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This short fiction (IIRC rather novelette length) I read in French, not very long ago (5-6 years ? "Before Covid" anyway) but I think it was a, much older, translation from German. It takes place in Germany, at l east partly.

The main character (not POV, story told by an "all-knowing narrator") is seen from his teens to a young adult. He is a very nervous person, with a lot of imagination.

Throughout the story, he believes he is persecuted by some mysterious "bogeyman". In fact there is really a very ugly and rather mean character. This character can indeed be considered as, at least indirectly, responsible for the death of the main character's father. The latter was a part-time alchemist, and the "bogeyman" was his mentor. But the death was more probably the effect of an accident than a deliberate murder by the mentor. Still, the son was convinced that the "bogeyman" had deliberately killed his father. Despite this death, the family was still rich enough to send the main character to a famous University, which was definitely in Germany. I forgot the name of the city, but I remember it was really a famous german University town. It is marginally possible that the home town of the character was in some other german-speaking country, but probably Germany itself.

In the University town, he meets a very ugly man, which he thinks is the "bogeyman" but the other claims to be someone else, an I Italian IIRC. But his name is an Italian sounding variant of the German name of the father's mentor, and the main character strongly suspects they are one and the same.

The professor whose classes the main character follows has a daughter he keeps hidden. But the main character happens to catch a glimpse of her and falls madly in love with her "at first sight". Even though he has a fiancé in his home town !

Some time later that professor throws a party to introduce his daughter to the local society. The main character dances almost the whole evening with her. She dances beautifully but almost does not talk and only by short, rote, sentences. Also her eyes are very fixed, with a very "empty" look.

The next days the other students ask him why he is so interested in what they claim is not a real person but an animated puppet who cannot even really talk. He is so besotted that he denies this, saying that if she does not talk much she does listen very well (well, of course !!!) and he claims she did communicate to him all the feelings she felt about what he told her, contrary to the evidence of the "empty" eyes that all the others have noted.

A this point my memories get a bit fuzzy.

If I am not too mistaken, he happens to see his professor, together with his mentor, the pseudo italian "bogeyman" (who is indeed the same as the father's mentor) manipulating puppets that looked exactly like people except that they lacked eyes completely, having holes where the eyes should be. So the "daughter" really was a puppet, but having received eyes she was animated.

Then he leaves the University town to go back to his home town. Whether it was the end of the academic year, or he fled before the end, I am not sure.

At some point, in his home town, he goes up to the top of a tower. There he has a madness crisis, he starts behaving in a totally crazy way. He does not even see his enemy the "bogeyman" getting behind him and throwing him down from the top of the tower.

RIP.

EDIT

Valorum asked for more details. Implicit sarcasm or not, something came back.

When he got back to his home town, he told everything to his fiancée who told him all came from his excessive imagination, did not resent him for his past infatuation for the girl (she did not believe it was a puppet) and confirmed she loved him.

Climbing to the top of the tower was intended as a romantic outing, which it was until he started to become mad, and the arrival of the "bogeyman.

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The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It was indeed originally a German story published in 1816. I read an English translation in the anthology New Light through old Windows.

Th student is Nathanael. The puppet is Olimpia and Nathanael's fiancé is Clara. The bad guy is Coppelius who reappears later in the story as Coppola. I'm struggling to find suitable quotes as you've already described the story in so much detail. At the end Nathanael has gone insane and tries to throw Clara from the top of the tower. Clara is saved and Nathanael leaps to his death.

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  • Don't bother. A look at the Wiki page you linked was enough to convince me.
    – Alfred
    Apr 18 at 9:56
  • Well, according to Wikipedia, I remembered better than you : Clara willingly went up the steeple (rather than the tower) as a romantic promenade with her husband (and her brother, but I had forgotten him). Nathanael became crazy only on the top. But you did mention something I had forgotten: when craziness hit him, he did try to throw Clara from the top. Another mistake of mine is I thought Coppelius had thrown Nathanael "physically", while in fact he had jumped to his fate. But I did remember that Coppelius was responsible, his very presence was the last straw.
    – Alfred
    Apr 18 at 10:16
  • BTW we crossed posting : I was not aware of your post when I edited mine.
    – Alfred
    Apr 18 at 10:20
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    Your memory is better than mine :-) Apr 18 at 10:24
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    The opera adaptation, act I of The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, is also excellent (at least if they cast a good enough dancer as Olimpia).
    – Buzz
    Apr 19 at 0:33

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