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  • Writer's pictureHabranthus

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

Updated: Apr 10, 2023


E.T.A. Hoffmann

1820


Original Publication in German, translated into English by Anthea Bell, 1999, Penguin Books.


322 humorous and intriguing pages





Overview:

A cat writes his biography, unwittingly interjected with the biography of one music director, Johannes Kreisler.






Summary

Tomcat Murr, considering himself quite an extraordinary and superior specimen of his species, decides to write his biography for posterity. The publisher, not knowing the nature of the author, publishes the manuscript and afterwards discovers that fragments from another biography have been accidentally mixed in, apparently as scratch paper used by Tomcat Murr.


Tomcat Murr recounts his life with a rather high opinion of himself, from his humble kittenhood to his mature wisdom. He narrates his dear readers through diligent studies, a tumultuous love affair with Kitty, his acceptance into the ‘fraternity’, an up and down friendship with Pocho the poodle, and his general daily life.


Meanwhile, the ‘waste papers’ reveal that the keeper of Tomcat Murr is a reputed scholar/magician who is a good friend of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. Both men are associated with the local Prince and his court, which includes several ladies, lords and ministers. The papers relate the drama and some mysterious events surrounding the prince and his family.


Review

The book is very humorous and very clever. Of course, it’s heavy on satire, reflecting on the social and political scenes of the early nineteen century. But it’s also sophisticated, ever so witty, and even philosophical at times. In its day, it was exceptionally creative, produced during the ‘romantic’ period of art that allowed for a break from the strictly rational. But even today, where cats are talking all over the internet, it’s still an entertaining and engaging story.


There are many references that are lost, not only in translation, but also in time. Fortunately, Ms. Bell provides an index of notes which proves to be informative, and also interesting.



To the author’s credit:

The way the book is set up is genius. Instead of going straight to the story with a feline author, Hoffmann presents himself as ‘editor’ and makes a ‘plausible’ account of how he came into possession of the manuscript and the problems therein.


To the author’s discredit:

There is no discredit to the author, only a gentle warning to the modern reader that sentences and paragraphs, even the story itself, can run long and complex. A certain patience may be necessary in the beginning until one accustoms to the characters and style.



Some of us need to get out our dictionary:


perfidious -disloyal

obdurate -stubbornly persistent

phantasmagoria -an exhibition of optical effects and illusions

abjure -to renounce

didactic -designed to teach

ignominious -humiliating, disgraceful

lucubrations -intensive studies

surfeit -excess

cudgel -a short, heavy club

ensconced -concealed or sheltered

panegyrics -eulogistic orations or writings

vehemence -quality of being intensely emotional

besotted -blindly infatuated

repudiate -to reject as untrue or unjust, disown

brindled -regarding fur, dark streaks over grey or tan coat

schismatic -one guilty of disharmony/division

seneschal -an agent in charge of a Lord's estate

pathos -something that evokes pity

cravat -a men's scarf worn around the neck


Best Lines:

Of late he's been moaning and groaning most uncommonly...and I can't help thinking he is either in love, or working on a tragedy.


It was not mischief, no,... it was scholarly voracity that led me to catch up a manuscript in my paws and buffet it this way and that until it lay before me torn to bits.


A political work by T. Murr: Mousetraps and their influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race.


... full of the irritating curiosity of childhood.


The light of the setting sun lay like a veil of gold over the woods. Not a leaf stirred: trees and bushes awaited the caress of the evening breeze in expectant silence.


...he treated me with friendly respect, indeed with the gratifying regard due to outstanding talent and marked genius.


...proving that as language is really just symbolic representation of the natural principle in audible form,


...who was none other than the world-famous Prime Minister Hinz von Hinzenfeldt, so dear to the world, so greatly valued, by the name Puss in Boots.


When I felt free, I was overcome by that indescribable restlessness which so often, since my earliest youth, has made me a stranger to myself.


I hope that all my kind readers will appreciate the excellence of this wonderful sonnet, a model of its kind, an effusion from the deepest depths of my soul, and you will admire me all the more when I tell you it is one of the first I ever wrote!


I consider a father, even a bad one, far better than any guardian, even a good one.


Oh, these heartless barbarians. Wherein does their strength lie but in blows? Wherein their understanding but in scornful mockery? Wherein their entire conduct but in the malicious persecution of feeling minds?


Often, when I merely dream of being attacked by them and fancy I must defend myself, I drive my sharp weapons into my own face, doing sad injury to my fair countenance.


He proved himself a master of the art of addressing a lady in such a fashion that anything and everything becomes a hymn to her beauty and charm.


Certain natural phenomena clearly show us how the captive mind must sacrifice its freedom to that tyrant the body.


And she fell into sad and gloomy thoughts.


Master Abraham knew that there is no better weapon to use against an agitated woman than imperturbable calm.


For an honourable feline fraternity member, there can be no worse appellation than the fateful word Monsieur. However, one must suffer a great deal in this world from aestheticians, so I forgave the Professor his insult.


'Benzon,' said the Prince, mopping the drops of perspiration from his brow, 'Benzon, you are agitating me severely - I might say indescribably! Merciful Lord! Can a prince be so put out of countenance? Devil take it - dear God, I do believe I'm swearing like a dragoon as I sit here drinking tea!'


The praise lavished on him... was of an ambiguous nature.


...for though he may not like to admit it to himself, his inner sense has been dulled by the things of this world.




The "Introduction"

For this translated edition, there is an "introduction" by the renowned scholar and poet Jeremy Adler. I say "introduction" because that is what Mr. Adler was asked to write, but what he churned out is a three-part, 25-page, in-depth analysis and semi-biography of Hoffmann and his works, bibliography included. It's not for the faint of heart. I recommend skipping it entirely or you're likely to lose all strength and enthusiasm to carry on with the rest of the book.


An excerpt from the introduction:










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