Hoffmann practised law in order to support his ideal artistic life. His first ambition had been to paint but he soon fell in love with music (even changing one of his middle names to Amadeus in homage to Mozart). He devised several operas but by his thirties realised he would never be an exceptional composer and so took to writing fiction instead. His short, frightening stories — populated by maniacs, spectres and automata — were immensely popular. The protagonists often have split personalities – model citizens by day, murderers and thieves by night — and in them can be sensed the conflict between necessary bureaucratic lives and the wild flights of fancy possible in art.
Most of the tales in the collection of translations we are featuring, Hoffmann’s Strange Stories, first appeared in German in Nachtstücke [Night Pieces] published in 1816. Its most famous story concerns the Sandman, a benevolent character from European folklore who sprinkles magic sand into people’s eyes to help them get to sleep and to bring on good dreams (hence the sleepy dust in the corner of your eyes in the morning). In his telling, “Coppelius, the Sandman”, Hoffmann realises the dark potential lurking inside this friendly figure. Coppelius visits children who won’t go to sleep at night and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes, until they pop out. The wicked thief then flies to his iron nest on the Moon where his beaked children can feast on the bloody hoard.
In his classic essay “The Uncanny” Freud argued that this story was an example of the fear of castration. He quoted from it at length and wrote, “I would advise opponents of the psychoanalytical outlook against referring precisely to Hoffmann’s story The Sandman in order to support the view that the fear for one’s eyes is completely unrelated to the castration complex.”
Our favourite modern edition is The Sandman, translated by Christopher Moncrieff and published by Alma Classics, which includes Freud’s essay as an appendix. If you’d like to read a collection of his short stories, we recommend Tales of Hoffmann published by Penguin Classics.