Translated from German by Anthea Bell

Hoffmann always has something unexpected up his sleeve whether it be a reincarnated composer or a shape-shifting salamander. In this work there’s the erudite Tomcat Murr, a genius (even if he proclaims it himself!), based on Hoffmann’s own beloved pet. But, to me, anthromorphosised animals aren’t so surprising. What is, is Hoffmann’s cheerful designation of 60% of the novel as waste paper!

For Murr has, while penning his autobiography, used a biography of a certain Johannes Kreisler for blotting paper. And the blotted images of Kreisler’s tale (the waste paper) have erroneously been spliced into the print run. Resulting in an accidental dual narrative in which the two strands bear absolutely no resemblance to each other … Not quite.

One connection between the two narratives is the character of Master Abraham, a kindly old intellectual who, after saving kitten Murr from a drowning, gives the cat a very comfortable home. Observing Master Abraham at work in his library, Murr teaches himself to read. Then he begins to write poetry, and finally his own biography.. With a penchant for plagiarism, he is pulled up for it multiple times by his editor. (I think this is Hoffmann at his playful best, paying homage to his own cultural heroes.) Murr is a very contented, self-satisfied and, yes, opinionated cat. Bourgeois. When adolescence calls, the tomcat begins to go out on the tiles, caterwauling with the gang. Love will have its way. Heartbreak follows. Murr retreats back to his home comforts. Further sallies into the world follow with Munzius, his best tom friend, and Ponto, a poodle, his best childhood friend. But the nature of dogs and cats mean this is a friendship that cannot last. Although Hoffmann is not willing to write the dog off. Ponto has a few key lessons to teach Murr.

Johannes Kreisler by E T A Hoffmann

In Kreisler’s narrative or what remains of it – after Murr’s desecration it has become very fragmentary – Master Abraham acts as court advisor to Prince Irenaeus of Sieghartsweiler. He becomes a magus, an inventor of machines and medicines, a magician. This story is replete with princes, princesses, betrothals, unrequited, impossible passions, and court intrigue. Johannes Kreisler (accepted to be Hofmann’s alter-ego) is a melancholic man, secretly in love with Julia, Princess Hedwiga’s companion. Having defended her honour against the dastardly Prince Hector, he is forced to leave court and take refuge in a monastery. At the end of volume two, it looks as though Kreisler is able to return to court (good), but it seems too that Julia is about to be betrothed to another (not so good.). Unfortunately we do not discover whether the outcome is happy or tragic, because Hoffmann never wrote the third volume. Like Tomcat Murr whose sudden demise is reported by the fictitious editor on the final page, Hoffmann died before he could write it.

At a plot level the two narratives seem barely connected. One story hardly impacts the other. Yet there are subtle mirrorings and parallel incidents in the lives of Murr and Kreisler. For instance they both fight duels, and sing duets with their loved ones. Their artistic passions and concerns reflect those of the author: Murr is the literary aficionado, Kreisler the musician with a difficult relationship to Ettinger, an artist. The three cover the spectrum of Hoffmann’s own creative talents, and indeed Hoffmann threw all of himself in this novel.”What I now am and can be, will be shown pro primo by the Tomcat”.

There are 25 pages of endnotes in Anthea Bell’s translation, explaining multitudinous intertextual, cultural and political references. This makes me think that Tomcat Murr for all its playfulness is a philosophical work in disguise. My thanks to Jeremy Adler’s introduction in the Penguin Classics edition for describing the political satire in Kreisler’s narrative and to The Lectern for this explanation of how Murr’s story represents the Enlightenment while Kreisler’s represents pure Romanticism.

Once more, I am astonished by how many layers there are in Hoffmann’s stories. And to think that for some The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr is a beloved childhood story. Clever kids is all I can say.

Other GLM XII reviews: She Reads Novels


This is probably my last post on Hoffmann during the bicentennial year of his death. I know I’ve just scratched the surface of his work, but it what unexpected richness I’ve discovered. I don’t care for all of it – the uncanny elements in some of his work, such as The Entail, makes me very uncomfortable, but there’s no denying he could conjure up an eeriness second to none. Which is why he is best known today as the writer of horror and gothic tales. But as I have seen there is so much more to him than that. For an overarching evaluation of Hoffmann’s life and his legacy, see the recent New European article The Fantastic Worlds of E T A Hoffmann.