Mixed Nuts... On The Stage... And On The Shelf
Nutcracker By E.T.A. Hoffmann Illustrated by Maurice Sendak Crown Publishers, $19.95
RALPH MANNHEIM'S fresh translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Nutcracker with its Maurice Sendak illustrations is much more than a glitzy sugar and spice Christmas yarn it's a welcome return to textual accuracy. This season the perpetually smiling pecan masher's overly familiar ballet incarnation is finally stripped away to reveal the genuine handmade article from Germany.
Sendak would have one believe that the most exciting aspect of this literary event is the story of how Kent Stowell of the Pacific Northwest Ballet convinced a reluctant Sendak to design a new production of the ballet. The familiar stage version is not Hoffmann at all, but rather a hybrid based largely upon Alexander Dumas's bland synthesis of Hoffmann's novella. Sendax became interested in the Nutcracker, when he learned that Stowell intended to crack the old Dumas chestnut with Hoffmann's stronger Nutcracker. The Seattle production was a great success. The triumphant ballet complements the publication of this first adequate and wonderful translation.
Much is different about the new--though actually old--Nutcracker. Hoffmann's tale is at once a lavishly detailed children's story as fine as any Grim effort and a fascinating narrative reminiscent of a Pushkin tale.
Nutcracker is the story of twelve year old Marie (Clara in the ballet) the merry daughter of a wealthy German noble family. On Christmas eve Marie and her brother Fritz prepare to enter the parlor of their home where piles of gifts await them. They most eagerly anticipate the annual gift of their clockmaker Godfather Drosselmeir. Drosselmeir's elaborate present almost spoils the mood of the occasion as Fritz complains bitterly when he finds that he cannot enter the castle. Marie's eye however soon is distracted from Fritz to a small table a top which stands a beautiful little man a special gift to the children from their father. Soon everybody is admiring the little smiling man feeding him a steady stream of nuts. Fritz though feeds him the largest and hardest nuts which soon break the nutcracker's jaw. Marie is consoled only when her parents allow her to remain alone in the parlor caring for the injured nutcracker.
And here begins a series of stories within stories, which involve fierce battles heroic quests heartrending tragedies and glorious unions. The surreal elements in the story blur the distinction between the more realistic and fantastic stories within the larger framework.
HOFFMANN'S UNDERSTATED tone and his sense of detail make his storytelling effective. When Fritz sees his gifts he takes "two or three rather spectacular jumps in the air." Later before Marie walks through a hall close door into the land of the dolls, Hoffmann notes that. "I don't think any of you children would have hesitated for a moment to follow the honest good natured nutcracker who never had a wicked thought in all his life." Jumps for instance are not high they are rather spectacular. And he gently addresses his readers.
Hoffmann wants to be certain that we don't miss a thing. He accomplishes this with a restrained flourish. When Godfather Drosselmeir fixes the broken clock, "it came back to life and made everything happy by whirring and striking and singing merrily," Fritz receives a hobby horse gallops around the table a few times and "on dismounting he remarked that the beast was rather wild, but it didn't matter, he's break him in." As the Nutcracker's hussars battle the mice the dynamics of the struggle are special: the guns fire and "Marie saw sugar balls landing in the serried ranks of the mice, who were spattered with white powder which made them feel very sheepish." A battery of artillery firing jawbreakers does the most damage. And the mice stain the bright red jackets of the hussars by firing foul smelling pellets.
Hoffmann's lively imagination reflects a keen understanding of children and an ability to make this perception appeal to all readers Marie is his special creation and he makes us feel her pain as the clock is stabbed by the clockmaker's tools. Within this sugar-puff setting, we appreciate the somber purity and beauty that Hoffmann so prizes. Only a hopeless romantic could create a nutcracker who addresses his lady in "a little bell like voice: Dear sweet Marie. Protectress mine. Thou standest by me and I'll be thine." And within the bizarre tale of Marie's adventures, Hoffmann revels in the sweetness and sensitivity of kind and imaginative children. His careful touch in relating the wonders of things as majestic as first love is something akin to a perfectly crafted music boy issuing soft strains of Mozart.
Crown Press has produced a handsome edition of the new translation. A problem however with illustrating any great work is that the artist occasionally inflicts too much of his perception of the story upon the reader. Sometimes this is appreciated. Yet with a book like the Nutcracker, Illustrations are a dangerous business. Maurice Sendak is one of the finest creators of books for children. Many of the drawings accompanying the Nutcracker are the same drawings that functioned as the set for the recent ballet. Sendak also created more pictures for the book.
Some of Sendak's illustrations for Nutcracker particularly the smaller and more conventionally stylized portraits of soldiers crews horses and the array of other minute depictions are both lovely and appropriate. The large illustrations however betray much too much Where The Wild Things Are and threatened to distract from the text. They're fine if you are partial to Max's dreams, but they are not Hoffmann and the distractions is unwelcome. His contribution to the revival of the Hoffmann spirits of the Nutcracker cannot be underscored enough. Yet one who claims to hold the thoughts of children so dear should not constantly disrupt their vision of something so inspiring with his own wild rumpus.