Hoffmann gained world fame through his short fiction; his efforts in the novel form, begun late in his career, have received less attention. The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr, however, besides its central if ambiguous position in the history of the Bildungsroman genre (and of its variant, the Kunstlerroman), is also a brilliant and influential representative of the possibilities of Tierdichtung (animal literature), of the relation between music and literature, and of Romantic narrative art in general.
The autobiographical figure of Kreisler, developed first in “Johannes Kreislers des Kapellmeisters musikalische Leiden” (1810; the musical sufferings of Johannes Kreisler the Kapellmeister), is one of the best and most influential representations of the Romantic hero and artist. As the quintessential individual, he stands in conflict with society, and Hoffmann used this novel as he had rarely used his novellas to satirize almost every aspect of German civilization. Each location of the novel thus centers on one of the three estates of German society and its failures: the triumph of form over feeling in the aristocratic world of Sieghartshof, the aesthetic epicureanism of the monks at Kanzheim, the hypocrisy and self-importance of the burghers and academics in Murr’s Sieghartsweiler. Finally, opposed to these there is the world of nature, home of the irrational and of artistic inspiration, appearing to Hedwiga as an absolute danger and to Kreisler as a refuge.
The Murr section manages to satirize nearly every aspect of contemporary German politics and history: the student movements that had played an important role in Germany’s struggle for independence and unification; Philistertum (middle-class stagnation); and, most prominently, practically every poetic, scientific, and moral writing of the age, from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, from the educational theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to the genre of the Bildungsroman.
The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr represents an absolute negativity, an irony which ironizes even itself, the final bitter outpouring of a man who had been disappointed in love, in art, and in politics and who could already feel the paralysis which would kill him a year later. Yet remarkably, the bitterness of The Life and Opinions of Kater Murr is completely transcended by its wit, its highly suspenseful plotting, and the brilliance of its language. In short, it is the “musical” masterpiece that Hoffmann always dreamed of composing.