Sunday, 31 March 2013

E.T.A. Hoffman- The Devil's Elixirs

The Devil's Elixirs
Oneworld Classics
 E.T.A. Hoffmann
1815

If you're like me and you've got the consistent habit of collecting books at a much faster rate than you read them, then you'll come across the dilemma of having to choose a next read between something you really, really want to look at next or something you've had for much longer and can't build up the will-power to start. It's kind of silly, really, there's a bunch of Murakami and Bukowski novels that I just know I'll devour, but I have this vague notion I need to mix it up a little bit. So, to be honest, the prospect of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Gothic horror The Devil's Elixirs didn't appeal much in terms of picking a fun read, which begs the question of why I bought it in the first place.

I first experienced an educated look at the genres of romanticism and horror with the genre's most famous example; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and quickly became more familiar with the development of the genre and web-like connections between authors. While we all recognise Frankenstein now as perhaps the definitive supernatural monster story (originally told, as the story roughly goes, around a prototypical campfire) there's a lot more depth in tone and context to it, representing the culmination of,a style and set of ethics influenced by such luminaries as William Blake, Lord Byron and William Wordsworth.

The Devil's Elixirs was written three years before Frankenstein, and I feel its influence was felt stylistically in Mary Shelley's piece. In regards to the story, however, it seemed to have more in common with the legend of Faustus, as it regards the corruption and descent into madness of a man given too much power. While it was Christopher Marlowe who was the first to write a definite version of the myth in Doctor Faustus, Hoffman's contemporary Johann Goethe's Faust was published in 1808, and surely must have influenced Hoffman's storytelling. I'm yet to read Faust but I do have a copy on the pile.

The Devil's Elixirs tells the harrowing tale of Medardus the Monk, a good, pious man who's fate is settled when he is entrusted with the possession of the titular devil's elixir, a corrupting liquid supposedly secreted by Satan. Naturally Medardus is unable to resist the bizarre mental effects he soon experiences, and the story really begins as he flees the monastery and attempts to create a new identity. It's a fairly detailed plot that focuses on identity and mystery, evoking to me in style (though through translation) the Victorian prose of Dickens and the like. Forgive the lack of a better description, but it screams classical to me.

As such, I found it difficult to engage my full attention to the narrative throughout because I find such a style dry in places. Ultimately I found it to be what I expected, which might be a self-fulfilling prophecy, which was a notable and memorable read that I can't say I particularly enjoyed. As someone still clinging on to the description of English student, I'm always keen to read something that fits as a piece of a large puzzle depicting a genre or a period that I'm interested in. The blurred lines of horror and romanticism are fascinating and alluring through their image and impact on culture through history, through Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto to perhaps the final Gothic classic Dracula, and The Devil's Elixirs is certainly an essential read for anyone wanting to fully explore macabre fiction.