique (Pans: G. Charpentier, 1883), 43-50. An online version of "The Tales of Hoffmann," also based on the 1883 edition, is available in French at Wikisource: h t tp fr.wikisource. org/wiki/Les_Con tes_d'Hoffmann.

Hoffmann is popular in France, more popular than in Germany. Everyone has read his tales; the doorwoman and the grand lady, the artist and the store- keeper all have enjoyed them. However, it seems strange that such an eccentric talent, so outside of French literary habits, received so promptly his rights of citizenship. By nature the Frenchman is not fantastic, and in truth it is hardly easy to be so in a country where there are so many streetlights and newspa- pers. Twilight, so necessary for the fantastic, exists neither in French thought nor in the French language, nor in French homes; with Voltarian thinking, a crystal lamp, and big windows, a tale by Hoffmann is the most impossible thing in the world. Who would be able to see the schoolboy Anselmus's little blue serpents swaying while passing under the white arcades of Rivoli Street, and what subscriber of The National could have this intimate fear of the devil, which sent chills down Hoffmann's spine when he wrote his stories, and which compelled him to wake up his wife to keep him company? …

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