Monday, 18 June 2018

The Devil's Elixirs by E T A Hoffmann


The Devil's Elixirs by E T A Hoffmann
First published in German in Germany in 1816. English language translation by Ronald Taylor first published by John Calder in 1963.

My second Classics Club Challenge read.

How I got this book:
Bought from a charity shop

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £6.49 (PB)
Wordery : from £5.63 (PB)
Waterstones : from £8.99 (HB)
Amazon : from $1.47 / £0.01 (used PB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

The son of a heinous sinner, Medardus is brought up in a monastery to atone for his father's wicked ways. However, after succumbing to temptation, Medardus himself is lured into a life of sin. A labyrinthine plot sees him embarking on a fantastical journey into the world, meeting his doppelganger, involving himself in a game of double impersonation, and becoming embroiled in murderous intrigues at the Vatican, before the mysterious curse hanging over him and his family is finally explained. First published in 1815, "The Devil's Elixirs" is a macabre masterpiece of German literature, and is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Romantic movement, or the genres of fantasy and horror which it spawned.

Labyrinthine is certainly the word for the plot of this dark mystery! Its narrative snakes around, sometimes circling, sometimes doubling back on itself, so I was often absolutely bewildered as to whether I was following Medardus or his doppelganger, yet The Devil's Elixirs keeps up an excellent pace throughout so I found it a gripping read. In fact, considering this novel is now over two hundred years old, there is a remarkable lack of superfluous chat and diversions. I guess even Hoffmann had to keep his mind on the journey or he would have lost the thread himself!

Narrated in the first person by Medardus, an ambitious young man who is prone to vanity and pomposity, The Devil's Elixirs could be set in pretty much any time period from the mid-medieval until its actual time of writing. It has a kind of timeless, dark fairytale quality and I was reminded of my teenage Dennis Wheatley-reading phase - I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Wheatley had read Hoffmann. I loved supporting roles such as the irrepressible Italian barber-dwarf Belcampo and the Prince who flits from fad to fad in order to keep himself entertained. The female characters are, perhaps unsurprisingly for a book of this vintage, less convincing and their only being seen though Medardus' eyes renders them too stereotypically for my 21st century tastes - essentially mother figures or temptress virgins. However, if you can get past The Devil's Elixirs reflecting social standards of two centuries ago (and not just towards women) then it is an intriguing and engrossing light-horror mystery.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by E T A Hoffmann / Horror fiction / Books from Germany

10 comments:

  1. Definitely not a plot I might have expected from a book published in the early 1800s - but that just shows you how little I know about fiction, ha. An interesting read I am sure, great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Sarah! I was surprised by how modern this one felt (mostly!)

      Delete
    2. I had to go back and look at the publishing date a few times, I thought surely I had misread it!

      Delete
    3. and I definitely typed it right :-)

      Delete
  2. Lol I like what you said about how even the author would've lost the thread if he veered too far off. Your review does make it sound really intriguing though!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd been putting off reading this one because I thought, being so old, the story would be fusty and dry. But it's wonderfully complex and fun!

      Delete
  3. This sounds great given it was published in the 1800's, I shy away from classics, but sounds like you really enjoyed this one!
    Tori @ In Tori Lex

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love the idea of classic books but tend to pick them up and not actually read them! This one certainly was far better than expected :-)

      Delete
  4. You gotta love randomly dark and sinful plots! We don't give historical authors enough credit for their wicked sides! ;)

    ReplyDelete