Sunday, February 21, 2010

45. “Racconti Fantastici” by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Year of first publication: 1816
Genre: fantasy, horror, gothic
Country: Germany

In English the two short stories contained in this book are called “A New Year’s Eve Adventure” and “The Sandman”. You can read them on-line (click on the links provided).


Plots: In the first story, “A New Year’s Eve Adventure”, we are told from the preface that the story will deal with the confusion between interior life and external world, in other words between reality and a magic world that might or might not be only in our minds. There are three narrators in the story: a first narrator-editor who introduces a second narrator, who introduces a third narrator. It is the second narrator who tells us of how he saw again the love of his life, Julie, who’s married with a hideous man (Hoffmann himself had a love story with a woman called Julie and had a fight with her husband). Then, the third narrator tells his story of how he fell in love with a woman named Giulietta, until the second narrator (and the reader) can no longer distinguish Julie from Giulietta. The second story starts with a young man, Nathanael, writing a letter to her sister’s fiancé about a man his parents called “the sandman”, who would tear off children’s eyes if they would not go to bed on time. Nathanael associated “the sandman” with a mysterious man called Coppelius who used to visit his parents’ home and in the presence of whom his father died. At first he’s convinced that Coppelius and a salesman who recently knocked at his door are the same person, but after a while he changes his mind. The salesman, an Italian called Coppola, is an alchemist and a friend of professor Spalanzani, who lives in front of Nathanael. The young man falls in love with Spalanzani’s daughter, Olympia, a very beautiful girl who’s absolutely delicious but seems to be very cold (at touch and sentiments). One day, when he’s about to propose to Olympia, he finds her father and Coppola fighting over her body, in reality just an automaton built by the alchemist.

Some thoughts: Two very strange short stories, certainly disquieting. They remind me of Gogol (“The Nose” or “The Overcoat”) and Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), but also of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sigmund Freud (who was not even born at the time these stories were written, I know). “A New Year's Eve Adventure” has a lot to do with the devil and with sin (the protagonist commits adultery and he’s subsequently punished). Morality is certainly what prompts the author to write the story, but there’s something more. Temptation is the real topic in the story: anything related to that apple in the garden of Eden would have been fine, I think.
“The Sandman” is one of Hoffman’s most famous stories (in fact, it was adapted many times in many different ways, as an operetta or as a feature film, for instance). It is very mysterious and enigmatic: it could be interpreted as the protagonist’s hallucination and inability to distinguish reality from fantasy - in the style of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – or as a horror story – in the style of Frankenstein. Considering the dates (Frankenstein was published in 1818, The Turn of the Screw in 1898 and this story around 1816) and the fact that Hoffmann is considered a master of gothic literature, I would be in favour of the second interpretation, that is to say of the supernatural story.
It is quite curious that in both stories Italy is the country of sexual temptation and black magic: Giulietta asks her German lover for his reflection on the mirror, implicitly selling his soul to the devil, and the alchemist from the second story is an Italian. I think that, at the time, Italy was seen as a country with fewer restrictions on sexual life and vices more in general (wine, food, “la dolce vita” etc). Why this is represented as evil I would like to ask Mr Hoffmann (were he alive!). Another important theme in the stories is the confusion/opposition between a real world and a supernatural world. Women are immune to the fantastical and the horror: they are either down-to-earth, celestial creatures like Nathanael’s sister Clara, or she-devils who drive men to sin, like Giulietta or Olympia.
Usually I don’t like horror and I haven’t read much gothic fiction - not even Frankenstein or Poe, I must admit – but these stories were interesting (I could not use the word beautiful, because they are not certainly that). It’s not enough to say if I like E.T.A. Hoffmann or not, nonetheless. I know a lot of people like him, though.

About the author: E.T.A. Hoffmann was born in 1776 in Königsberg, then Prussia. His parents separated when he was very young and he grew up with his mother and maternal relatives. He particularly loved his aunt Charlotte, whom he nicknamed “Tante Füßchen”. Although she died when he was three years old, he treasured her memory and embroidered stories about her. He had a talent for music and began composing quite soon. He lived in both Prussia (now Germany) and Prussian Poland. He particularly enjoyed life in Warsaw, assimilating well with Polish society, but was forced to move to Berlin when Napoleon troops captured Warsaw. He is famous both as a composer and as a writer of fantastical stories which border with horror.


  1. oh! you always amaze me with the books you read. I enjoy your thoughts too.

  2. Thanks for the compliments. With these posts I hope that people will "diversificate" their reads! :-)