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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End-of-the Year "Best" & "Notable" Books Lists: 2011

If the annual end-of-the-year lists of “notable” or “best” “books of the year” in the various media are any indication of the health of the short story in 2011, then the paucity of short-story recommendations this December suggests that…well, what else is new?—the short story remains in the shadow of the bigger, and therefore obviously better, novel.
The only real short story winner in the “best” lists this year is Don DeLillo’s The Lady Esmeralda: Nine Stories. The first collection of a writer who has been, arguably, claimed to be American’s premier novelist, was bound to get some press. I have not yet read these stories written, perhaps to while away the time between DeLillo’s more important work over the past 32 years. I will. I will. Sometime in the next few weeks. But I am in no hurry, having found myself more than once unable to get through one of DeLillo’s “baggy monsters.”
A friend and colleague sent me a review of The Lady Esmeralda by Joe Gross, written for the Cox newspaper syndicate, which he opened by saying that to read this book “is to think it’s past time, or perhaps the exact right time, for the short story to make the comeback it richly deserves.” Well, God bless Joe Gross. I hope he is right, but will reserve judgment of course until I read the book myself.
Gross suggests that we might be moving toward a period of modern literature in which our culture has no time for anything but a “concentrated blast of meaning.” He cites Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction as being a work in which any chapter could be removed and published on its own. (As a matter of fact, most of the chapters were published as short stories on their own). I agree, and am encouraged that Egan’s book has not only won the big awards, but has also remained on the paperback bestseller lists for months. I liked Goon Squad and will try to find some time to write about its short story qualities after the first of the year.
Gross ends his review by saying DeLillo’s collection has made him ready for “shorter fiction to become common coin, for stories to be discussed with the same gravity as the novel.” I hope he is right.
In addition to The Angel Esmeralda, the New York Times lists only the following two short story collections in their list of 100 Notable Books of 2011:
Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, Charles Baxter
Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories. Barry Hannah

The Washington Post lists no short story collections.

Kirkus lists only Steven Millhauser’s We Others.

The Library Journal lists only Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family.

David Ulin, of The Los Angeles Times, lists two short story collections:

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, Edith Pearlman.

You Think That’s Bad: Stories, Jim Shepard

The most frequently listed works of fiction this year were, of course, novels:

Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife

Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

The one novel I was happy to see on several lists was Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which has, as I suggested in a previous blog, many short fiction characteristics.

In my opinion, Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision and Steven Millhauser’s We Others are the best books of fiction of the year. But then, you knew that, didn’t you?

As a final note, a brief comment on an article by John Stazinski in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Poets and Writers: Stazinski, who teaches writing and literature at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, MA, and has published in several prime places, talks a bit about a fiction workshop conducted by Grub Street, an independent center for creative writing in Boston, that he thinks should be the wave of the future—a workshop that purports to teach fiction writing by workshopping novels rather than short stories—a task that many MFA programs steer away from because of the novel’s forbidding length.

Stazinzki says the Grub Street experiment raises some “uncomfortable questions” for MFA programs across the country, arguing that although the short story may be a “great pedagogical device for teaching certain aspects of fiction writing,” “no one dreams of writing the Great American Short Story Collection” and every MFA candidate knows that when publishers want fiction, they want a novel.

The difference between a novel and a short story, says Stazinski, is like the difference between a symphony and a country song. The difference between constructing a short story and a novel is like the difference between “building a rowboat and building a yacht.” He quotes approvingly William Giraldi’s essay in Rumpus, who says the novel is as different from a collection of stories “as a truck is from a tricycle.” Lord, how I hate these glib comparisons which consider only at the external size of the work and not the difference between their narrative ways of exploring what we so casually take to be “reality!”

Stazinzki concludes that the Grub Street folks at Boson may have found a whole new way for novelists to workshop. If this is true, if MFA programs begin teaching fiction writing by workshopping novels rather than short stories, there may indeed be important implications for the future of the short story. It is probably true that most of the writers devoting a great deal of time to the short story nowadays are MFA students, and it is often the case that their first books are collections of stories workshopped in MFA classes (books in which the writing was good enough for publishers to take a chance on if they promised that their second book would be a novel.) One of the basic differences between the novel and the short story is that the writing on the crucial sentence level is usually better in a short story than in the novel. What’s going to happen if MFA programs begin to focus more on the macrocosmic structure of the novel and ignore the microcosmic structure of the short story? More on this in the New Year.

I apologize for neglecting this blog in the past few weeks. I have been reading a great deal, but reading in the relaxed atmosphere of my family—in an easy chair in front of a fire rather than hunched over my computer in my cold study. I will return to my more regular posting in January—commenting on what I have been reading, replying to the comments I have received about my planned new book, and responding to the poll of readers about a possible name for that book.

Have a wonderful holiday, whatever you celebrate!