Literary breaks

The doll and the puppet

In the eyes of the world, I conform to what you write.”

By Lola Gruber 11 February 2020


© Jérémie Fischer

The doll and the puppet

In Hoffmann’s short story, The Sandman, the young Nathanael is fooled by a travelling optician and falls in love with a doll before sinking into madness. In Offenbach’s opera, Hoffmann assumes the form of an accursed poet and recounts his torments in love. He never ceases to fall under the spell of manipulated women... In a masterly monologue, Lola Gruber gives voice to Coppelius and reveals his secret, he the sandman with multiple faces who conforms to the poet’s projections. Are not the characters in a book always the fruit of the author’s imagination? Lola Gruber breathes new life into the fantastic tale and probes the very essence of the alchemy of language.

Do as you please, Hoffmann ! Use me as you see fit. Give me the name of Coppelius for example. Make me into a buffoon, an evil genius, a windbag. Or better still, a swindler, a conman, a Jew. Pay yourself with words for that it seems is how you make a living. Invent ! After all, you’re the poet. Don’t worry, whatever name you give me, whatever face you make forme, it won’t change anything between us. I’ll be there. I always have been.

As for the rest, only reveal what suits us. Act as if I happened to be there by chance, reveal nothing about our long acquaintance. Present a different story for the eyes of the world. Never mind the eyes of the world, I hold them in my hand as well you know. It’s better to leave the world in its night. Concern yourself with their ears instead. Tell them what they want to hear : that one night, you fell in love with a clockwork doll and that everyone is still laughing about it.

Point out that it’s not your fault, but mine. Serve them up the white lie that a buffoon, by the name of Coppelius, sold you a pair glasses which made you take a sow’s ear for a silk purse, a doll for a passion. He warned you about those glasses, but you didn’t want to believe it when he said : “Each of these lenses has a soul which colours, transforms, and brings objects to life or makes them wither on the vine.” But alas, that tawdry lorgnette ended up broken like all the rest.

To rouse their sympathy, tell them a little more of your misfortune : explain how you confused the beating heart of a woman with a clockwork automaton; that her song was nothing more than a perforated card passing through a set of wheels, and that your pure love was deceived. Until the glasses I sold you finally fell from your eyes.

Conceal nothing of what follows—you will have to admit to making a fool of yourself. You will recount how the maws of the sycophants, still full of the victuals that had just been served them, gaped in the face of your imbecilic swooning for just as imbecilic a creature; a doll or worse, a robot of my making. (Stress the fact that it was I who made her eyes ; it is not amere detail). Confess, too, that the doll, Olympia, broke not as a heart breaks but as a mirror shatters : A fine layer of silver on glass— they say it brings bad luck... But what is that worth ? Not much.

Yes, they made fun of you. And then ? The laughter was lost amid the champagne bubbles,belches and hiccups: It was all nothing, until the migraine the next day. And of your tender inebriation, your galloping waltz, and your transports of joy, nothing remained except for that cast-off costume —as ragged and as empty as the discarded party glasses— that and the rumours, and the idle gossip, or as the Italians say, “un petegolezzo”.

Of course, it is painful to see one’s love reduced to that. But it is not too high a price to pay. By becoming their laughing-stock, you get away with a great deal. Between you and me,

there’s nothing to laugh about. Because the real robot is none other than yourself. Admit it.

Or whisper it, if you prefer. You know that other than me, no one listens to you.

No ? You clearly want to lose everything. Because, my dear poet, if you confess nothing, what will your poetry be worth ? Well, must I say it for you ? Since the beginning, it hasn't been you that acts but me. Finally acknowledge it, it’s high time. Like sand, so much time has passed,since that first night—you were so small and not yet a poet.

Turn back the hourglass and travel back to the first night and all the ones that followed. All the nights when, terrified, you waited for me. Terrified, and yet you waited. “Here comes the sandman”, your mother would say, and you would tremble. “Quickly, go to bed, children”, said your mother and your nanny, “Quickly, go to bed, he’s coming, he throws handfuls of sand in the eyes of children, then he puts them in a sack and carries them off to the moon to serve as food for his own little ones.” She was misinformed, your mother: I have neither descendants nor forbears. It is your eyes alone that I make sparkle. It is you who I feed, and you have always swallowed everything whole.

There were many things your mother didn’t know, but she did know how to fear. So, each night she warned you: “Beware the sandman, my son.” And each night, you waited for him, for me, who would ultimately arrive, drawn to the sleepless child, eyes wide open sitting on his bed, yet soon dazzled by a handful of sand. Everyone already knows that I first rip out the children’s eyeballs. I remove their bloody pupils from their heads—where do you think I got my wonderful collection of eyes from ? And when you closed your eyes again, you would still keep waiting for me until you fell asleep each night. The Sandman going to come, you thought ; and in your terror, you so feared me that you no longer knew whether you were chasing me away or calling me to you. The less you see me the more you imagine me, yet even in a dream, you never manage to grasp me. My face of sand flows away and dissipates until it becomes a vast lunar plain.

By virtue of not seeing me, you have given me many faces. I didn’t want them, but you gave them to me. The old lawyer with the bony, hirsute fists, that was me ; the peddler of second-hand barometers, that was me too. The eyeglass seller, me again; the Piedmontese mechanic, me as well. In the eyes of the world, I conform to what you write. What do the

eyes of the world matter to me, since I hold them in my hands. If you prefer, I could easily pose as the peddler of barometers, thermometers, and hygrometers. But it is only to indulge you that I don these costumes, wear these masks and act out these roles. I have absolutely no need to do so. A face appears and disappears like a fleeting reflection in a mirror. Just as eyes are hidden in the bedrooms of children. I thought you understood that.

Do you wish to win acclaim by supplementing the stories of your loves ? To tell what happened to you in Munich, in Venice, and what will happen to you again ? Do not mix in magic. You have made me an alchemist, but it’s not true. I do not change dust into gold. Ashes remain ashes and sand remains sand for all eternity.

Yes, it’s unfortunate, I can offer your momentum only the distance it can cover. So, a simple lorgnette is enough—you put it over your missing eye, and each time, you think you are discovering the moon, but you are just looking at the lens of the eyepiece which over time I have polished and perfected.

Because, from the start, I’ve had to do everything. The poet’s love needs an object, so eachtime, I take care of the bric-a-brac. I have made many discoveries : Giulietta in Venice, Antonia in Munich, Stella...I know how to pick the ones you need : asleep, motionless, two heavy eyelids tightly closed, a desert scattered over each one by my hand. Lunar surfaces which pine for their first explorer. It is that eternal landscape you gazed upon, once more without recognising it, before you exclaimed : Olympia !

In Venice, Munich or elsewhere, I alone choose them so that you believe you find them. A doll, a woman... for you, they basically are all alike. Your love is more blind than everyone else’s. But do you really miss those two little orbs I snatched from you in the night when you were a child ?

With Olympia as with all of them ; from Antonia before hand to Giulietta afterwards, you were completely in the dark. And once again, dear poet, on my signal, you got hot and bothered for a shadow; for an obscure doll. I purposely put her in your line of sight—pale as a blank canvas and yet indistinct, submissive, inert, and immobile. One glance through the window and that was enough for you. You serenaded that scrap-iron creature with the refrain “Let the flames of my passion flood you with the light of day”. All the same, what perspicacity from a man so bedazzled ! Deep down, you saw that there was nothing to see. Or rather, you did not sense, as animals would sense, any warmth emanating from the other side of that window. There was nothing alive except for the locus of your own ardour, your old expectations had become her own, behind a curtain, in the darkness.

Olympia, I only partially activated her. Behind those articulating eyelids, I placed two eyes. It was a nice addition, but it wasn’t enough. The poor doll couldn’t speak. And you, my poet, you know the value of words. You say I’m miserly, and miserly, no doubt I am. Miserly, and if the truth be known, circumspect. One word, I thought ; just one very small word would suffice—because, believe me, speech worried me a little. I feared the consequences. Put yourself in my shoes for once : the springs, the bolts and the cogs, all pass. But words are not made of the same metal. Words are more serious matters than vellum or turbines. They sink into stone and end up etched in the bark of trees. It only takes one. It starts with a word. Afterwards, it becomes flesh. Like all of us, you know the way it is. At least this poor thing,your chimera, your poetic chimera, could be satisfied with just one word, and you don’t have to be a poet to choose the right one. You pick the shortest, most definitive one, the initiator of everything... and for a lover the only one that matters. It was your rapture, it was your curse... and hers...Poor, wretched Olympia : All she could ever say was yes. “Yes”, and that was enough for you. That’s how you like it.

Do you want me to tell everyone ? Our doll is mounted on springs, but the automaton is you. You’re the one who follows and performs. Each time you fall in love, I’m the one who engineers it. I assure you, it’s much simpler than making a doll. You only ever found lovewhere I wanted you to. Puppet ! Impulsive lover ! Machine-like in your emotions, mechanical even in your passions. A single face for all your loves, my dear poet. I produce that face, you baptise it as you see fit : Antonia, Giulietta, Stella... You blind, stupid poet, it’s always the same face and I’m the one who makes the eyes. Like a treasure trove of marbles, I have hundreds in my pocket—agates, siberites, nuggets, all those eyes open in the night and still covered in a fine layer of sand. And I use them to make ever the same chimera with a woman's face, whom they sometimes say is dead or who was never alive.

And here you are now, imploring your great gods, your friend, or even your muse... But, my dear friend, your muse will never be as loyal to you as I am! Muses have other things to do. They meander, flit about, and, you can count on the fact there’s nothing they like more than making their absence felt. But you have me. Don’t listen to those who tell you never to give up the prey for the shadow—nothing in this world is more constant than the shadow that clings to us. All those childhood nights spent waiting for me, aren’t you now afraid that I might leave ? Have no fear, I’ll always be here. And I will faithfully perform my role night after night. Lover after lover. You will wait for me and I will come. Each night. You will not see me.

I will provide you with an object, and with your eyes closed, you will see me as the craftsmanof all things measurable: barometers, thermometers, hygrometers...And your love, how is it measured ? With whom? It’s so easy to predict. But we will play the game and together we will raise the heavy red theatre curtain. Always the same face... I promise, I will only ever change the eyes. Chinese, spider, siberites – Each time, I will make her again as new and as strange as she is familiar. And like every evening, after having put sand in your eyes, I will continue my watch. You will still love, I will take care of it, you will still wake up and I will take care of it. You will suffer again, and I will take the necessary measures. 

Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach
Under the baton of Philippe Jordan, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Ermonela Jaho, Kate Aldrich, Yann Beuron and Ramón Vargas , interpret the legendary airs of this work whose brilliant mystery will continue to dazzle opera houses for countless years to come.

Subscribe to the magazine

Sign up to receive news from
Octave Magazine by email.


Back to top