Last year I read a book based on ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and although I wasn’t impressed, it left me longing to read something by Hoffmann himself. I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to read The Nutcracker, so I decided to see whether one of his other books appealed to me more. That’s how I came across his 1819 novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which sounded absolutely fascinating!
This very unusual novel could almost be described as two books in one. First of all, it’s the autobiography of Murr, an exceptionally intelligent tomcat who lives with the magician and alchemist Master Abraham. As a kitten he secretly teaches himself to read and write and proceeds to educate himself from his master’s library. Having had a series of adventures, he decides it’s time to write his memoirs…but his pages accidentally become mixed up with pages from a very different book:
When Murr the cat was writing his Life and Opinions, he found a printed book in his master’s study, tore it up without more ado, and, thinking no ill, used its pages partly to rest his work on, partly as blotting paper. These pages were left in the manuscript – and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it.
This other book turns out to be a biography of Kapellmeister (conductor) Johannes Kreisler, a musical genius and friend of Master Abraham’s. Kreisler’s story unfolds alongside Murr’s, with a few pages of one followed by a few pages of the other, often breaking off mid-sentence as the end of the page is reached. Murr’s sections are marked with ‘M. Cont’ while Kreisler’s are headed ‘W.P.’ (Waste Paper). However, despite the Kreisler biography being printed on ‘waste paper’ and seemingly finding its way into Murr’s book by chance, the two stories are linked by the character of Master Abraham and, towards the end, there are hints of a much stronger connection between the two.
I found Murr’s story great fun to read. He has a strong and unique narrative voice, being vain, precocious and over-confident, but still with the qualities of the cat he is and always will be – he has an instinctive wariness of dogs and is easily tempted by a bowl of milk. His memoirs are told in chronological order, describing his kittenhood, his self-education, his romance with a beautiful female cat and his uneasy but close friendship with Ponto the poodle, who is less well-read but wiser in the ways of the world.
Kreisler, by contrast, is a very different personality – quiet, nervous and melancholic. His story becomes very convoluted, being intertwined with the lives of German royalty as he finds himself at the fictitious court of Prince Irinaeus of Sieghartshof and is drawn to two young women, Princess Hedwiga and her friend Julia Benzon. I found this much less interesting to read than Murr’s story, although if I’d had more knowledge of early 19th century German society and its intricacies it’s possible that I would have appreciated it more. At times I struggled to stay engaged with the Kreisler sections of the book and found myself looking forward to rejoining Murr. I’ve read that Hoffmann apparently based Kreisler on himself and used him as a character in several of his other books – and again, maybe if I’d know more about Hoffmann himself this would have had more significance for me.
My Penguin Classics edition of the novel contains two volumes of The Tomcat Murr which were published between 1819-1821. Sadly, Hoffmann died in 1822 and a planned third volume was never completed. That’s not really a problem, because the second volume does have quite a satisfactory ending, but there are still a lot of loose ends that aren’t tied up and it’s slightly frustrating not knowing how the story would have concluded! If you’re interested in reading the book, I can recommend this particular edition – the translation by Anthea Bell is very readable and there’s an excellent introduction by Jeremy Adler (best read after finishing the book), as well as notes and suggestions for further reading.
Have you read this or anything else by Hoffmann? I would love to hear your thoughts!