E. T. A. Hoffmann, Meistererzählungen
Published by Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1948
What is real? The desk we sit at? The place where we used to study records and nowadays answer emails? Or is it our free time in which we dream ourselves into other worlds? Where we get enchanted by films, television and books. Are we really just administrators and receptionists? Isn't there a jungle hero or at least a superstar inside us?
This disunity between everyday life and the desired real world is not new. Whoever reads the novellas and novels by E. T. A. Hoffmann will come across the very same disunity. His Meistererzählungen give us an insight into Hoffmann's world of thought. Herr Anselmus from "The Golden Pot", for instance, who is studying in Dresden, is completely lost when it comes to handling the requirements of everyday life. He upsets full baskets and porcelain cups, is always late and his dress coat always has missing buttons and too many stains.
But still, this Anselmus dreams of a secret world where he can enjoy art in its most genuine form. It is a world where women have no bodies but instead they are sweet, tiny snakes with voices like little bells.
Sixteen-year-old Veronica, who has the very earthly wish to marry a privy councillor and wear gorgeous drop earrings, leads off the fight for Anselmus against the snake Serpentina. She loses and Anselmus can settle down with Serpentina in the otherworld.
The author probably would have loved to share the fate of his protagonist Anselmus, because E. T. A. Hoffmann, too, dreamed of another world, where he could paint, write and compose. He was a well-esteemed jurist. After all, he finished his third examination of jurisprudence in March of 1800 and became a Prussian councillor. An honourable position! A steady income! Social dignity! Everything E. T. A. Hoffmann did not value at all.
He despised the vanity of the world and the Prussian bureaucracy in particular with all its incompetent supervisors. In "Klein Zaches, genannt Zinnober", E. T. A. Hoffmann let off steam. His Klein Zaches is a changeling, who is horribly ugly himself. But a fairy gives him the gift of seeming beautiful and well-behaved to others. Yes, every deed done in his presence is attributed to him. Thus Klein Zaches makes a career. He becomes minister, receives the order of the green-spotted tiger with twenty buttons and it is only shortly before he marries the lover of his enemy Balthasar, that the latter is able to rip his hair from his skull and thus break the spell.
The stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann are so disturbing, because the real present is mashed with an unreal somewhere. The layers of reality exist next to, above and confused with one another. Only those who are open-minded to this can see the wonderful things of the otherworld.
E. T. A. Hoffmann needed more and more alcohol to be able to cope with reality. Despite his big success as an author, he was not meant to live contently let alone happily. He died – either of syphilis or of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – on 25 June 1822. His oeuvre lives on and to us readers who have been educated by fantasy literature it is more relevant than ever.
Translated by Christina Schlögl