Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: Striking a Few Villainous Chords


The attempts of mechanicians to imitate, with more or less approximation to accuracy, the human organs in the production of musical sounds, or to substitute mechanical appliances for those organs, I consider tantamount to a declaration of war against the spiritual element in music; but the greater the forces they array against it, the more victorious it is. - from "Automata" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann was devoted to music, it was his greatest passion, and most of his creative life was given over to it, either as a composer, music director, critic, or performer, so it is a grand and tragic irony that the piece of music with which he is most associated wasn't written by him -- in fact, the man had hastened along with booze what was probably his impending doom anyway, long before it was written. I am speaking, of course, about Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, written around 1879. The libretto of The Tales of Hoffmann takes as its spine a loose adaptation of three of Hoffman's fantastic and tragic stories, "fantastic and tragic" being one way you might go about beginning to define horror, as a genre.

Hoffmann took his fiction seriously, though it was a practical occupation for him. According to E. F. Bleiler's quite thorough introduction to my 1967 Dover edition of The Best Tales of Hoffman, his writing, which did include a quite successful and influential period as a music critic, was the main thing keeping the wolves from his door (his writing, and one very generous friend). After a while, there was no hope of Hoffmann finding success as a composer and so he had to move on. To drink mainly, it would seem, but to writing, too, and his stories have survived almost two hundred years. His music hasn't; according to Bleiler, not only are most of his compositions lost, but they weren't even very good. His most successful piece, an opera called Undine, is praised by Bleiler as "a capable work, on the whole very pleasing." And you can take that to the bank!

You can still find Hoffmann's work in print -- he wrote several novels (Bleiler is very keen on one called The Devil's Elixir) you can find, and any number of collections of his stories, though I have yet to see anything called The Complete Tales of Hoffmann, which is an odd thing, and I hope I'm simply not looking hard enough. In any case, the collection you'll most often hear about and stumble across is the aforementioned The Best Tales of Hoffmann, which contains ten of his stories including the three that were adapted into Offenbach's opera. I read those three, plus one other called "Automata" just for the hell of it, sort of, but which anyway turned out to be entirely of a piece with "A New Year's Eve Adventure," "Rath Krespel," and what John Sladek considers Hoffman's most horrific tale, "The Sand-Man."


Of course, not even Offenbach has managed to swallow Hoffmann completely, because in 1951 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made film version of his opera, and so The Tales of Hoffmann is now more of a Powell and Pressburger thing than it is an Offenbach thing, and certainly more than it is an E. T. A. Hoffmann thing. Which, you know, if you have to be dead and your name forever associated with a couple of 20th century filmmakers, that's pretty good. But what are these tales, and what was done to them? In his essay on The Best Tales of Hoffmann in Horror: 100 Best Books, John Sladek isn't wrong when he says "In 'The Sand-Man,' the nightmare is relentless." It's about a man named Nathanael who, as a young boy, is terrified by stories about The Sandman, that otherworldly being who sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to make them sleep, and later associates that with a vile business associate of his father's, named Coppelius. Coppelius's work is mysterious, Nathanael's father his one employee, and it eventually is the death of the poor man, though not Coppelius. And so for the rest of his life Nathanael is obsessed by Coppelius, believing the man to haunt his very existence, until he one day falls in love with Olimpia, a strange, beautiful, but utterly blank girl, the true nature of whom the reader well knows.

"The Sand-Man" is eerily prescient in the same way Frankenstein has been (a comparison Sladek makes), as well as despairing, hopeless, a headlong plunge into ruin. It is also an elaborate fantasy in that it imagines a world on the cusp of being overwhelmed by automatons indistinguishable, except perhaps for the then-undefined "uncanny valley," from your neighbor. It is this, more than the horror of its tragedy, that Powell and Pressburger (and presumably Offenbach, though I'll belatedly admit that my experience with his opera comes only from the film) latch onto. In their film's first act, "The Tale of Olympia," an extremely free adaptation of a small portion of "The Sand-Man," is actually almost light-hearted, goofy in its surrealism, but in addition to inexplicable bits of strange imagery that pop up here and there, an undeniable uneasiness creeps in, exactly the uneasiness that so disturbed Hoffmann. The stage is overrun with gaudily dressed and brightly colored automatons, the air is festive, but the eyes are empty, the corners of the mouths turn neither up nor down, and the inevitable result is that their capering is grotesque and cold.

Hoffmann's "A New Year's Eve Adventure" at first seems like it might be just the thing to supply Powell and Pressburger with a similar tone for their take on "The Tale of Giulietta," Offenbach's second act, but the story, like every Hoffmann story I read, is almost a collection of stories in itself. In it, our point of view comes from a man named The Travelling Enthusiast, who drifts through a romantically disastrous New Year's Eve party and into a couple of bars where he meets a man who casts no shadow and a man whose reflection doesn't appear in mirrors. Melancholy and fanciful, until The Travelling Enthusiast encounters one tale after another and Hoffmann drops us further down until we learn the awful story of Erasmus Spikher, the man with no reflection, and it's a story of weakness, murder, obsession, and demonic seduction. Spikher informs the Enthusiast that he journeyed with great excitement to Italy, where his unwillingness to cheat on his wife despite the encouragement to do just that by virtually everyone around him marks him, ironically, and quite against the EC Comics style of moral horror, as a target for Giulietta, a soul-hungry succubus who sets about destroying his life.


Powell and Pressburger (and Offenbach, or mainly Offenbach, I know, I'm tired of covering my ass every time!) wisely choose Spikher's story as the focus of the adaptation, leaving out The Travelling Enthusiast, the New Year's Eve party, the bars, the man with no shadow, in favor of the bold fantasy of, as Hoffmann called it, "The Story of the Lost Reflection." It's kind of a swashbuckler, too, and visually calls to mind the 1940 film version of The Thief of Bagdad, on which Powell served as a co-director. But it's the dark elements -- even if it all leads towards a rather more optimistic finale than Hoffmann's original -- and the surprisingly frank, if still coy, sexual elements that distinguish "The Tale of Giulietta." I don't want to go nuts here, but in its creepy approach to high fantasy, "The Tale of Giulietta" feels like part of the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. But I said I didn't want to go nuts! It's just that there's a swordfight on what appears to be, though must not technically be, Charon's boat as it sails along the Styx, or a river that brings the Styx to mind. It's foggy and weird, with, again, like "The Tale of Olympia," occasional shots depicting things you can't quite understand. The film's disturbing "What is that exactly?" tone really takes hold here.

Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier, and Powell and Pressburger, finally adapted Hoffmann's sad and mysterious "Rath Krespel." It's the story of a deeply eccentric violin maker named Krespel, beloved by all for his charmingly odd way of going about life -- the first pages of the story focus on the building of his unusual house, and the celebration that follows its completion -- and his astonishing musical talents. But when our narrator learns that Krespel keeps as an apparent hostage a young girl named Antonia, who possesses, the narrator is told, an unspeakably sublime singing voice, a darker side of Krespel is hinted at. And indeed, as the narrator learns more, the more insane he appears. The two men become friends, and the narrator is even allowed to meet Antonia, but when the narrator's attempts to make the girl sing become more transparent, Krespel snaps, and expresses his outrage all the more frightening as it mixes affection with violence. To the narrator, Krespel says:

"In very truth, my esteemed and hounourable student friend, in very truth it would be a violation of the codes of social intercourse, as well as of all good manners, were I to express aloud and in a stirring way my wish that here, on this very spot, the devil from hell would softly break your neck with his burning claws, and so in a sense make short work of you; but, setting that aside, you must acknowledge, my dearest friend, that it is rapidly growing dark, and there are no lamps burning tonight so that, even though I did not kick you downstairs at once, your darling limbs might still run a risk of suffering damage. Go home by all means; and cherish a kind remembrance of your faithful friend, if it should happen that you never -- pray, understand me -- if you should never see him in his own house again."

I love that "softly break your neck," not to mention "setting that aside." As it turns out, though, mad or not, Krespel has an excellent reason for his behavior, as we learn through another of Hoffmann's tale-within-a-tale that reveals who Antonia is, and what, or who, is the true source of her danger.


For once, Powell and Pressburger actually pile on the horror. Though the tone of "The Tale of Antonia" is as melancholy as "Rath Krespel," it alters Antonia's history, and brings in a true villain in the form of Doctor Miracle, a character cobbled together from other Hoffmann stories, and so it becomes almost a classic tale of good and evil. The core idea of Antonia's character as imagined by Hoffmann is a rather ingenious fantasy concept -- might as well say, though not why, if she continues to sing she'll die -- that pays off, if that's the phrase, with the bluntest climax I've seen from Hoffmann. Powell and Pressburger, even with their addition of naked villainy, smooths that out, not by eliminating it but by casting events in a heavenly golden shine. It is, and this certainly seems logical, in fact quite the tonal opposite of Hoffman in that, instead of ending as sharply as the chop of a butcher's knife, it ends with an operatic upswell. The film's tragedy is grand, while the story's is simply lights out.

In Hoffmann's stories, his heroes had many names, as you'd expect, or none, in the case of the young attorney in "Rath Krespel," but Offenbach made the hero of his versions E. T. A. Hoffmann himself. Bleiler's introduction offers a good bit of biography, but he can only go so far in terms of the man's romantic life, but nevertheless Offenbach's choice seems right. The horror of love, to borrow a phrase, via the title of a novel by Jean Dutourd, appears in these stories in very similar way, the obsessions combine into a motif that sprawls over many stories, the terror of the artificial encroaching on the natural casts a shadow like the Angel of Death. In the opera, Hoffmann taking on the role of the protagonist feels like a choice that Hoffmann simply couldn't bring himself to make himself. At the end of the Powell and Pressburger film, Hoffmann's final slump is meant to be that of a drunk man losing consciousness, but looks very much like a man dying. Hoffmann's own death was at the very least sped along by alcohol, so intentional or not it's gloomily fitting. And after all those bright colors and all that sweeping music, all that imagination and vibrancy, for E. T. A. Hoffmann to end up like that...

2 comments:

John Magwitch said...

Well, that's a great note to go out on, for sure. Now I'm not sure whether to see the movie again first or to try reading some Hoffmann now, but you've got me interested in both. Whatever the case, this is my favorite article in what's been a distinguished month of them. Thanks to you, Bill, and to your fellow contributors for plenty of fun and stimulating reading.

bill r. said...

Thank you, John. And I've really appreciated all the comments you've left over the past several weeks, and I apologize for not being better about responding to them. I always knew you were reading, though.

And I highly recommend Hoffmann. He's good!

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