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Tales of Hoffmann - Vernon Humphries, Stella Humphries, R.J. Hollingdale, E.T.A. Hoffmann

What role does art play in the pursuit of happiness? Does it mine all the beauty in the world and then refine it until the ore has been purified into unadulterated gold, or does beauty only enchant us the more because of the dross from which we try to separate it? Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, though a Romantic compelled by beauty, rarely, if ever, rewrote the world to fit an ideal. He chose rather with horror, humor, and happiness all distilled together to write a compelling string of tales in which the ideal of beauty compels characters to extraordinary deeds, but often confounds those same characters by allowing beauty to slip through their fingers as they try to perfect it, or presenting them with the ore whole from the earth, and finding that one possess happiness by accepting the mundane along with it.

 

Hoffmann’s casts of beautiful lovers, and horrific grotesques muddle through a series of adventures in which their artistic aspirations, their worldly concerns, and their erotic endeavors all swim together like milk, oil, and water, dovetailing one moment, and flying asunder the next as each gallery of characters tumbles on into a thoroughly satisfying denouement. The eight variations on a theme here present, though overlapping in many obvious ways, never fail to intrigue as one reads on. It is a treat to see which shape the protean beast will take, always the same at heart, but so fascinatingly fickle in its choice of form. The vein of melancholy that runs deep in a lot of great horror is in these stories, but what strikes one most is the shared presence of joy. Happy endings and tragic both populate the collection, and each is always tinged with a little of the other.

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