30 November 2011

The Devil's Elixirs, by ETA Hoffman

This novel is maximally whacked out. I'm talking Book of Revelations style freakiness. There are visions, and Satan, and Jesus (complete with bloody wounds), and sin and saints and monks and repentance and all that good stuff. The story is phenomenally convoluted - to the point that I pulled out a pen and paper and tried to map out plot lines and relationships at one point and ultimately had to give up because if you're talking about 4 generations of tangled sexual affairs where everyone has the same name, there's no way you're going to be able to sort through it all, and really, it's not that important. Which is all another way of saying that despite getting off to a somewhat slow start, it's a really entertaining book.

The novel details the adventures of Medardus, a young monk, and his travels in the sinful world. He is very quickly plunged into a mistaken identity/doppelganger situation, and that's when things get fun. Hoffman does a terrific job with this - the confusion over who does what is so profound that even the protagonist himself occasionally gets it mixed up, not least because oftentimes, he's so busy trying to pin everything on the doppelganger that he starts believing his own lies. Throughout the text, various characters attempt to straighten out who's who, which means you're constantly hearing different versions of the same story, and it never really makes sense. To complicate it even further, people who seemed to be dead turn out to have miraculously survived, and other people who you thought were living turn out to be ghosts. WHAT FUN.

To add to the mix, there's a complex notion of some kind of curse or fate, a "tangled web" that draws various characters together, generating an unbelievable series of coincidences that result in a relatively small cast of characters that is constantly bumping into each other. To top it all off, there are also a few paintings that look like some of the characters and likewise resurface, which always seems portentous. The relationship between art and life is highly fluid and unstable, and definitely something I need to spend more time thinking about.

The 'elixirs' of the title, though indeed genuinely gifts from the devil, are basically a red herring. They exist, yes, and they serve as a catalyst in some ways perhaps, but they also seem entirely beside the point, because fated doomy doom is kind of a trump card. Initially, the novel seems to be interested in playing with the idea of whether or not they're genuine or psychosomatic, but it quickly moves on to other things. The elixirs do lead to some interesting conversations about sin and free will though. Actually, there are plenty of random philosophical interludes in the novel, the most delightful of which come from a guy named Belcampo (or Peter), a highly artistic barber with multiple personality disorder, who has a tenuous grasp on reality. He's a hoot. Hoffman clearly adores him, and therefore shoehorns him into the plot whenever he can, and while it makes very little sense, you're always glad to see him.

Overall, highly entertaining, in that 19th century kind of way.

I was just reading Freud's essay, 'On the Uncanny,' and came across this:

Hoffman is the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature. His novel, Die Elixire des Teufel's [The Devil's Elixir], contains a whole mass of themes to which one is tempted to ascribe the uncanny effect of narrative; but it is too obscure and intricate a story for us to venture upon a summary of it. Toward the end of the book the reader is told the facts, hitherto concealed from him, from which the action springs; with the result, not that he is at last enlightened, but that he falls into a state of complete bewilderment. 



Patrick Murtha said...

I read this novel recently myself, and I love your description; it's perfect. My own notes read:

This classic Gothic novel about a mad monk is completely deranged, and I mean that in a good way. Don't ask too many questions, just hang on for the ride. When you finally get to the lengthy explanation of who was really who, realize that you will need a PhD in genealogy to understand it. Sample dialogue: "You mad fools, will you tempt the providence that passes judgment on guilty sinners?"

culture_vulture said...

Exactly! I really did try to map out who was who on paper. The fact that a lot of people have the same name, and that the various entanglements span a good 5 generations, makes it all the more difficult. You might think that this would be frustrating, but it's actually really satisfying, in the same way that mapping out the trail of crime in really convoluted film noir is.

Anonymous said...

Could someone answer a question for me? It's for a school project. What is the science in this book? There are plenty of possible pseudosciences, however, are there any real science that affects the plot?