A few months ago I read an article in the Guardian Review about the Penguin Classics series. The author of the article selected ten titles – apparently at random – to illustrate the richness and variety of the works available from Penguin. I realised that of the ten works, I had only read one, so I resolved to read the other nine this year. This is the third of those nine that I’ve read.
From the start you have to accept that cats – and dogs – have an intellectual life that is hidden from us humans. As a kitten Murr learns to read and write. Thanks to his master’s extensive library he’s able to read all the German masters as well as Shakespeare and the classics. Not only him. Many of the cats he associates with seem to be equally well-educated. His mate Ponto the poodle isn’t as bookish but has a lot of worldly-wise advice to offer. Of course there is a lot of rough and tumble in a tomcat’s life, but even their fights are managed like human duels.
What we learn is that Murr is busy writing his autobiography on sheets of paper “borrowed” from his master, Abraham. On the reverse side of these sheets is a biography of the composer Johannes Kreisler. Abraham also features in his life as a kind of Daedalus figure, an ingenious maker of contraptions and illusions. Kreisler’s story is set in one of those tiny German states that existed before unification. Its ruler, the pompous Prince Irenaeus, seems to believe he is a great statesman, and Hoffmann has a lot of fun at his expense. He is trying to marry off his daughter to the evil Prince Hector, but Irenaeus can’t think badly of Hector because, well, blue-blooded chaps must be virtuous by definition. That’s what makes them “noble”.
I won’t spoil the plot. Suffice to say that, thanks to Murr’s meddling, Kreisler’s story keeps breaking off and some bits are “missing”, so we don’t get the full story. This doesn’t matter as what we get are the entertaining bits. Murr’s story is very different from Kreisler’s, as the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition makes clear, but it does mirror the human world in some ways. Murr has his share of life’s disappointments. His love life isn’t that brilliant and it’s clear that cats can be as fickle and ruthless as humans when it comes to matters of love.
The introduction to the Penguin edition is very thorough and enlightening, but I would recommend reading it after you’ve read the novel as there is a plot spoiler, and a very sad one. The translation itself is very lively and has helpful notes. This is a great book, a real gem and I will be reading more Hoffmann as a result.
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