1818 was a good year for literature. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein – the fruits of a ghost-story writing competition with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron; Byron wrote the first canto of Don Juan while simultaneously courting Margarita Cogni, Marianna Segni and Contessa Guiccioli; and John Keats was drafting what would become his ‘six great odes’, walking on Hampstead Heath with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge discussing nightingales, metaphysics, and ‘the peculiar sensations’ that could be produced by poetry.
But perhaps the best book of 1818 was published on the continent – the first volume of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s unlikely masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr – the autobiography of a literate, bourgeois tomcat. The book’s experimental nature is signalled by the note at the beginning, which warns the reader of a mistake made by the printer: Tomcat Murr wrote his manuscript on waste paper he found in his master’s study, but the verso has been accidentally included as part of his text. Because of this, an alternating B-side appears alongside the story of Murr’s life, containing the musings of the virtuosic Kappellmeister Kreisler. Amid many adventures, Kreisler describes how his mentor, the magician and alchemist Master Abraham, has decided to educate a stray tomcat.
Hoffmann tacks between Enlightenment and Romanticism in the two intertwined narratives: the Murr sections are told with classical wit and mock-erudition, an urban tale satirising the educational narratives of Rousseau, Jean Paul and the like:
‘With the confidence and peace of mind native to true genius, I lay my life story before the world, so that the reader may learn how to educate himself to be a great tomcat, may recognize the full extent of my excellence, may love, value, honour and admire me – and worship me a little.
Should anyone be audacious enough to think of casting doubt on the sterling worth of this remarkable book, let him reflect that he is dealing with a tomcat possessed of intellect, understanding, and sharp claws.’
The prose of the Kappellmeister Kreisler, on the other hand, is wildly imaginative, a series of high-Romantic tales of artists tormented by their uncontrollable passions and flights of genius, dazzled by the sublime beauty of the natural world.
Hoffmann died shortly after the publication of the book, and though he is not often read now his work had an outsized influence. One of Robert Schumann’s best-known compositions, Kreisleriana, was inspired by Hoffmann’s iconic Kappellmeister; Jacques Offenbach went on to immortalise the writer in his opera The Tales of Hoffmann, and Tzaichovsky’s famous Nutcracker ballet is based on one of his stories.
The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr anticipates many of the innovations of postmodernism – the casual surrealism of the text, its layered narratives and pastiche of writing styles would not be out of place alongside the works of Robert Coover or John Barth. But what sets Hoffmann’s work apart is the meeting of the joint impulses of Enlightenment and Romantic thought, clashing in a tour-de-force of experimental prose, aesthetic thought and pure expression of the spirit.