Remarks on Christa Wolf’s “New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat”

Wolf, Christa, “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers”,
in; Wolf, Christa, Erzählungen 1960-1980, Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62034-5

This is not a proper review, more like brief remarks which own their brevity to the shortness of the text in question. It’s a story by major GDR writer Christa Wolf, written in the early 1970s, published together with two other stories in 1974 in a collection that was subtitled “Drei unwahrscheinliche Geschichten” (that is ‘three improbable stories’). All three of those stories are masterful, the best of the three probably the scintillating titular story “Unter den Linden”. “Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” (New Life and Opinions of a Tomcat) is, technically, probably the weakest story of the bunch, but it’s still fascinating reading. It pretends to be a ‘continuation’ of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (my review here), but in many ways it just employs its satirical spirit, while actually departing quite a bit from Hoffmann’s text. Wolf is passionate and direct, bleeding commitment into her text, she has no patience for Hoffmann’s genteel games; in this and other stories and books she portrays the outcry of the soul against stifling, destructive structures.

“Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers” is a much more earnest and serious text, really, much more direct in its criticism of society and the direction its heading towards than Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. What Hoffmann did was provide an oblique critique channeled through a literary maze. Instead of commenting upon an issue directly, he comments upon other texts, presenting a multi-pronged kind of criticism that is as readable and topical, really, as it was when it was first published. Christa Wolf’s story is much more directly relevant to the social, political and cultural context of her time, down to phrases that echo the peculiar kind of neologisms common in the GDR (and the Third Reich, curiously). Its connection to Hoffmann’s text is a small one, constituted by the title and the conceit of the text being written by a tomcat on pages from a manuscript. However, while Hoffmann invented this in order to construct an elaborate book of fragments and two separate stories running in parallel, it serves no other purpose in Wolf’s story but to create the link to Hoffmann’s novel.

Wolf does not have two story-lines but she doesn’t just throw half of Hoffmann away, either. Instead, she brilliantly injects the basic thrust of the Kreisler story, if we subtract the Gothic plot, into the cat’s narrative. See, in Kreisler, Hoffmann depicts a romantic subjectivity which is at odds with the society around him and instead of succumbing to ‘reason’ persists as artistic spirit and is almost broken due to that decision. Wolf’s story is about a similar problem. It is about a group of scientists and thinkers who want to create a system that will make mankind happy, a system that ensures a maximum of spiritual and bodily health. And wouldn’t we all love that. Their proposals are then fed into a computer who, however, tells them that their ideas won’t work out. The model human being that the system is based on and the actual submitted system do not fit, they have to change one or the other. During the following weeks they work on the model human being, slowly stripping it of all things that are incompatible with a smoothly running system like they envisioned it.

Things to go first are elements like artistic creativity but reason and sexuality are thrown off board as well, in due course, as the computer continues to hand back to them their proposal as flawed and wrong, but it keeps assuring them they are on the right path. The computer is basically a mechanism forcing the scientists to ‘think things through’. It’s a wonder this story got published at all, since it clearly constitutes a criticism of the socialist (not Communist, mind you) enterprise, the attempt to think up, construct and maintain a system that nominally has man’s best interests at heart but, in actuality, does not have much room for human beings in it, unless they conform strictly to the ruling ideology. Individuals, here as in other places in Wolf’s work, such as the Quest for Christa T. (my review here) are at odds with that restrictive society. Wolf does not damn the idea of Communism, per se, in fact, as her work repeatedly clarifies, she considers it necessary, it is also liberating, but it must revolve around the individual and not an idea. If you have to adapt something, adapt the system and not the individuals living in it.

It’s quite clear how this connects to the ideas that drive the Kreisler sections of Hoffmann’s novel. But what about Murr and his equivalent in Wolf’s story, Max? Both are first person narrators of their story, both are philistines of a kind, but while Murr’s story is basically Murr’s Bildungsroman (a parody, actually, of the genre), Max is just an observer of the events. While Murr is talking about his life and reflecting mainly on himself, and his pet friends, Max is almost exclusively focused on humans. Murr’s reflections were part of a complex metafictional web Hoffmann was weaving in his book, which largely references and targets other books, while Wolf is having none of that. She is focused on the message and delivers it with few distractions, and she largely references and targets real world life and politics. Her dismay with the inflexible society that she was living in, is plain, and she’s clear about the fact that she doesn’t pit creativity against reason, since ‘reason”s another property that is left out of the model character. Like Hoffmann, she’s very clear about her commitments and unlike him, she delivers a scathing critique of the socialist state.

It is not her best story but indicative of qualities all her stories have, qualities that make her best stories shine like they do. Hers is a literary sensibility that is upfront about her criticisms and concerns yet is able to weave a complex literary text, with a use of intertextuality that frequently reminds me of Genette’s idea of a “continuation infidéle”. In this case, Wolf took on more than she could handle, her grip on the source text is weak, and the simple structure is too simple to do any kind of justice to Hoffmann’s novel, which really hurts the impact of the story. In other texts, she is far more proficient in this. It is nevertheless recommended, like everything of hers. If you cannot read German, do not despair: the story can be found in a collection of her short prose, What Remains and other stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1995. Pick it up, why don’t you.

E.T.A. Hoffmann: The life and opinions of Tomcat Murr

Now, how do I start this? This is a fragment containing a continuous story and another fragment. No. This is a cat’s pretend autobiography and a bandmaster’s biography, both unfinished. No. This is a book that is a humorous send-off of the Bildungsroman and a serious critique of the society of its time. No. This is a postmodern masterpiece, that stops at all the right bases: metafiction, pastiche, even McHale’s ontological turn, it’s all in there, but it was published not in the 1970s but in 1819-21. No. Or: yes, all of these. This book is strange, it contains so much, and is, on the other hand, very light and entertaining reading. I rarely reread books, there’s not enough time and too many books, but I reread this one, and it was even more enjoyable the second time around. The author is one of those chaps who wastes nothing, every image serves multiple purposes, every plot strand has significance in several ways; the downside to this is that, for a story about a cat, this book is strangely cold and aloof, much like the cat that narrates a good deal of it.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, despite being one of the titans of German literature, is still in need of being discovered. In this country, at least, he has largely been reduced to a horror writer (For obvious reasons, Hoffmann’s stories are among the most frequently used examples for Freud’s notion of the uncanny (Unheimliche)). The only text of his that is still widely read and that is not a horror story is this one, the Lebensansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern (usually referred to by the first four words of the title. Translated into English by Anthea Bell as The life and opinions of Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kappelmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper; published with Penguin, I believe). It is both a humorous and lighthearted satire and serious criticism; despite his horror writer reputation, satire is Hoffmann’s main strength and fuels most of his work. Hoffmann, also, was unafraid of angering powerful people with his satire. In a climate of repression, with the Prussian state cracking down on rebellious students, he wrote and published a satire on a particularly angered and powerful official. He was immediately canned, and would have, possibly, been prosecuted, if he hadn’t died short afterward.

Dead at 48, he has produced an outstanding body of work, most of it short stories and novellas, with Lebensansichten des Katers Murr as the only longer exception. Additionally, he wrote a large amount of music, pieces for piano, or the stage, but his most lasting influence on music can be found in other people’s music. There is, for example, Schuhmann’s cycle of music called Kreisleriana, inspired by stories of Hoffmann’s featuring his alter ego, bandmaster Kreisler (who also appears in this book). There’s Jacques Offenbach who based an opera on Hoffmann’s tales. Or Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker is similarly based on a story by Hoffmann. Hoffmann’s self-image of himself as an artist, someone who creates music and literature, shines in every piece of his work. Satire without heart can be hollow and poor, weak, and, at worst, mean-spirited and dull. At the heart of a work of satire there needs to be a kernel of commitment, a core belief in something, in order for it to work, to be convincing as criticism and a work of art.

In Hoffmann, that core belief is always loud and strong, but Hoffmann’s imagination can, at times, seem boundless and striking, and it can appear to obscure the finer points of his mind, his core beliefs. In this, too, the novel fragment about Murr the tomcat, is different. Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is completely reduced to satire, without the balm of generous fantasy. Instead, he opts for pastiche and parody, each of which words well describes one of its two parts. The basic conceit for the novel is that Murr, a highly literate tomcat, has decided to write his autobiography, because that’s what people do after having lived a life full of experience of the world and its books, especially when they have something worthwhile to tell, and Murr is clearly incapable of imagining that his tale may not be as worth our while to hear as he thinks. He is a cat, as such, relegated to be eternally underfoot, short-lived, inferior to humans, but he doesn’t appear to care. Not in the way that some other cat-centric books like to imagine, that the cat thinks it’s superior to a human being because it’s a proud feline. No, Murr just starts to act and speak like a human being, at least as far as books and knowledge are concerned. In his asides, he says cutesie things like threatening to scratch a wayward listener but these are minor points.

Murr, as a young cat, discovers his interest in books, reading, writing, and his lack of bookworms of his own age creates an enormous sense of intellectual righteousness in him. Quickly he looks down on other cat’s expressions as too vague, he looks down his furry cat nose at everybody that is not as well read as him. But, and here’s the important part, he’s a philistine. He does not wish to understand the books he reads, he does not wish to engage with them; his readings are not encounters with them, he’s merely taking note of their existence. Talking about books, these days, often turns out to be a question of taking sides, we no longer show any interest in engaging with thinking that we do not share, other people’s thoughts are just so much noise that is just an excuse for us to talk more loudly. Even highly literate people turn out not to parrot other people’s thoughts, but just their own prejudice. On the internet I have encountered people who have certainly read multiple books of history but have clearly not understood anything beyond that which fosters their own preconceptions. They will not learn, they will just acquire more books, and remember little except the bare bones facts.

Hoffmann’s Murr is just that sort of narrow minded philistine, who is extraordinarily well read without it making any larger sort of difference. And here is a second thing. Murr will always remain a cat, of course. As I said, this book’s using only a smidgen fantasy. Murr is quite often thrown back upon his felinity, he is, although, mark me, this is a stretch, a perennial subaltern, who does not use his own voice to speak, but borrows his voice from the human culture around him. His intellectual passivity ensures that nothing changes in this respect, but there’s an interesting twist. His autobiography, as we learn in the introduction, is written upon pieces of paper that he found. More to the point: on a manuscript he found, that he ripped apart to suit his purposes. So, without appropriating the voice and the language for his purposes, he does, after all, do something somewhat similar. The manuscript he rips apart, is the biography of Bandmaster Kreisler, of which we only have fragments. Both narratives are in the right order, but only Murr’s is continuous and complete (except for the end, because the book has remained a fragment), and, as Murr’s method suggests, Kreisler’s story just, without any introduction (but clearly marked by visual signs), surfaces now and then, since Murr did not erase Kreisler’s story.

Murr’s book, you could say, is a perfect parody of the Bildungsroman, which is astonishing given that the genre had existed for only a short time when Hoffmann wrote his book. It might also be more accurate to say that it is a parody of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, that book which immediately after publication became the gold standard for the genre. It carefully takes up many central ideas, including the sequence of the educatory events in Wilhelm’s life. Parody usually implies criticism and indeed, in addition to the satiric criticism I outlined above, the Bildungsroman parody has an additional, specific target. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was largely adulated when it came out but it had also a couple of rather vehement enemies, among them Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, who wrote his only novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, as a response to Wilhelm Meister. What had bothered him so much was the fact that Novalis thought Goethe’s novel portrayed growing up as a process, wherein one is divested of romantic ideas and artistic élan, and ideally heads towards a career as a merchant. Such a moral Novalis found unacceptable.

Hoffmann must have had similar objections to the book and others that followed in its wake. So, his ridicule of the philistine is also a ridicule of the goals of the Bildungsroman, and of the goals and ideas of Prussian society around him. Hoffmann worked for the Prussian state, in a commision during the crackdowns, evaluating the rebellious students. German politics are always more complex than some would have it. This was not a conflict between smart, emancipatory and well-meaning students and a repressive state denying its citizens basic rights. Among these students were many rabid anti-Semites (most famously, Turnvater Jahn), and the Romantic student movements were to turn into German nationalism that shaped a German people that, at the end of its development, committed the Shoah. At the turn of the century and again in the Weimar republic, it was young ardent students who were most heavily involved in this kind of thinking, not old crusty conservatives. This is not to deny that, on the other end of the conflict in Hoffmann’s time did not stand a repressive state. It did, and many high ranking officials called for severe punishment for the wayward students. Among Murr’s animal friends, there are few people you would sympathize with, the situation is snafu, although Murr is clearly singled out for criticism.

Hoffmann appears to be marvelously aware of the complicated situation, and its demands for criticism that is not manichaean. So instead of juxtaposing two characters on the same level, Hoffmann expresses his Novalis-like criticism by including the biography of Kreisler. Do take note of the ingeniousness of this. Kreisler and Murr live in the same world, they even meet at one point in the story, so they could be part of one longer narrative. Instead, Hoffmann has separated them by more than just space. He separated them by genre as well. Kreisler’s biography is written in a pastiche of Gothic writing, Hoffmann has in his work repeatedly experimented both with that mode of writing as well as with Kreisler. Kreisler is a young, passionate artist. He has already grown up when we meet him, and is thrown into a cliché Gothic story, with changelings, murder and intrigue at a prince’s court. The story is the weakest point of the book, not even Hoffmann appears to show much interest in it, letting it plod along dully; even murders and revelation will not rivet the reader although they did entertain me passably the first time I read it. The major function of these sections, however, is the portrayal of Kreisler the artist, who is unsuccessful at pursuing his artistic vision in the philistine society around him. Although the prince’s court is a clear reference to the court at the end of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, this is no parody. Instead, the text shows the artist struggling to maintain his personal vision and integrity, instead of caving to the pressure like Meister did.

Lebensansichten des Katers Murr is, although its parts are interlocked, structures somewhat like an argument, starting with a thesis (In the beginning, Murr’s parts take up more space than Kreisler’s), and continuing into an antithesis (as the novel progresses, Kreisler is granted more and more space). The fact that Hoffmann was not able to finish the novel deprives us of a synthesis. As a whole, this book is fueled by an admirable energy. While not entirely successful at all times, it coheres wonderfully, and Hoffmann’s ardor at work covers up the boredom of parts of the second half of the book. This is a book like no other one and since it has been translated both into English and French, I recommend you read it. ISBN


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