Visitors to the British Libraryâs current exhibition Cats on the Page may have caught sight of a curious creature who first saw the light in Prussia 200 years ago â Kater Murr, the famous tomcat created by E. T. A. Hoffmann and based on his own much-loved pet, a handsome striped tabby. While British audiences may be more familiar with works by Hoffmann which provided the inspiration for the ballets The Nutcracker and CoppĂ©lia and for Offenbachâs opera Les Contes dâHoffmann, Murr himself is no mean performer â a worthy companion for his master, the gifted but reclusive musician Johannes Kreisler, who inspired Robert Schumannâs Kreisleriana.
An early edition of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr (Berlin, 1820) 12548.bbb.17
Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufĂ€lligen MakulaturblĂ€ttern was first published in two volumes in 1819-21 (a third volume was promised but never completed). The author claims that Murr taught himself to read by perusing books and papers in the study of his original owner, Master Abraham, and went on to learn calligraphy from the manual compiled by Hilmar Curas. This enabled him to compose such masterpieces as a political treatise entitled Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race, the tragedy Cawdallor, King of Rats, and the âphilosophical and didactic novel of sentimentâ Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. By a publisherâs error Murrâs âlife and opinionsâ (not for nothing was Hoffmann influenced by Laurence Sterne) were interleaved with a biography of Kreisler himself and bound into a single volume.
The resulting narrative is an inspired parody of the Bildungsroman, charting Murrâs development from a kitten rescued from drowning by the kind-hearted Master Abraham to a cat of letters and high culture â at least in his own eyes. In the tradition of Wilhelm Meister and his like, Murr encounters a wide variety of characters and falls into some highly dubious company. He joins a catsâ Burschenschaft, a fraternity of the kind so popular among German students in the era of âTurnvaterâ Jahn (whom Hoffmann defended in court), engaging not only in gymnastics but in rowdier pursuits such as drinking, duelling and caterwauling songs.
Naturally, his sentimental education is also chronicled; he has an emotional encounter with his long-lost mother, (though he absent-mindedly devours the fish-head which he had intended to offer her), and enjoys an âinstructiveâ friendship with Ponto, a poodle (irresistibly evoking thoughts of Mephistophelesâs disguise as a black poodle in Goetheâs Faust). He then embarks on a âpersonality-formingâ love affair with the charming Miesmies which comes to an abrupt end when she falls for the blandishments of a war veteran, a swaggering striped tabby cat sporting the Order of the Burnt Bacon for valour in ridding a larder of mice. Murrâs friend, the black cat Muzius, opens his eyes to the betrayal, but Murr comes off worst in the duel which ensues, and escapes with bleeding ears and minus a considerable quantity of fur.
In a lively and graceful fashion Hoffmann makes fun of the conventions of polite society and its membersâ cultural pretensions; Murr scans the pages of Ovidâs Ars Amatoria for ploys to capture the heart of Miesmies or free himself from his obsession, and invites her to sing. This succeeds: âAh! Am I still upon this earth?â he cried âAm I still sitting on the roof? [âŠ] Am I still Murr the cat, and not the man in the moon?â To his request for a song, Miesmies responds with the aria âDi tanti palpitiâ from Rossiniâs Tancredi. Murr, a veritable homme des lettres trĂšs renommĂ© (as he terms himself), is conversant with all the notable authors of the day, quoting freely from Schillerâs Don Carlos and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Adalbert von Chamissoâs Peter Schlemihl, and, of course, Ludwig Tieck â not only his translations of Shakespeare but also his play Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots). This story runs parallel to the unhappy tale of Kreislerâs failure to achieve social success and romantic happiness in a petty principality, recounted on pages torn from the printed biography which Murr uses as blotting-paper and which are inadvertently included in the book.
Not only social but also literary conventions fall victim to Hoffmannâs pen; Murrâs directions about âhow to become a great catâ satirize the contemporary trivialization of the ideals of the Bildungsroman, and his Biedermeier-like complacency and liking for comfort contrast sharply with the uncompromising attitude of the tormented genius Kreisler. In a postscript, the âeditorâ notes that âthat clever, well-educated, philosophical, poetical tomcat Murr was snatched away by bitter Death [âŠ] after a short but severe illnessâ without completing his memoirs: âA genius maturing early can never prosper long: either he declines, in anticlimax, to become a mediocrity without character or intellect [âŠ] or he does not live to a great ageâ.
Picture of Kater Murr by Christian Friedrich Schiele from the first edition of the novel, reproduced on the cover of Anthea Bellâs translation, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (London. 1999) H.2001/426.
Whatever the reader may feel about the self-congratulatory comments of the egregious Murr, he can hardly be accused of mediocrity. A near kinsman of Tybalt, the cat of mediaeval beast fables, and Perraultâs White Cat and Puss in Boots, he would become the ancestor of a whole line of talking cats, many of whom feature in the exhibition â Gottfried Kellerâs Spiegel das KĂ€tzchen, Christa Wolfâs Max in Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers, and perhaps even Lewis Carrollâs Cheshire Cat. Hoffmann, the âeditorâ, assures the reader that he has met Murr personally and found him âa man of mild and amiable mannersâ, and by her accomplished translation Anthea Bell has enabled English-speaking readers to make the acquaintance of âthe drollest creature in the world, a true Pulcinellaâ.
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.
The British Libraryâs free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.