Friday, December 30, 2011

“A New Year's Eve Adventure” by E. T. A. Hoffmann

Happy New Year to all my readers! I wish you all good fortune in the year ahead. I hope you continue reading my modest contributions, for I fully intend to continue writing them as long as body and mind allow. I thought I would end the year with a brief discussion of one of my favorite New Year’s Eve stories—a tale that reflects that romantic/modern convention so crucial to the development of the short story—the merging of so-called “reality” and the world of fantasy/art/imagination.

E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, "A New Year's Eve Adventure," first published in German in 1816 and translated into English in the late 19th-century, is partially Hoffmann's own romantic fantasy, but it is also a satire on the convention of the lost reflection or shadow familiar in other German fantasies of the early 19th century. It is typical of Hoffman in that its realm of reality seems to hover halfway between the real world and the world of fairytale; thus the split in the central character Erasmus Spikher, both between himself and his reflection, as well as between himself and the narrator, referred to as the Travelling Enthusiast, is reflective of the duality of the world as Hoffman sees it‑‑always half actual, half imaginative, always half comic half tragic.

The basic nature of such a split is announced in the editor's foreword to the story in which the Travelling Enthusiast is described as one who cannot separate the events of his inner life from those of the outside world. Suggesting that the reader is to enter a world where he cannot determine where inner world ends and outer world begins, the editor warns the reader that in this story he will be in a strange magical realm where figures of fantasy step right into his own life.

The story opens with a convention familiar in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (who was highly influenced by Hoffmann's fiction) of the Enthusiast's sense of inexplicable fear and madness, the source of which is the fact that every New Year's Eve the Devil keeps a special treat for him. He goes to a party given by the counselor of justice and there sees Julia, a beautiful woman from his former life of love and poetry, only to discover she is married to a spindle‑shanked little creature with eyes like a frog.

Retreating from the grand party to a beer cellar, the Enthusiast meets a tall, sad man who looks like a character from a Reubens painting and a short, dried‑up‑looking fellow who has a powerful antipathy to mirrors. This second stranger has two different faces‑‑one a pleasant young man's and the other that of a demonic old man. We discover that this little man is Erasmus Spikher who has lost his reflection and that the tall man is Peter Schlemihl, the man who lost his shadow, from Adalbert Chamisso's novel of that name published in 1814. When the narrator goes to a room that night, he looks into a mirror and sees from the background of his own reflection the image of Julia, which then changes into the image of the little man, Erasmus Spikher.

The duality of the narrator and Spikher is made clear when Spikher tells him that he has lost his reflection because he earlier gave it to Julia, or Giuletta, as he calls her. When the Enthusiast awakes the next morning after having strange dreams of Julia as a demonic figure out of the paintings of Brueghel, Callot, and Rembrandt, he thinks it all must be a dream until he finds a manuscript which is "The Story of the Lost Reflection"‑‑the story of Erasmus Spikher, which is now inserted into the text and becomes the greater part of "A New Year's Eve Adventure."

This insert story begins with Spikher travelling from the cold North to the beautiful warmth of Italy. Leaving his wife to fulfill this dream, he sets off for Florence where he meets Giuletta, who looks exactly as if she were a woman from Rembrandt walking about. He immediately falls in love with her, saying he has seen her in his dreams, that he has always been in love with her, that she is his life. It is at this point that Spikher also meets the strange figure of Doctor Dapertutto and, in a madness of jealousy, kills a young Italian suitor of Giuletta. When he realizes that he must now leave her to avoid prosecution, she begs him to leave her his reflection. Spikher travels back home to his wife and child and gradually forgets Giuletta, that is, until his son and wife discover that he has no reflection and reject him as a demon. Claiming that Giuletta must now have him body and soul, he calls up Dr. Dapertutto, who tries to make him poison his wife and child. When he refuses, Giuletta tries to convince him to sign over his wife and child to Dr. Dapertutto, but this too he refuses at the last moment.

Spikher's story ends with his wife telling him to go out into the world again to see if he can track down his reflection and get it away from the Devil. Spikher follows this advice, meets with Peter Schlemihl, and plans to travel with him. The story ends with a postscript by the Travelling Enthusiast, who once again takes over the narration to tell Hoffmann, that he is completely saturated with the manifestations of this New Year's Eve and that he now believes that Julia is a picture of a siren by Rembrandt or Callot.

This is of course a story within a story--sometimes published under the title "A New Year's Eve Adventure" and sometimes published only as Spikher's insert story and entitled "The Story of the Lost Reflection." It belongs within a romantic tradition in German 19th century romanticism--a tradition of the novelle that begins with Goethe and develops in more detail with the works of Ludwig Tieck, Adalbert Chamisso, and Hoffman himself. American readers are most familiar with the tradition in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of whom make use of the familiar convention of the double figure based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul.

"A New Year's Eve Adventure" also makes use of the convention, made most famous by Goethe, of the man who falls in love with a beautiful woman, sells his soul to the Devil, and is doomed to wander eternally in search of his lost self. In this story, Hoffman makes the convention a bit more complicated by using it and by making fun of it at the same time. Thus, we have a classic romantic story of the lost self, even as we have a story that burlesques the theme. This device of parodying a convention is one of the primary ways that the short story develops historically.

The fact that the story of the Travelling Enthusiast serves as a framework for the story of Erasmus Spikher suggests that Spikher functions as a double for the Travelling Enthusiast, even as within his story we meet a character out of the fiction of Hoffman's friend Adalbert von Chamisso. The fact that a fictional character like Peter Schlemihl enters into the frame story as if he were a real character is indicative of Hoffman's innovation of integrating the world of dream, fantasy, fairy tale and psychological projection into the world of "as if" reality.

The tone of the story is one of mock seriousness, for although it seems to take place in the real world and involve real people, the events are also described as if they were the events of the fairy tale. Throughout the story, there is a sense of mocking both the Travelling Enthusiast and Spikher, both for their obsession with Juila/Giuletta and for their taking themselves so seriously.

The story draws from the fairy tale convention of the reflection or shadow as that force that divides the ego into truth and dream. And indeed this split between what is physically actual and what is an imaginative projection is both the theme and the technique of Hoffmann's story, for the style of the story itself is calculated to keep the reader off balance, never being quite sure whether he is reading a fiction that follows the conventions of realism or one that follows the conventions of the fairy tale, never being sure whether he is in the world of physical reality or in the world of pure psychological projection.

The fact that Giuletta seems to be a character out of a painting by Rembrandt or Callot suggests further that the basis for the story we are reading is the realm of the artwork. Nothing comes from external reality here; everything comes from art itself. The stories of Hoffmann mark the beginning of the Romantic insistence that reality is of the imagination only. Moreover, Hoffmann's combination of psychological realism and fairytale conventions is a key factor in the development of the short story genre in America with the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.

As I have noted in a previous blog entry, the primary contemporary artist of this short story mixture of fantasy and reality innovated by Hoffmann is Steven Millhauser; both are artists of the short story as a form that affirms the “reality of artifice.”

Happy New Year to all readers and writers of the underestimated short story form.


marit said...


Right now I'm editing an article of yours -- “Huckleberry Finn, the Word ‘Nigger,’ and the Importance of Teaching Reading,” -- for a book I'm working on for work (Introducing Issues with Opposing Viewpoints: Banned Books, published by Greenhaven Press of Gale/Cengage Learning). I had to find your blog and read a bit because, as both an editor and a writer, I couldn't agree more.

Thank you,

marit said...

PS -- Now I have to read "A New Year's Eve Adventure" by E.T.A. Hoffman, it looks like!

Anonymous said...

Yours is the only blog I subscribe to. Enjoy it very much indeed. Thanks and I look forward to more about my beloved short story genre in 2012.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about your statement that "...Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne...both... make use of the familiar convention of the double figure based on the notion of the split in the self between the body and the soul." Is the origin of this convention known? Did it have anything to do with the writings of Descartes on the distinction between body and mind, or did it develop from some other source entirely? Many thanks!

Charles E. May said...

My thanks to marit for her kind words. I have responded to readersquest on a recent blog posting.

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Charles E. May said...

I used the Dover paperback edition; the translator of this story was Alfred Packer.