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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Reader's Diary #1072- E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King


Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you're all having a pleasant day. Don't worry, I'm not neglecting my family to blog. I wrote this post quickly last night as my kids watched the old Jack Frost animated special (the one with Kubla Kraus).

Earlier this month my daughter was part of a production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet, put off annually by a local dance company. It's the 2nd time I've seen the show now, and I've always been a little bewildered by the whole thing (but of course, I love the parts with my daughter in it). I said this to my wife who remarked that it was all a fantasy land from a little girl's dream. Well, I got that much, I suppose but the frame story felt somewhat scattered and not important. So, I decided to go to the source material in order to better understand what the heck was going on.

Uh, yeah, I guess I better understand it now, but barely, and may I say, what a strange book! It's about a girl named Marie who fantasizes a whole world and plot involving a nutcracker, incorporating a bunch of other toys, candy, mice, and stories told to her by her godfather Drosselmeier. Without having understood the ballet a great deal, I can still conclude that Hoffmann's book is quite different. It feels very dated. The old military terms and sugared fruit, the style (e.g., the sudden addressing of "dearest reader"), and weird run-on sound effects and rhymes. You can see how books like Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz owe a debt of gratitude to the Nutcracker and the Mouse King (this book predates both), but those latter books perfected the fantastical, whereas Hoffmann's just seems bizarre and self-indulgent (and not particularly Christmasy, despite the setting). My son, whom I read it to, seemed more interested in the fact that the story was so old than with anything going on in the plot. I thought the parts with the Mouse King and Queen would hold his attention— seeing as those parts were actually more lucid and exciting— but instead he was just preoccupied with the way people used "thou" and "thee." Oh well, I guess I'm thankful that he learned something?

I should also note that the translator is not credited in my version, and perhaps a better translation would have given the book a better flow or made the characters more engaging.

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