Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Devil’s Elixirs

I came across E.T.A Hoffmann for the first time almost exactly a year ago when I picked up ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ (courtesy of a book token – how I love getting those) it sounded suitably creepy and surreal for winter reading; and indeed it was. Like far too many people I’m very hazy on European writers, even the classics, I know they’re out there but I find them easy to avoid – and when it comes to the Russians downright depressing and easy to avoid.

Hoffmann I fell for, not least because when I started reading I realised the stories where familiar – they’ve been used for both Opera and Ballet and amongst many other (unread by me, and I’m not prepared to reveal the depth of my ignorance by listing them) writers, Edgar Allen Poe was deeply influenced by him. 'The Devil’s Elixirs' was written between 1814 – 1815 towards the end of a sadly short life and deals with lots of Hoffmann themes; the struggle of vice and virtue, fate, split personalities, obsession, and madness. Fortunately he has a sense of humour as well or it would all be a bit heavy going, and fortunately One world Classics have been good enough not only to bring this book back into print but to do it with a new translation (by Ronald Taylor) the first since 1824 and to let me have a copy to read. Thank you One World Classics.

It occurs to me that quite aside from not being able to read German I would have found it really hard to read this book in an untranslated form. Early 19th century German filtered through a 21st century mind makes the reading much more accessible. At least I think it does – it may be that Hoffman would still read like a Jane Austen or a Maria Edgeworth where it’s just a matter of adjusting my reading ear (eye?) a little and the language would let me in. I suspect however that it would be more like trying to read Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ or Charlotte Dacre’s ‘Zofloya the Moor’ – very hard for me to find a rhythm which makes me want to carry on.

As it is Hoffmann and Taylor between them have created an admirable tale which has made excellent pre Christmas reading. I wanted something seasonal – or at least which would put me in the right frame of mind for the season and I feel I hit the nail on the head when I picked up ‘The Devil’s Elixirs’. It’s the life of Medardus the monk, a man born to bear the sins of his father and grandfather before him. Despite promising himself to the church he is lead first into temptation and then into the world where he almost entirely gives himself over to evil doing (murder, rape, more murder, stolen identity, more murder, and a few other sins for good measure) before finally seeking to repent and find his way back to God.

The Devil’s Elixirs come from St Anthony’s cellar (left behind after the Saint vanquished the Devil and all his temptations, but carelessly un-destroyed so that they can lure others) Medardus is persuaded to drink some which is what initially unbalances him enough to start out on his murderous rampage. During the course of his wanderings it’s also made clear that Medardus is cursed to repeat the actions of his father and grandfather – will he ever find his way back to redemption?

What feels Christmassy about this book to me is that it’s always clear that Medardus could resist temptation; that the first steps in his downfall are taken through pride, weakness - his own bad choices. Once set on the wrong path it may be that fate takes over in a frankly alarming way, pursuing him fury like across Germany and Italy, but whenever there is a wrong choice to be made Medardus makes it – and always there is a chance for salvation if he will take responsibility for his actions. There is also a lot of self flagellation which is less Christmassy, but essentially it’s a very good thing to think hard about the decisions we make and the motives behind them, especially at this time of year (although really not so good to literally beat yourself up other them).

The plot is frankly complicated, but followable, with genuine suspense, tension and shocks – it’s a good read, partly because it does demand a certain amount of concentration. Medardus is believably fallible all the way along; it’s all too easy to identify with him even when he’s doing his worst. In short a perfect book to read when it’s cold, dark, and wild enough outside to make the existence of supernatural and malevolent forces that bit easier to believe in.

Finally - a picture of a lego stag - simply because it impressed me.

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