Hoffman’s “Don Juan”: The Mysterious Visitation

Had heard about the Tales of Hoffman here or there and assumed there was famous collection of his stories of which this was one. Was eager to read him for this reason. But it turns out that the Tales of Hoffmann is in fact an opera by Jacques Offenbach, first performed in 1881—and therefore does not contain the story “Don Juan.” Despite this, there is a collection of stories published by Penguin, gathering a number of his stories. But during his lifetime no Tales of Hoffmann was ever published.

E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) lived through a tumultuous period, given the the highs and the lows of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions were seen. He was born in Königsberg, which as you are certainly aware was the environs of the Chinaman of Europe, Immanuel Kant. In fact, it was while Kant was probably composing some of what would eventually become the world famous Critique of Pure Reason that Hoffmann emerged into the world. Unsurprisingly, their paths crossed, although Hoffman was merely one of Kant’s late éleves.

The greater effect on Hoffmann’s life was had by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Hoffmann even adopted A as his third initial in homage apparently to the master. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni plays a leading role in Hoffmann’s story “Don Juan.”

Don Giovanni or Don Juan
2017 performance of Don Giovanni by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In many ways “Don Juan” does not seem to fit the mold one might attribute to early 19th century literature, for the story has three parts, but seems to lack the developmental features we attribute to the form of the short story.

The narrator emerges out of a slumber, awoken by the noise of an orchestra preparing for performance. As it happens, his hotel, found only in the dead of night as he wandered completely soused through the town, was also a theater. What’s more, the room that he enjoys has a hidden doorway leading into one of the theater’s private boxes. “Don Giovanni” is about to begin.

The narrator is a lover of the opera and so excitedly enters the box. The next two pages of this story provide a deeply subjective account of the goings on of the first act. This word subjective has almost completely pejorative, but despite this I use it because the narrator is explaining the effects of the music on his consciousness. The word seems appropriate.

During the andante I was gripped by the horrors of the terrible, infernal regne al pianto; horror inspiring premonitions of the terrible filled my mind.

What follows is an impassioned account that a theatre critic might give of the operatic performance, which in point of fact is an office that the author once held.

We meet the title character, Leporella (his servant), and Donna Anna; observe the murder of the latter’s father at Don Juan’s hands; see Donna Anna take up with Don Ottavio; witness Donna Anna leave the stage and be replaced, momentarily, by Donna Elvira.

It is at this point in the story that the narrator notices someone has joined him in his cozy box, but out of fear of being disturbed he does not turn to greet this person. When the first act is over, he discovers none other than Donna Anna herself in his company. She speaks to him in a Tuscan dialect of Italian (even though they are in a small German town) and have a conversation about the opera Don Giovanni, into which she offers insight. She confesses that she’d come there expressly to speak with the narrator although it is not apparent how she knew him.

Eventually, the entr’acte is over and she disappears. Act two begins and not suprisingly has a heightened meaning now for the narrator as he watches Donna Anna. The performance ends and the narrator is profoundly sated.

He goes to the hotel’s restaurant to dine and overhears other audience members discussing the performance. Mostly they were underwhelmed. The narrator rolls his eyes (okay, it doesn’t say this, that is the interpretation of Don Ashley).

The narrator returns to his room and takes his writing tools, candles, and a table into the connected box where he begins writing about the performance.

The celebration of Don Giovanni and a careful, slow rendering of its meaning is unveiled, still alive with the same emotion that drove the account of viewing the performance. The late hour rings.

Instead of a conclusion, the author provides an account of a conversation that occurs in the restaurant the next day. It replays some of the same philstine opinions offered the night before (but with some more dubious characters, including one called “Mullatoface.” It ends with news that the actress who’d played Donna Anna had perished.

I’ve never read a story quite like this. Am afraid it’s somewhat lost on me for, although I’ve seen a number of operas, I’ve never seen Don Giovanni. Had I, I’m not sure that my recollection would compliment the account given in the story.

I think of the historical event that is opera. The death of artistic mediums makes me sad, but the kind of idle sadness of not knowing and not appreciating. Tonedeaf, how could this “poem” (as the narrator once calls it) affect me?

My hyperbole is only partial.

What stories have I read besides Hoffman’s?