Last Updated September 5, 2023.
E. T. A. Hoffman embarks on a dual mission in this early nineteenth-century satire. He ostensibly offers an autobiography written by a tomcat, Murr, at the same time he presents a disjointed manuscript draft of the biography of a musician, Johannes Kreisler. In the “Editor’s Foreword,” Hoffman has this unnamed editor present the book as written by a talented young author, who turned out to be the cat. More surprising, the editor says, the manuscript included a different work. These pages from the biography of Kreisler, a Kapellmeister, had been found by Murr while writing his autobiography. He then tore up the book and
without more ado, and thinking no ill, used its pages partly to rest his work on, partly as blotting paper. These pages were left in the manuscript—and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it!
By giving much of the narrative to the cat, Hoffman creates an effective persona or alter ego for himself as a social critic. Murr is rarely hesitant to toot his own horn; while his self-declared originality and creativity sometimes seem admirable, more often the reader notes his egotistic grandstanding in describing humdrum occurrences as though they were personal triumphs.
He who is reading this will never understand my lofty inspiration, being unaware of the high vantage point to which I have soared. Climbed would be more accurate, but a poet doesn’t mention his feet, especially if he has four of them like me.
Murr does not stint in praising his own “true genius,” noting that one reason for telling his life story is to enable the reader to see “the full extent of my excellence.” Learning the greatness of this tomcat, in addition to making the reader “admire me and worship me,” must also include their recognition that these are the words of “a tomcat possessed of intellect, understanding, and sharp claws.”
The pages from the Kreisler biography that are interspersed with the cat’s tale spring up almost without warning, marked only by an editor’s code, “W. P.” At times the two stories coalesce, but at times they diverge widely. Johannes’s inclination for music and his moody temperament are explained by his early experiences, including the influence of his lute-playing aunt and a talented but eccentric organ builder, Abraham Liscov. The instrument-maker was notable even in Kreisler’s small town, which the writer considers “a veritable paradise for eccentrics."
Music with all its wonderful melancholy, all its heavenly delights took root in the boy’s breast, putting out a thousand branching veins, and so it is not surprising to find that this same breast, if only slightly wounded, gushes hot blood.... [Liscov showed him] a whole new colourful world in which his lively mind could move more freely and boldly.
In addition to music, language and communication play dominant roles in the book. Murr the cat not only is prolific in telling his own story but also relates his encounters with numerous human characters as well as creatures of other species. Notable among the latter is a poodle named Ponto, with whom he develops a close friendship despite feeling, and sometimes acting, superior.
My new friendship had made a deep impression on me, so that as I sat in sun or shade, on the roof or under the stove, I thought of nothing, reflected on nothing, dreamed of nothing, was aware of nothing but poodle, poodle, poodle! I thereby gained great insight into the innermost essence of poodlishness.
When Ponto later helps him out of a tricky situation, he notes that he is glad to come to his friend’s aid despite his earlier snobbery.
You’ve always boasted of your knowledge and education, you’ve always been very high and mighty to me, and now you sit here abandoned and hopeless.... I’ve been to school, too, you see, and can lard my own conversation with scraps of Latin, so there!