(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

E.T.A. Hoffmann, who introduces himself as the editor of Murr’s manuscript, informs the reader in the preface that this novel consists of the reminiscences of Murr the cat, interrupted at seventeen places by pages from an anonymous biography of the composer Johannes Kreisler which was used by Murr as scratch paper and sent to the printer by mistake. While the Murr material runs in a straightforward if interrupted chronology, the Kreisler biography (which constitutes more than half of the novel), supposedly torn at random from the book by Murr, lies like a jigsaw puzzle in need of reconstruction by the reader. For example, the first section to be read belongs chronologically with the material of book 3 of the novel, which Hoffman did not live to complete. In summarizing the events, it will be necessary to deal with the two biographies separately.

Murr’s “Life and Opinions”—the title reflects the influence of Laurence Sterne’s humorous novel Tristram Shandy (1759-1767)—is divided into four parts. In “Existential Feelings: Boyhood Months,” Murr tells of his being saved from drowning by Meister Abraham Liscov, of his learning to read and embarking on a literary career, and of his friendship with the poodle Ponto and his subsequent mastery of poodle language. Murr’s love affair with the cat Miesmies, which ends when she betrays him for another tomcat, forms the central episode in the second chapter, “The Life and Experiences of the Youth.” In the next chapter, Murr is saved from philistinism by his friend Muzius and becomes a “Bursche.” (Hoffmann is parodying the student organization called the “Burschenschaft,” or “brotherhood,” which tried to liberalize German society.— He successfully fights a duel with Miesmies’ seducer. The brotherhood is crushed by dogs and their human masters, who kill Muzius. The final chapter, “The Maturer Months of Manhood,” shows Murr visiting the “higher world” of canine social gatherings, a privilege granted him through his fame as a poet and through his friendship with Ponto, whose transfer from one master to another as a result of his discovery...

(The entire section is 873 words.)