In the introduction to ‘The New Uncanny,’ Ra Page refers to Sigmund Freud’s seminal 1919 essay on the subject, and the eight irrational fears he defined as often deployed in such tales.
The eighth is quoted as ‘confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).’ Not that the whole setting, from the outset, is confused, but, more crucially, the ambiguous perception of the main character or narrator and its depiction. ‘The Sandman’ – used as Freud’s model – is easily Hoffmann’s most famous tale, having appeared as an actual character in everything from the opening of Roy Orbison’s 1963 hit single ‘In Dreams’ to a 1990s’ graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman.
A mother’s friendly deadline to her bed-wary young son to beware the eye-dust sprinkling Sandman by 9 pm each night gains credence with the simultaneous arrival of Coppelius; his father’s domineering ‘mechanician’ and spectacle-selling hawker. In hiding one night to discover his identity, the boy misinterprets the adults seemingly shared interest in mystical alchemy, played out in the front room. Scaring the boy, a lifelong pathological hatred of the figure is triggered, particularly after the boy’s father suddenly dies.
But - almost another century on - it’s clear something else is going on here.
The physical description of ‘Sandman’ Coppelius is rather less ambiguous than the tale. The ‘large heavy nose drawn down over the upper lip’ and the seemingly delighted overcharging to a subsequent customer, point to the stereotypical, contemporary sketch of the avaricious Jew.
Yet, you can’t help feeling the story is greater than this. Since the whole tale is based upon the varying prejudicial assumptions of those who come into contact with Coppelius, it can also be read as a satire on that very prejudice. Hoffmann himself is intriguingly wrought in R. J. Hollingdale’s introduction as an ‘anarchic humorist’ who, as a lawyer by day, shamelessly satirized those he’d been working with at night, getting himself, (despite or, perhaps, because of his contemporary literary success), into a lot of libellous trouble. Such Jekyll / Hyde duality surely makes him as much of a choice character for the graphic novel as The Sandman himself.
The rest of the book continues in the vein of characters either defying the narrators’ perceptions or justifying them in wholly unexpected ways, leaving each a victim psychologically scarred. .Hoffmann’s cynical wit pervades throughout, presaging that of American author Ambrose Bierce whom he most closely resembles. Of the other ‘Tales’ worth recommending are ‘Councillor Krespel,’ ‘Doge and Dogaressa’ and ‘The Choosing of the Bride.’ Each, in their entrances and exits, as madly Gothic as the next.
R.J. Hollingdale also translated this text. By his own admission, he edited for increased pace more in keeping with our generation than Hoffmann’s, which, if its classic age and status had previously put you off, I’d seriously reconsider.