Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410
The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr by Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann is an unusual novel, both in its plot and structure. Its first volume was published in 1818 and it takes the form of an autobiography of a cat named Tomcat Murr (hence the book's title). This witty cat is literate, educated, and a member of the middle class.
The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr is structured as though a printing accident has caused Tomcat Murr's memoirs to splice together with a book recounting the life of composer Johannes Kreisler. A note at the beginning of the work informs the reader that this error happened as a result of Tomcat Murr using wastepaper from his master's studio to compose the book. This unusual structure adds to the novel's surreal, comedic tone.
As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Kreisler and Tomcat Murr are very different characters. While Kreisler is a tormented musical genius, Tomcat Murr is confident, assured of his own intelligence, always up for a challenge, and charming. This excerpt provides insight into Tomcat Murr's high opinion of himself:
I lay my life story before the world, so that the reader may learn how to educate himself to be a great tomcat, may recognize the full extent of my excellence, may love, value, honour and admire me—and worship me a little.
Should anyone be audacious enough to think of casting doubt on the sterling worth of this remarkable book, let him reflect that he is dealing with a tomcat possessed of intellect, understanding, and sharp claws.
Tomcat Murr's sections of the book are broken into four parts. The first depicts the origins of his literary career and how he came to learn the language spoken by poodles. The second explores his ill-fated love affair with a cat named Miesmies. In the third chapter Tomcat Murr successfully attacks the cat that seduced Miesmies away from him, and in the final chapter he visits many high-class canine events due to his status as a famed poet and his friendship with a poodle named Ponto.
At the end of the final Tomcat Murr section, the reader is informed that the celebrated cat has died. It's stated that the upcoming third book will provide more detail about Tomcat Murr's later life spent with Kreisler, as well as continuing Kreisler's biography. Unfortunately, Hoffmann did not live long enough to finalize the third book of The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873
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 of an adulterous liaison is narrated at great length. In a final note, the “editor,” Hoffmann, informs the reader that “bitter death has snatched away the clever, educated, philosophical, poetical Kater Murr in the middle of his beautiful career,” and that the projected book 3 will contain the rest of Kreisler’s biography, together with reflections and comments from the later period of Murr’s life, when he lived with Kreisler.
A double triangle forms the basis of the Kreisler plot: Kreisler feels a conscious though idealized attraction to the musically talented Julia and an unpleasantly physical attraction—described as an electric shock when their hands touch—to Princess Hedwiga. Both women love Kreisler but are condemned to arranged marriages: Furst Irenaus engages Hedwiga to the handsome but murderous Prince Hector so that he can perhaps regain a principality to rule; the widow Benzon, in order to gain the patent of nobility, which is her sole desire, convinces Irenaus to let her daughter, Julia, marry his son Ignatius, who has the mental capacities of a seven-year-old and could hence scarcely consummate the marriage.
Prince Hector, on the other hand, who harbors the secret that he has murdered his brother in a spar over a woman (coincidentally the illegitimate daughter of Benzon and Irenaus), is powerfully attracted to Julia. Kreisler defeats Hector’s attempt at seduction by transforming their tete-a-tete into a recital in which he accompanies Julia at the piano. He finally chases Hector away by showing him a portrait of his brother, given to Kreisler by Meister Abraham for just such a purpose. Infuriated, and frightened by Kreisler’s knowledge of his fratricide, the prince sends his adjutant to kill the composer. The shot misses, and Kreisler fatally wounds the assassin, escaping afterward to the Benedictine cloister at Kanzheim, where he composes for the musical monks. The Abbot Chrysostomus, on instructions from Benzon, who has perceived her daughter’s attraction to the musician, attempts without success to convince Kreisler to enter the order. When the fanatically ascetic monk Cyprianus arrives and denounces Kreisler’s music as impious, Kreisler defends himself by showing the monk the portrait, thus indicating that he is aware of a connection between Cyprianus and Hector. Indeed Cyprianus is the murdered brother, saved by a miracle.
Though the reader cannot be certain what ending Hoffmann would have given the novel, it is clear that the scene would have returned to Sieghartshof and that the plot would have centered on foiling the planned double marriage. It seems likely that mistaken origins would be cleared up: that the dark-skinned Hedwiga would have been revealed to be of Gypsy origin, swapped as a baby for Julia, who would then be the rightful daughter of Irenaus. Kreisler, who was reared by an aunt and later an uncle and remembers nothing of mother or father, might also be of royal blood, perhaps Julia’s brother or half brother. Hoffmann would thus have been able to resolve Kreisler’s attraction to Julia while at the same time preventing a marriage which is taboo for the Romantic artist. There are also some indications that Kreisler would have entered a period of insanity.