AT THE END of Stanley Corngold’s introduction to this new translation of Goethe’s great novel of romantic longing, a passage from J.M. Coetzee’s Youth is adduced to prove an eighteenth-century German classic’s relevance:
Tired out, one Sunday afternoon, he folds his jacket into a pillow, stretches out on the greensward, and sinks into a sleep or half-sleep in which consciousness does not vanish but continues to hover. It is a state he has not known before: in his very blood he seems to feel the steady wheeling of the earth. The faraway cries of children, the birdsong, the whirr of instincts gather force and come together in a paean of joy. His heart swells. At last! He thinks. At last it has come, the moment of ecstatic unity with the All! Fearful that the moment will slip away, he tries to put a halt to the clatter of thought, tries simply to be a conduit for the great universal force that has no name.
The quote recalls Werther barreling toward his end. “Thus are the detractors of Werther’s perennial influence confuted,” Corngold snaps, sounding more like a literary pugilist than emeritus professor of German literature at Princeton.
Reading and rereading The Sufferings of Young Werther (scholars have translated the pain in the book’s title as Werther’s Sorrows, or Sufferings, or Passion and Death), I at first found Corngold’s Coetzee defense excessive. Milan Kundera, after all, called Goethe, “the central point of European culture.” Madame de Stael swooned over the writer she referred to as the soul of Germany. This heartbreaking, irritating, and occasionally funny semi-autobiographical epistolary novel about a young man’s unrequited love and tragic suicide should need no defense. Besides its virtuosity, and its influence, the novel is so psychologically shrewd and urgent that it could have been written yesterday.
But the more I thought about Corngold’s approach, the more I wondered whether he was right to make his case so strongly. I am not saying Werther needs to be re-reissued in a New York Review of Books classic edition or given its own roundtable at the CUNY Graduate Center or at Goethe House. But in America today, this book—Goethe in general—remains, even more than Shakespeare, under-read. (Corngold’s translation has not been reviewed, as far as I can tell.) There are many reasons why: centuries of hagiography surrounding Goethe; American literary nationalism; a distaste in the academy and outside it for anything written prior to last week.
Yes, Massanet based on opera on Werther, and yes, Thomas Carlyle lauded Goethe. Yes, genius philosophers and critics have been drawn to the writer since his lifetime, and mandarins and Germanophiles have lionized him. There is not an eminence in world literature who has not read him. But Werther is not widely taught in universities. And I meet a lot of writers from Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Columbia, and so on, and if they adore Goethe and Werther, they are keeping it secret. I have heard homages to Murakami and David Foster Wallace, to cool irony and knowingness, but on the subject of Werther’s hot subjectivity I have heard nothing. I have heard appreciations for multicultural memoirs full of angst, thrillers set in exotic locals, and self-referential post-modern novels, but nothing about this novel of a young romantic and his unrequited love.
A reluctance to embrace Werther itself is not news. Some of the first readers found the book immoral. Napoleon, who supposedly read it more than once, criticized Goethe for giving Werther two motives for killing himself, when one would have been enough in the logic of classical tragedy. Two decades ago, the scholar and biographer of the Romantic Era Richard Holmes wrote in the New York Review of Books in a review of volume one of Nicholas Boyle’s magisterial biography, Goethe: The Poet and the Age, “Goethe’s impact on the English-speaking audience has remained curiously indirect, and mediated through other forms.” (I’ll say: In the city where I live, the street named after the writer is pronounced Go-Thee.)
Goethe himself grew less than delighted about Werther over time. But even more of interest, late in his life, he intuited something about his literary fate when he made an insightful and moving remark to his friend Eckermann:
My work simply cannot be popular. Anyone who thinks it can be—and who tries to win popularity for it—is making a mistake. I haven’t written for people in general, people en masse—I’ve written for individuals—people who are looking for something that engages with their individuality (with what makes them not part of the crowd, with what makes them lonely) and whose mind tends in the same rough direction as mine.
So while it is shameful that Werther’s relevance has to be proven—actually it’s shameful that anyone has to use the word relevance to defend great works of literature at all—it is not surprising. The question is whether there is something new at work here—beyond a new translation coming out and the same claim being made—which brings Corngold to Coetzee.
Despite having influenced Mann, Kafka, and W.G. Sebald as well as Coetzee, Emerson, and others too numerous to list, Werther’s initial sensational reception is what many people with a casual knowledge of Goethe remember about it. When the book was published in 1774 in Leipzig, it catapulted Goethe to fame; at twenty-four, he became one of the world’s first celebrity writers. Parodies of the book were written, and products were sold: china with scenes from Werther painted on them; eau de Werther; the blue coat and yellow waistcoat that Werther wears in the novel. And a few young people may have shot themselves after reading Goethe’s book. Those tragedies, though possibly apocryphal, caused clergy to condemn the book, and the theological faculty at the University of Leipzig to ban it.
It is surprising to learn that the early criticism of Werther’s immorality seems to have clung to it over the years. Goethe based Sufferings on three things: his infatuation with a real woman named Lotte, his knowledge of an instance where a man named Carl Jerusalem committed suicide over an unrequited love, and his imagination. In our anxious campus culture, it’s easy to imagine Werther’s roots in the facts of a suicide plus the facts of young people supposedly killing themselves after reading it (even though scholars seem to think that many of these deaths were apocryphal) might make professors reluctant to order it from the bookstore. There’s even a phenomenon named after the supposed deaths that resulted from the book, the so-called Werther Effect—a.k.a copycat suicide.
Of course, the idea that Sufferings is best read as some sort of endorsement of suicide is no more accurate than the idea that it is written in an offhand style more appropriate to a diary. The former myth is shattered by the shockingly internal subjective portrait of Werther’s brain as he loses himself to love. The latter is ripped apart when, at the end of the book, Goethe steps outside Werther’s point of view and procedurally describes the suicide. The detail is horrifyingly clinical, even Chekhovian. It seems that Werther botches the job. He doesn’t kill himself altogether but lies on the floor all night paralyzed, bleeding, until his servant finds him the next morning. His brain is “extruded,” as Corngold’s translation gruesomely puts it. The doctor arrives and the two men move Werther to the bed; he lies there, “rasping” and twitching, until noon. If anything, Goethe seems to be presenting the opposite of a romantic point of view about killing oneself. Werther’s larger-than-life impulse has collapsed into garden variety death. The last line is, “no clergyman attended.”
Goethe lived for another sixty years and produced an enormously diverse body of work, including philosophical works, plays, a novel about marriage and love, Elective Affinities, a brilliant, amusing, and unproduceable version of Marlowe’s Faust, a travelogue about Italy, and his multi-volume series concerning the adventures of Wilhelm Meister. Nothing Goethe ever wrote after Sufferings depicted a hero who comes to believe that the only solution to not being loved is to off himself. Much of the rest of Goethe’s work is more psychologically ambiguous.
Unlike writers from previous centuries that we admire today, Goethe was no tormented Baudelairean. He was rich and happy and pursued other interests. He drew. He dabbled in optics. He ran a theater. He ingratiated himself at the Weimar court, where for a while he was in charge of roads. He was friends with Friedrich Schiller. He traveled. He married someone outside of his social class and had a child with her, at the same time conducting many love affairs. In his dotage he fell in love with a teenager, proposed, and was rebuffed. In other words, he led a rich and complicated life.
Goethe brilliantly tells the story of Werther in two parts. The first part, which begins in the spring and is over by the summer, is told through Werther’s ferocious and poignant letters to his friend Wilhelm, who never replies. Werther is happy; he reads Homer and meets a woman named Lotte; they go to a party, where a storm breaks out. Werther roams around the countryside. He shells peas and fries them in a pan, which makes him happy.
The second part, also epistolary, drags on for fourteen months. Werther is distracted and less happy. About halfway through part two, an “editor” takes over, shifting the time frame to beyond the grave. The editor quotes from fragments of the young man’s letters and also adds Lotte’s perspective so that the reader knows that she is both moved by Werther’s plight and aware of her own inability to love him as he wishes. The story ends on Christmas Day, when he shoots himself.
At one point Werther leaves the town where Lotte lives and goes to work in the court, which Goethe himself would later do. But unlike Goethe, who was able to charm royalty, Werther does not fit in. He crashes an aristocratic party and is asked to leave. Responding to this scene, Auden, in his introduction to the Elizabeth Mayer translation, calls Werther “a horrid little monster,” which, though harsh, captures the hero’s self-involvement. Werther is like the undergraduate with whom you do not want to be trapped in your office.
By now it should be clear that Sufferings is not a love story. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, where the forces preventing the lovers from being together are external—Shakespeare sets the families hating each other’s guts in opposition to the young peoples’ true love—Goethe is ambiguous about whether Lotte, who is engaged and then married, loves Werther. If she does love him, she is not going to run away with him. Whereas Juliet defies her family to be with her lover, Lotte teases Werther by showing him how she has trained a canary to fly from her lips to his, making the young man grumble that this is “an intimation of love’s delight.” Goethe does not give Lotte a speech anticipating carnal pleasures from the female point of view, as in Juliet’s “Gallop Apace” speech, where she complains, “I have bought the mansion of love but not possessed it and though I am sold, not yet enjoyed.” Lotte cares deeply about Werther and it is painful for her to ban him from her house—but she must do so to preserve her marriage. Doing so is also the thing that sends him into darkness.
Corngold’s translation is earthy and precise, with language belonging to a young man who is capable of both elation and despair. If the prose sometimes sounds hyperbolic, so does Werther, who is by turns silly, melancholy, and somber.
I mentioned that Goethe managed a theater for a while. He quit when one of the actresses, who also happened to be a mistress of the Duke of Weimar, insisted that a dog appear on stage with her. Goethe also developed a dazzling, though impractical philosophy of what the audience should look for: “The spectator should learn to believe that not every play is like a coat, which must be tailored precisely according to his own current needs,” Goethe acidly wrote. What he meant is that people should not try to make art conform to their shapes, to their prejudices—they should not seek to consume it. He first began to express that idea in The Sufferings of Young Werther, and it took his whole extraordinary career to fulfill. Corngold’s summoning Coetzee in his introduction draws me to try and apply Goethe’s warning to Werther: it is not like a coat!
Rachel Shteir’s most recent book, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, is forthcoming in paperback in June.