Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776-1822), better known by his pen name E. T. A. Hoffmann (he changed Wilhelm into Amadeus out of his admiration for Mozart), was a German author of the early 1800s, the early Romantic era, known for his Gothic and fantastical stories.
Born in Königsberg, Prussia (today Kaliningrad, Russia), he became a lawyer, following the family tradition, though without much enthusiasm, as he was drawn to music, literature and the arts. He entered a career as a civil servant in Prussian Poland, held a position in Warsaw and had a young wife, when, in the course of The Napoleonic Wars, French troops captured the city in 1806 and forced the Prussian administration to flee.
This led to a troubled time in Hoffmann’s life during which he faced poverty, separation from his wife, and the death of his infant daughter, while looking for employment all over Germany. For the following years (spent in Bamberg, Leipzig and Dresden), Hoffmann worked as a theatre manager, music teacher, stagehand, decorator, playwright, and musical director, but neither of these jobs lasted so long or was so well paid as to put him out of financial troubles. In 1813, he was again overtaken by war when the family experienced the Battle of Dresden.
Nevertheless, Hoffmann in 1809/10 achieved breakthrough both as a writer and music critic. But only when a twist of fate allowed him to resume his civil service career in Berlin, he finally enjoyed financial security. He continued to write besides his day job, but alcohol abuse and syphilis – which he had contracted during his wandering years – led to his early death at the age of 46.
Hoffmann is Germany's foremost writer of what has later been called 'Dark Romanticism'. While his lighter works mix fairy tale fantasy with realism, others delve headlong into the grotesque, the uncanny, the supernatural, and horror. Some are simply weird. At the same time, Hoffmann also relished sophisticated satire, self-parody, and wry, ironic humor. You're right, Hoffmann was an European version of Poe before there was Poe.
During his life (and long afterwards as well) he remained a polarizing writer. His taste for Ghost Stories brought him the derisive nickname "Gespenster-Hoffmann" (Ghosts-Hoffmann), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called his fiction “sick”, and Walter Scott likewise ended a 1827 review of his works with the conclusion that Hoffmann should have sought medical help. Notwithstanding, Hoffmann’s fiction played a key role for 19th century Fantasy, Horror, and the emerging Mystery genre.
Hoffmann's literary fame has also overshadowed that in his own time, he was a fairly respected music critic – particularly known for his reviews of Ludwig van Beethoven – and himself a composer of Romantic music; his probably most ambitious and successful work being the opera Undine.
Several creators have cast a fictionalized Hoffmann as a character in their works, such as Alexandre Dumas in The Woman with the Velvet Necklace and Jacques Offenbach in his opera ''The Tales of Hoffmann'' (''Les Contes d'Hoffmann''), which itself has seen several adaptations.
Works of E. T. A. Hoffmann include:
Stories and Novellasnote
- "The Artushof"
- "The Entail"
- "Mademoiselle de Scuderi"
- "The Mines of Falun"
- "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King": Best known as the basis for Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ballet.
- "The Sandman"
- "The Golden Pot": A fairy tale novella.
- "Little Zaches, Great Zinnober": a fairy tale about the Fake Ultimate Hero taken Up to Eleven.
- "Master Flea": Another fairy tale... although, for its time, it might just as well be science fiction.
- The Devil’s Elixir: A Gothic novel, directly inspired by M. G. Lewis' The Monk.
- The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (unfinished)
Works by E. T. A. Hoffmann with their own pages include:
- "The Artushof"
- "The Entail"
- The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
- "Mademoiselle de Scuderi"
- "The Mines of Falun"
- "The Nutcracker"
- "The Sandman"
Other works by E. T. A. Hoffmann contain examples of:
- Aerith and Bob: Hoffmann enjoyed peppering his words with weird names and titles. Some of them are obscure, others are latinate renderings of familiar names but expect to find his stories filled with the likes of Anselmus, Meradus, Lindhorst, Brambilla, Dapertutto alongside Antonia, Veronica, Tobias Martin and others.
- Alternative Character Interpretation: His story Don Juan introduces the idea that Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni is secretly in love with Giovanni.
- Anachronic Order: The Kreisler segments in The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr.
- Astrologer: A frequent trope.
- Author Avatar: Theodor in the Frame Story of The Serapion Brethren. Also, to a degree, Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a character that had started out as a pseudonym Hoffmann used as a music critic, and became a protagonist in Kreisleriana (a cycle of short stories) and Tomcat Murr.
- Author Existence Failure: Invoked — in failing health, Hoffmann abandoned writing The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. His pet cat, also named Murr and an inspiration for the story, had died. The book was published with a note saying that its "author", Murr, had left it unfinished at his death.
- Beast Fable: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr obviously owes much to this genre.
- Betty and Veronica: A common trope among Hoffmann male protagonists is a struggle between a down-to-earth normal girl and a more exotic and potentially dangerous woman: Klara and Olimpia in The Sandman, the Narrator's Wife and Giulietta in A New Year Eve's Adventure. His story The Golden Pot even has a girl named Veronica only here she's the Betty, while the Veronica for Anselmus is Serpentina.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: His character Johannes Kreisler, a genius musician and composer but also legitimately insane and downright antisocial.
- Crossover: "Master Flea" briefly mentions Archivist Lindhorst, who is one of the main characters in "The Golden Pot".
- Direct Line to the Author: In a send-up of this trope the conceit of Tomcat Murr is that Hoffmann was handed Murr's manuscript by an intermediary for publication, but that he neglected to examine the pile before he passed it on to the publisher. He thus only noticed that Murr's autograph manuscript was mixed up with fragments of the proofs of another book, a biography of Kapellmeister Kreisler by another author when the Tomcat Murr was already set and it would have been too expensive to reset and remove the parts that "didn't belong".
- Doppelgänger: His signature trope.
- Fake Ultimate Hero: Zaches.
- Finger Snap Lighter: Archivist Lindhorst once lit a few pipes that way.
- Framing Device: The story collection The Serapion Brethren has a circle of friends telling stories as a framing device. This commemorates the real-life Serapionsbrüder, an informal Berlin-based group of friends that included, among others, Hoffmann and fellow writers Adelbert von Chamisso (Peter Schlemihl) and Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué (Undine).note
- Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action: the main antagonist of "The Golden Pot" is stated to be a child of a dragon's feather and a sugar beet. Just try to imagine that.
- Hypocrisy: Tomcat Murr opens with a stereotypically modest foreword by Murr — signing "Murr (Etudiant en belles lettres)"note — in which he expresses the hope that his paltry effort will find mercy in the eyes of reviewers and readers. Unfortunately Murr forgot to remove the discarded first draught for the foreword — signed "Murr (Homme de lettres très rennomé)"note — which then immediately follows. Here Murr expresses rather different sentiments:Should anyone be bold enough to cast any doubt on the genuine worth of this extraordinary book he should remember that he is up against a tomcat who has wit, reason and sharp claws.
- Long Title: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper.
- Magic Realism: Many of his stories combine fantastic elements with realism. Can be considered an Ur-Example of the genre.
- Mind Screw: Many of his stories deal with strange, weird, or supernatural happenings, without offering explanations. "The Deserted House" is particularly screwy.
- Mole in Charge: The mage Prosper Alpanus from Little Zaches, Great Zinnober says that during the Enlightenment, when all the fairies were being banished and their magical groves cut down, he did as much good as possible under the title of "Privy Supreme President of Enlightenment".
- Ray Gun: "Master Flea" features a telescope duel between two sorcerers/scientists.
- Stealth Parody: Tomcat Murr, for the genius archetype in Romanticism. At the end of the day, Murr is nothing but a pretentious cat and Kreisler is nothing but an antisocial Bunny-Ears Lawyer lost amidst the nonsense of court etiquette.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: In The Artushof, one of the characters has his daughter dress as his son in hopes no young man will ever steal her away from him.
- Talking Animal: Hoffmann had already used the trope several times (for example, in "News of the Latest Fortunes of the Hound Berganza"), when Tomcat Murr took it one step farther by being a Writing Animal.
- Unbuilt Trope: Tomcat Murr seems almost postmodern to present-time readers due to its extensive irony, unusual form of two-novels in one (of which one has Anachronic Order as well No Ending), and over-the-top characterization.
- Wicked Witch: The Golden Pot, which was quite popular in an English translation during the early 19th century, was the Trope Codifier for this trope in English-speaking countries. The very wicked witch in the tale is a wrinkly old woman with the missing teeth that make her pointed nose almost meet her pointed chin, wearing a tall black hat, has a spooky black cat that she talks to, lives in a small cottage full of taxidermied animals and such, and cooks up a potion in a cauldron as a "love" charm for the young woman who comes to see her.