E.T.A. Hoffmann's Description of a Berlin Marketplace


E.T.A. Hoffmann, self-portrait
 The window in E.T.A. Hoffmann's short story "My Cousin's Corner Window" is the dominant feature of a "small room with a low ceiling, high above the street"—in other words, a garret apartment. "That is the usual custom of writers and poets," writes Hoffmann. "What does the low ceiling matter? Imagination soars aloft and builds a high and cheerful dome that rises to the radiant blue sky."

The writer in question—the narrator's  cousin—is a once successful but now unhappy man who's been overcome by a mysterious paralysis of the limbs. Confined to his tiny room, he spends his happiest hours staring out of his corner window, which looks out, two days a week, on a bustling German marketplace, circa 1820.

For a Hoffmann story, "My Cousin's Corner Window" is very simply structured: the narrator pays a visit to his cousin and, sitting at the window with him, looking down into the marketplace, is given a lesson on how to really "see" things. Like Hoffmann himself, the cousin-writer is a Romantic who believes that true vision is less a function of the eyes than of the imagination.

Because the story is essentially an extended description of the marketplace, it's worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the classic form of that dying institution. What follows is just one brief scene, more food-centered than most of the little vignettes contained within the story, and concerning an eccentric of the sort that inevitably makes an appearance in any Hoffmann story. (The story is partly arranged as a dialogue. The cousin begins talking and, after the break, the narrator takes over.)

I've had my eye for some time now on an extremely puzzling figure: the man standing by the second, more distant pump, beside the cart on which a peasant woman is dispensing plum jam from a large barrel. First of all, dear cousin, do admire the woman's dexterity. Armed with a long wooden spoon, she first deals with the major purchases of quarter-pounds, half-pounds and whole pounds of jam, and then with lightning speed she throws a threepenny dollop to each of the greedy sweet-lovers who are holding out paper bags and sometimes even their fur caps to receive the jam, which they promptly devour with great enjoyment as a superior snack—the people's caviar! As I watch her dispensing the jam so skillfully by brandishing her spoon, I recall hearing in my childhood about a rich peasant's wedding conducted in such splendour that a delicious rice-pudding, coated with a thick crust of cinnamon, sugar, and cloves, was dispensed by means of a threshing-flail. Each of the honoured guests had only to open his mouth cheerfully to receive his portion, and so it was just like the Land of Cockayne. But, cousin, have you got your eye fixed on this man? 

[here, a description of the man's odd appearance, clothing, and accessories, which include an artist's paint box]
He's opening the lid of the box. The sun shines in, radiant reflections . . . The box is lined with metal. He is lifting his hat and making an almost reverent bow to the woman selling plum jam. What an original, expressive face. . . . He's giving the box to the woman on the cart; she immediately fills it with plum jam, and hands it back to him with a friendly nod. The man takes his leave with a second bow. He winds his way past a keg of herring. He pulls out a drawer from the box, puts in some salted almonds which he as purchased, and closes it again. A third drawer, I see, is intended for parsley and other vegetables. He now walks to and fro across the market-place with long, dignified strides, until he stops in front of a table richly spread with plucked poultry. Here, as always, he makes several deep bows before beginning to haggle. He talks volubly and at length to the woman, who listens with a particularly friendly expression. He puts the box cautiously down onto he ground and seizes two ducks, which he stuffs quite comfortably into the capacious pocket of his coat. Heavens! they're followed by a goose!
(trans. Ritchie Robertson)
A painting of the market square in Berlin around the same time that Hoffmann briefly lived there (and on which the market description in "My Cousin's Corner Window" is based):

Friedrich August Calau, Gendarmenmarkt, 1815 (ca. 1815)
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