My daughter, who has just turned three, is obsessed with the ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ as only a very small child can be. For the past few months she has watched it practically every day (when she was ill, sometimes twice a day), and her current favourite version is the Royal Ballet production (with Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Iohna Loots as Clara and Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer). When I’m falling asleep, re-potting house plants or boiling the kettle, Tchaikovsky’s music swirls round my brain…
Of course, I became curious about the Hoffmann story on which the ballet is based (in a roundabout way: Alexandre Dumas wrote a version of it which is the actual basis of the ballet), and since I had just survived a rather gruelling part of my teacher-training course I clearly deserved rewarding with a new book or two. The Anthea Bell translation (published by Pushkin Press in one of their delightful little volumes along with another of Hoffmann’s stories, ‘The Strange Child’) arrived at exactly the right moment. For the last few weeks I’ve been in a state of inertia – I have two part-written posts languishing on my computer and no energy or inspiration to complete them, and I’m feeling anxious about my course without this anxiety translating into anything as useful as action. So, curling up with a story for which the word ‘charming’ must have been invented was precisely what was in order.
(Dagmar Berková, illustration for ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’, edition published in Prague, 1964; found here)
As with many fairy tales, there’s a lot of plot (although the characters are much more delineated than the characters tend to be in the Grimms’ folk tales) and part of the pleasure of the story is Hoffmann’s inventiveness so I won’t spoil it here by explaining much of what happens. One Christmas the three Stahlbaum children receive the present of a nutcracker doll from Godfather Drosselmeier, a councillor who can repair clocks and make amazing mechanical toys. Drosselmeier is a mysterious figure, both benevolent and slightly sinister, a manipulator perhaps of people as well as toys and, as the teller of the tale of Princess Pirlipat, a possible alter-ego for the narrator-Hoffmann who himself intrudes in the text.
(Maurice Sendak, ‘Drosselmeier’, illustration for Nutcracker, New York: Random House, 1984; found here)
Seven-year-old Marie immediately forms a strong bond with the Nutcracker:
You couldn’t have called him an imposing figure, for his rather long, straight torso was set on thin little legs, and his head seemed far too large. However, his elegant clothes made up for it, showing that he was a cultivated man of good taste. [...] Marie kept gazing at the dear little man, whom she had loved at first sight, and she saw what a kind face he had. His pale-green, slightly protuberant eyes expressed nothing but friendliness and goodwill. And the neat cotton-wool beard on his chin suited the little man very well, setting off the sweet smile of his bright-red mouth.
He is no ordinary Nutcracker, as Drosselmeier later tells her, and Marie is drawn into his struggle with the seven-headed Mouse King and his sad history. Hoffmann manages to write in a way which is both witty and apparently innocent, and this seems perfectly to capture the wonder and sensitivity of children, as well as the frustrations of their dealings with adults (who stupidly will not believe that the Nutcracker can come alive) and the nightmares of which they are capable. The sweetness of the story is balanced by the cruelty with which Mistress Mousie and her children are treated by Princess Pirlipat’s parents, the destruction of the little sugar people, the ingratitude of Pirlipat to Nutcracker and the horror of the abominable Mouse King. After the initial battle with the mouse army, the Mouse King torments Marie night after night, demanding the sacrifice of more and more of her toys as the price of the Nutcracker’s safety:
Oh how anxious poor Marie was that night! She felt something icy pattering up and down her arm, and something rough and disgusting touched her cheek, and there was a squealing and a squeaking in her ear – and she saw the terrible Mouse King sitting on her shoulder, with his seven pairs of blood-red jaws open and slobbering at her, and his teeth grinding and chattering. He hissed at the poor child, who was rigid with fear and horror, ‘Hiss, hiss, beware, beware... won’t go in the trap to feast in there – won’t be caught, not me, hiss hiss! I’ll have your picture books, miss, and your pretty dress too, or I’ll never leave you! Just so that you know, for Nutcracker must go, bitten in two he’ll be, hohoho, hee-hee! Squeak!’
Ugh! Imagine waking up to that!
(Artuš Scheiner, illustration for ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ in an edition published in 1924 in Prague; found here)Despite the scoffing of the rest of Marie’s family, it’s very clear that what happens to Marie is ‘real’, not a dream or a story she’s made up, or some sort of hallucination. Hoffmann believed that the Enlightenment represented an attack on the imagination, and his work champions other realities than those which are empirically verifiable, such as the worlds Marie discovers. He wrote the story in 1816 for Fritz and Marie, two of the children of his friend Julius Eduard Hitzig, and as well as naming two of his characters after these ‘real’ children he frequently addresses them directly:
As I was saying, the room was very well furnished, and you may believe me, because I don’t know whether you, my attentive little listener Marie – yes, you know the little Stahlbaum girl’s name is Marie too! – well, as I was going to say, I don’t know whether you too have a little doll’s sofa with flowered upholstery, several dear little chairs, a sweet tea table and above all a very nice, neat little bed where your most beautiful dolls can rest.
further blurring the lines between ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’, as well as giving the text a playful, chatty tone which perhaps nods to the writing-down of oral fairy tales by the Grimms and others. The playfulness as well as the horror and a streak of cruelty prevent the story from ever threatening to be saccharine, even when Marie visits the Land of Toys and marvels at it:
Everything seems to be alive, even the lights and the foil (which I suppose makes sense if you are visiting a world in which seemingly inanimate toys and sweets have a vital existence).
Soon the sweetest of scents wafted towards them from a wonderful little wood opening up on both sides. There was such a gleaming and a sparkling in the foliage that you could see gold and silver fruits hanging from brightly coloured stems, and the trunks and branches of the trees were adorned with ribbons and bunches of flowers, like happy brides and bridegrooms and their cheerful wedding guests. And when the scent of orange blossom wafted like a gentle breeze, the branches and leaves rustled, and thin, shiny strips of metal foil crinkled and crackled in the air, making a sound like cheerful music, while the sparkling little lights hopped and danced up and down.
This really is a wonderful story and I insist that every visitor to this blog read it by the end of the year – you owe it to yourselves, dear readers, and you will not be disappointed... (but do take the trouble to find Anthea Bell’s translation as it is obviously superior to other widely available versions).
(Gennady Spirin again, this time the picture was found here)