In my Mount TBR 2016 Recap, I mentioned how much I loved the original Nutcracker and Mouse King, which left me wanting to read more by E. T. A. Hoffmann. I was excited to find this little collection of some of his other stories waiting under the Christmas tree: The Golden Pot and Other Tales.
How can I describe Hoffmann? His writing – his bizarre, funny, gruesome, sometimes tedious writing – precedes Lewis Carroll in many ways. Hoffmann likes to bewilder his characters, make them question who they are, and encounter all manner of strange people and anthropomorphic animals. He has an idea and runs with it wholeheartedly. In a general sense (and in contrast to Carroll), I would say Hoffmann’s stories are fascinating more than they are likeable.
My favorite was the first one, “The Golden Pot” (5 stars). Anselmus is a young, fanciful calligraphist who gets a job as copyist for a mysterious man, Lindhorst the Archivist. Lindhorst’s beautiful, yet eerie house is just one of the fantastical elements Anselmus encounters. I can’t say much more without giving it away, except that I found it to be the most original and intriguing of the stories.
The majority of tales in this volume feature three archetypes:
- an eccentric, flighty young man, who may or may not be living in the Real World
- an aggressively seductive woman, the “anti-princess” if you will
- an angelic, modest, beautiful woman, who is most likely the young man’s fiancee
I wouldn’t be surprised if Hoffmann is used in universities’ literature courses to illustrate the portrayal of women in 19th century literature. Those two types of female characters are prevalent in that era, and Hoffmann is here typical. It is really unfortunate that 19th century media – and, indeed, much of modern, 21st century media – chooses to focus on two extremes, rather than on more balanced and realistic female characters.
Clara in “The Sandman” (3 stars) is one exception. Though she plays a traditional role in the story, she is also levelheaded and refuses to accept the fears of her fiance. Clara goes even farther – she promises to protect him:
If the hateful Coppola should presume to annoy you in your dreams, I am determined to appear in your presence like your guardian angel and to drive him away with loud laughter. I am not the slightest bit afraid of him…
Clara is a wonderful character, but unfortunately, Hoffmann relegates her story to that of most thoughtful, intelligent heroines in the 19th century. Was it because brave, logical females could not be tolerated – or was it because they weren’t “sexy” enough for the readers?
To be fair, in Hoffmann’s world, the male characters aren’t much better, however sympathetic they may be. In “Princess Brambilla” (2 stars) and “Master Flea” (1 star), the male protagonists are easily swept away by the events (and, of course, the alluring ladies) they meet by accident. It’s amusing at first, but quickly grows wearisome. Hoffmann’s strength of committing himself to an idea becomes a weakness, because the plots are more cringeworthy than charming.
I’m not sure why “My Cousin’s Corner Window” (5 stars) is included, but I liked it. It is a story of two cousins observing a marketplace from a window. It has an almost Hawthornesque feel to it, and it reads more like nonfiction. If you grow tired of the Wonderland-like settings of the other stories, then skip to this one and savor this literary portrait that makes you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time.
Then, O my reader, you may come to believe that nothing can be stranger or weirder than real life, and that the poet can do no more than capture the strangeness of reality, like the dim reflection in a dull mirror.
– “The Sandman,” p. 98-99