We've all heard of Tales of Hoffman, obviously. But how many have read the tales? Well I now have - and my breath has been taken away. Unfortunately this Penguin Classics version isn't all the tales, so I'm guessing you have to hunt down other editions to complete the set. Still, the eight tales here make for a marvellous read.
First off, these are not short stories, as the 'tales' element might have inferred. Seven of these are novellas, the other - 'The Mines at Falun' - either a long short story or a short novella. Hoffman (1776-1822) seems to have written his entire literary output in the last six or seven years of his short life. Before that he tried painting and succeeded to an extent as a composer. And all the time he was a middle-ranking local bureaucrat.
R J Hollingdale, in his introduction, makes much of Hoffman's 'double life'. It is Hollingdale's thesis that many of his characters have double lives. That's certainly true, but many of them are also mad, as are the worlds in which they find themselves. A better argument - which Hollingdale also makes - is that Hoffmann is the direct precursor of Poe. This is especially true of the first novella here Mademoiselle de Scudery, an aged aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV, turns amateur sleuth in order to unmask a serial killer. But then we have the very creepy 'The Sandman', in which the story itself has two lives. And my favourite, 'The Choosing of the Bride', in which a sad local bureaucrat in his forties gets embroiled with what may be a two hundred year old goldsmith and his associate, the Wandering Jew. This, by the way, is a knockabout comedy.
The truth is, I can think of no one remotely similar to Hoffmann. The closest I can think of is Neil Gaiman. (Is 'The Sandman' some sort of arcane clue?) I am a Gaiman enthusiast and now I absolutely crave more Hoffmann. Unique, brilliant - otherwise indescribable.