Master Flea is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s last and worst novel. Rendered penniless by alcoholism and wracked with syphilis, the popular German fantasy author of the 1810s had moved to Berlin to return to his original occupation as a jurist. It was here that he started work on a fairy tale novel about a man and a flea who meet and have far-fetched adventures. At this time, Prince Metternich had imposed a zero-tolerance policy on suspected subversive and revolutionary activity, and the attendant bureaucratic circus tickled Hoffmann’s finely-tuned sense of the absurd. In fact, Hoffmann was in the thick of the action, finding himself involved in the administration trials. His superior was Metternich’s right-hand man, Karl Albert von Kamptz, whose evidence against the suspected revolutionaries was so hilariously tenuous that Hoffmann couldn’t resist the temptation to lift entire passages from von Kamptz’s documents and use them in his novel, inventing for this purpose a thinly-veiled von Kamptz-esque character on a similarly unfounded hunt for the kidnapper of a non-existent princess.
In his haste to get the novel in the shops by Christmas, Hoffmann posted the first half of the manuscript to his publisher in Frankfurt without making a copy for himself. Waiting in vain for the publisher to return the manuscript, Hoffmann decided to carry on writing, but without the first half for reference he couldn’t remember which plot points and characters he had or hadn’t introduced. The reason for the break in communication from his publisher soon became apparent. He had read the passages of farcical legal satire and had shopped Hoffmann to the authorities. Hoffmann was in trouble, but the disease took his life before the matter could come to trial. He had dictated the final chapter of the novel from his sickbed, and the novel was published posthumously with the offending passages removed.
The plot of the book makes very little sense, as the circumstances of its writing would lead one to expect. Characters are introduced with much fanfare only to disappear entirely, plotlines are resolved that never began, multiple characters share identical names, and if anything the omission of the von Kamptz episode helps. Yet it is an endlessly compelling work, full of ideas that belong more to the world of contemporary science fiction than the German Romantic post-fairy-tale tradition. The adventures in Master Flea deal with multiple universes, altered states of mind and the ethics of nanotechnology. The politics of the flea society are elaborately worked out and at one point, rival scientists armed with modified telescopes fight what is essentially a battle with laser guns. Perhaps its ideas were ahead of their time. Today, Hoffmann’s body of work is, on the whole, poorly regarded in the German literary canon, and Master Flea rarely warrants a mention in discussions beyond its significance in the history of literary censorship.
I stumbled upon an old edition of Master Flea in a library in 1998, and was sold on the title alone. The relentless flow of fantastical ideas and adventures begged to be turned into some eccentric animated film and as an aspiring animator myself I started sketching, planning and storyboarding. The project fell by the wayside as making an animated feature film single-handedly was perhaps a bit ambitious, even for me, but the passion to rehabilitate this maligned and forgotten work stayed with me, and when I formed the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra and seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop my ongoing collaboration with Belfast polymath lyricsmith Reggie Chamberlain-King, who rose to the challenge with gusto, sending lyrical interpretations of passages from the novel faster than I could set them to music.
Soon we had over twenty songs, some of which I started to incorporate into the MFMO’s live concerts where they were well-received. We started recording some of them, although with a view to putting some of them out on an EP or as a suite on an album. I was serving my notice in a progressive folk-rock band called Scarlet’s Well at the time and so one of the Master Flea songs (I Sleep Amongst The Tall, Tall Flowers) found its way onto the band’s penultimate album, Gatekeeper, in a kind of psychedelic boogie-woogie arrangement. It wasn’t until February 2011, when we decided to put on a theatrical adaptation of the novel as part of a season of writing by Danielle Ward and me at London’s Leicester Square Theatre, that I decided to go all the way and simply put out Master Flea as a concept album. The songs just wouldn’t fit into any other context.
To my delight the cast of the Leicester Square Theatre production were all happy to come into the studio to record their performances. Baron Gilvan (Sussex painter and Karaoke Circus judge) lent his lusty baritone to the Flea Tamer; Colin Hoult and Thom Tuck (who had both been in Gutted, the musical I scored for Danielle Ward) returned as Peregrine Tyss and George Pepusch respectively; Catharine Rogers (with whom I have enjoyed a working relationship since my 2005 accordion album The Excitement Is Over At Last) sang Princess Alina; Jeremy Limb (of sketch trio The Trap and, when we are lucky to nab him, occasional MFMO pianist) sang Kamptz. And to complete my dream team, the national treasure that is Kevin Eldon agreed to come in for a morning and render the linking narration between the songs in his cosy avuncular tones.
And we got it done in time for Christmas – I hope Hoffmann would be proud.
Martin White, December 2012