Saturday, 22 October 2011

Don't Hassle the Hoff(mann)

"Please allow me to introduce myself,
I'm a man of wealth and taste"
Much as I'd like to believe that these lines describe yours truly, they actually begin The Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil, a tune which constantly popped up in my head while I was reading my contribution to the current Classics Circuit.  E.T.A. Hoffmann's wonderful Gothic novel Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil's Elixirs) is written in the style of an autobiography, a parchment discovered in a monastery and supplemented with various other documents by the publisher, and it follows the life of the monk Medardus - a man who (as you will see) has more than his fair share of problems with the man downstairs.

Medardus begins life as plain old Franz, a young boy who has grown up without a father, but with an unwelcome legacy.  His father had apparently sinned greatly before meeting his mother, and it is Franz's mission to atone for the misdeeds of the father by devoting his life to the church (a path suggested to him by a meeting with an old painter he encountered in his youth).  He grows up and enters a monastery, and it is there that he learns of the legend of the Devil's Elixirs - a story which will have a shattering effect on his future, and which is inextricably linked to his past.

Having set us up nicely in a surprisingly short space of time, Hoffmann then lets rip with an incredible story, a Gothic adventure, a road trip with a difference.  After partaking of one of the aforementioned elixirs, Medardus sets out into the big, bad world, little realising that one of the baddest (sic) things out there is himself.  As he ventures from city to countryside, inns to palaces, verdant Germanic forests to the splendour of the Vatican, our intrepid monk is pursued not only by police and assassins, but also by his destiny - and perhaps himself...

As Medardus goes on his merry way, pursued and accompanied by the devil inside, he manages to get in and out of his various scrapes, encountering many people who have interesting tales to tell him.  Interestingly, most of those stories are actually about Medardus himself, as a figure from his past (or his future) has already been where he is now.  Many a conversation turns into a story about a monk who had been up to no good somewhere in the vicinity (which often makes for uncomfortable hearing for our religious friend).

This example of a physical resemblance causing all kinds of mischief is a common plot in Gothic novels, but the idea, which could easily descend into cliché, is skilfully handled, always leaving the reader in a little doubt as to whether or not he actually exists.  We are constantly asking ourselves: Who is this second monk?  Why is he following Medardus?  What is the painter doing back in the story?  Is that person really dead?  Why does my head hurt?  After I finished the story, I read up a little on the background, and the idea of a split personality was actually supposed to refer to Hoffmann's own split loyalties between his passion for the arts and his day-to-day duties.  You really don't need to know this to enjoy the story though :)

I won't say too much more about the plot, but Die Elixiere des Teufels was cunningly designed to keep the reader on their toes at all times.  There is a distinct supernatural element about the novel, and (unlike in certain other novels) it's a feeling that you never really shake off.  Every time that we think that we are beginning to see what has been happening and to find a rational explanation for the extraordinary, we realise that certain points are still unexplained.  Indeed, some strands will remain up in the air.  One thing I will tell you though - Hoffmann likes to keep things in the family ;)

This is a wonderful story.   It's the kind of book that people who think classics are boring should read, packed as it is with event after event, twists and turns and a plot which never lets you know exactly what is going on.  It's a kind of Tom Jones with more monks, a Wilhelm Meister's Apprentice Years with more stabbing, a Canterbury Tales with more incest.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, then I strongly suggest you give it a try :)  Of course, with German Literature Month coming up in November, that would be an ideal opportunity...

To finish off (as I seem to have got a bit of a pop culture theme going today), I'll leave you with an apt film quotation.  Medardus, despite his apparent piety, finds himself unable to avoid the temptation of the elixir.  Why?  Well, unfortunately, the devil always seems to find a way to tempt those he wishes to ensnare.  In the words of Al Pacino (from The Devil's Advocate):
"Vanity - definitely my favourite sin."