Language requirements: English B2, German A2.
What place might the practice of literary realism find within the city? What relationship, in turn, might realism and the fantastic have first with each other, and second with the notion of place? How, specifically, does E. T. A. Hoffmann — one of the most influential German writers of the nineteenth century — arrive in his own city, Berlin, through his idiosyncratic poetological praxis?
Hoffmann reached the peak of his writerly prowess in Berlin. The aim of this course will be to uncover the hidden, fantastic Berlin that he knew, whilst sketching an account of what we might call Hoffmann’s ‘realism’ in the process. It aims to serve both as an introduction to Hoffmann and as an enquiry into the kind of writing that might enable us to reproduce the character and secrets of a city. As such, we will begin to study Hoffmann’s alignment with the literary and cultural currents of his own time, and to question his conventional reputation as Gothic Romanticist. Above all, we will begin to ‘read’ the city of Berlin through the eyes and words of Hoffmann.
We will take our lead from Walter Benjamin’s essays and radio pieces on Hoffmann and his ‘dämonische[s] Berlin’ as we follow through a series of readings of his literary and artistic works. The sessions which form the heart of the course will focus on close readings of Hoffmann’s major Berlin tales, and the swarms of urban ghosts, demons and Doppelgänger at work within them. Questions of mockery and imitation as well as of revenants and ghosts, of split identities and paranoid fantasies, come to life in these urban tales. One of our main lines of enquiry will be what these motifs tell us about mimetic realism, as a re-production or ‘doubling’ of objects, people and experiences. We will also devote time to thinking about how literary life flourishes in the city, reading about Hoffmann’s own close literary circle and its fictionalised double in Die Serapionsbrüder. The seminar embraces an interdisciplinary approach, interspersing readings of Hoffmann’s texts with sessions devoted to his visual artworks, many of which are Berlin-focused, with a view to asking how we might begin to ‘read’ these pictures alongside his writings. We will also devote a session to a ‘Hoffmann-tour’ of Berlin, aiming to ‘read’ the city through his eyes and words by returning to significant places and structures from his time in Berlin, including his Stammlokal, and to the settings from the tales we have read together.
The course will end with a gesture towards Hoffmann’s influence on other ‘demonic’ literary cities and their writers. We will look at extracts of texts by Balzac, Baudelaire and Poe on Paris, and by Dickens on London, looking for the ‘Hoffmannesque’ influence on their city descriptions. Students will have the opportunity to propose their own readings for these sessions, as we consider the importance of Hoffmann as a figure who influenced not just the face of literature, but the face of the literary city.
COURSE REQUIREMENTS AND EXPECTATIONS
The course discussions will be conducted primarily in English. A high standard of academic English will be requisite. Translations into English of all texts will be provided. However, since we are aiming for a close and authentic engagement with Hoffmann’s tales, reading the texts in the original German where possible is encouraged. Students are free also to read our French texts in French. Our class discussions, accordingly, will try as much as possible to bring Hoffmann’s original language into play. Work for assessment may be submitted in English or German.
Course materials, including English translations of Hoffmann’s texts, will be uploaded in moodle before the session. Students are encouraged to read widely for themselves — completing at the very minimum the requisite primary reading for each week – and to bring their own additional materials to class. Active participation in the sessions is an important part of this course, and will accordingly form a percentage of the final grade. Participation can take the form of offering a short (10-15 minute) Referat on one of the set texts, or simply of consistent active engagement in class discussion. Referate should serve as brief introductions to the text in question and as a stimulus for wider class discussion, not simply as a resumé of the material. They should ask pertinent questions and begin to sketch the framework of our discussion.
For the final assessment, students are required to submit a piece of work that reflects on and responds to what they have learned and read during our sessions. This can take the form of an academic essay or a creative written response of their choosing to be agreed with me in good time before submission. According to Hoffmann’s own playful, non-conventional attitude to writing, the scope for this piece is flexible and diverse forms and ideas — such as creative essays or fictional pieces of prose — will be encouraged. All written work should be rigorous and should in some way explicitly relate to the topics we have covered in our sessions. Students will present a précis of their work to the rest of the class in the final two sessions and be prepared to answer questions on it.