Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book 150, Germany: "The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Guess what? We're now in Western Europe! And with a blessedly short book, too!

For a while I'd been thinking of doing Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, as my Read the World... Proportionally! post recommended. But that's 576 pages, in three volumes in the UEA Library. 

Given that I'm cultivating my fiction writing now, how much better to go with a classic of the Romantic era, Goethe's big breakout novel, the one that turned him into an overnight celebrity and inspired a slew of copycat suicides in yellow pants and blue jackets... 

Seriously, some sociologists call it the Werther Effect. Trigger warnings may be necessary.

The story's presented as a profile of a dysfunctional young man, collated by an invisible narrator, consisting of his letters, arranged by date, accompanied by a final series of notes surrounding the circumstances of his suicide.

Werther himself is an upper-class young man who's just secured a position in court. He's also a poet, of a rather excitable nature - his opening sentences are, "How happy I am to be away! My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of Man!" And he's spending some time in the village of Garbenheim, revelling in the serenity of the rural surroundings, delighting in the simplicity of the peasants and their children, declaring that he needs no other books to stimulate his soul than Homer and Ossian.

But of course, he's invited to a stately home where he falls in love a pretty dark-haired girl named Lotte, although he's been expressly told not to, since she's already engaged. (Yeah, he's a bit of an idiot.)

The rest of the book is mostly him going nuts over this girl. It actually has a surprising amount in common with Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman. He goes around explaining his philosophy of Romanticism and the sensations to all the well-tempered Enlightenment folks around him, including Lotte's fiancé, Albert, whom I do not blame for lending him a set of pistols at the end of the story. (He'd seen Werther experimenting with the guns in suicidal contexts before, mind you.)

What I do wonder is how satirical a figure Werther is supposed to be. Is his justification of suicide a thought experiment on Goethe's behalf, or is he a genuine mouthpiece for Goethe's own thoughts? It's said that the novella was written really quickly - so was it written in the heat of passion, giving voice to emotions he had felt unable to express in polite society? None of which precludes a self-consciousness, an awareness that one is being absurd.

I've recently watched Kyle Kallgren's Brows Held High review of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, and he was pointing out that Shakespeare's success with R+J is that he manages to make the giddy-headedness of teenage passion feel genuine - not that he validates it, with all the bloodshed that ensues. And I guess that's what this book does.

And on a side note - how sensible is Lotte? One of the first things we see her do is calming everyone when a thunderstorm surrounds the house party: all the ladies are scared out of their wits, but she forces them to play a counting game, in which anyone who loses count has their ears boxed. Which is a weirdly violent way of establishing order, but it works, and she admits herself that she was one of the most frightened (did they not understand how thunderstorms work?).

Why on earth would a level-headed woman like that put up with Werther? At the end of the book, after his suicide, it's stated that there are fears for her life. Did she pick up hysteria from her gentleman friend? Though I suppose a lot of people would be nervous wrecks if someone they knew shot themselves in their house. Even now.

My fellow UEA coursemate Dani Redd assured me that this would be a good read, by the way. I guess it is - but more in a freak show kind of way. Romantics, man. They so crazy.

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Representative quote:
'Ah, you sensible people,' I cried, with a smile. 'Passions! Intoxication! Insanity! You are so calm and collected, so indifferent,  you respectable people, tut-tutting about drunkenness and holding unreasonable behaviour in contempt, passing by like the priest and thanking God like the Pharisee that you are not as other men. I have been intoxicated more than once, my passions have never been far off insanity, and I have no regrets: because I have come to realize, in my own way, that people have always felt a need to decry the extraordinary men who accomplish great things, things that seemed impossible, as intoxicated and insane. How intolerable it is in everyday life, too, to hear them say, the moment anyone does something remotely free or noble or out of the ordinary, "The fellow's drunk, he's off his head!" You should be ashamed of yourselves, you sensible people, you sages!'

Next book: Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven, from the Netherlands.

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