Oneworld Classics, 2011, 287 p including 2p Editor’s Preface, 1 p Notes, iv p Introduction and ii p Chronology. Translated from the German Die Elixiere des Teufels by Ronald Taylor.
This is not one of the Hoffman stories which Offenbach turned into an opera. It is, though, a very Gothic tale of temptation, mistaken identity, and encounters with the Devil. Francesco, brought up in a monastery with no idea of his ancestry experiences a sexual torment when he glimpses his music teacher’s sister partly dressed. Later he perceives a slight when seen kissing her discarded glove. To resist temptation he resolves to become a monk, taking the name Medardus, and develops a talent for preaching. The reception of his sermons, which bring in a growing audience, boosts his ego. He is, though, plagued by a vision of the painter of the portrait of St Anthony which hangs in the monastery. He is given access to a box which contains bottles left to St Anthony by the Devil. Of course he gives in to the temptation to drink from one, which makes him euphoric. Partly to remove him from the sin of pride but also from temptation, the Prior, Leonardus, sends him on an errand to Rome. There follows a series of fantastical adventures involving the woman Aurelia (who bears a remarkable resemblance to a portrait of Saint Rosalia,) Medardus’s ancestral family, his döppelganger and various deeds of evil on his part in which Hoffman seems to be saying that origins cannot be outrun and we are doomed to repeat the sins of our forebears. (Recognising and resisting the Devil might be an aid in avoiding that, though.) The plot is intricate, the lines of Medardus’s ancestry convoluted, incidents recur in slightly altered form. The story is presented to us at one remove as a found, or, rather, handed over manuscript (the prior who did so thought it should be burnt) written as a penance for Medardus’s sins.
Early on Leonardus tells Medardus that the pleasures of the world, “produce an indescribable disgust, a complete enervation, an insensibility to higher values, which spells the frustration of man’s spiritual life.” Well, maybe to the religious ascetic: but this acts as an indicator of a kind of detachment which Medardus exhibits in his relations with others and the world.
Pedant’s corner:- Cyrillus’ (Cyrillus’s,) Hermogenes’ (Hermogenes’s,) “I threw away the monk’s habit, which still contained the fateful knife, Victor’s dispatch case and the wicker bottle with the remainder of the Devil’s elixir,” (I read this to mean that the habit, knife, case and bottle had all been thrown away; but the last three are still in his possession a few pages later.) ‘“All the floral arrangements,” said my companion, the work of our beloved Princess,’ is missing a start quotation mark before “the work”, louis d’ors (I doubt this is the correct plural of louis d’or. Should it not be louises d’or? Compare “pieces of eight”. [Unless the plural of louis is simply louis in which case the coin’s plural should be louis d’or.]) Descendents (descendants,) imposter (impostor.)