Goethe wrote The Sufferings of Young Werther in 1774 and the book soon became a sensation, following Goethe throughout his career as emblematic of a romantic passion he came to distrust.
Now Stanley Corngold has brought out a fresh translation--a good one--and the book’s oddness, its power, its ecstasy, and over-the-top irrationality makes one ask, above all: What is this all about? Why is this novella so important?
I can’t help focusing on the moment in which the book was published. 1774: the majesty of kings was fading, likewise the power of the church. Western Europe was on the eve of a romantic moment when passions and outsized emotions, often reflected in or seen in wild natural settings, began to substitute the grandeur of individual subjectivity for the grandeur of institutional objectivity.
Love and jealousy unbounded run through every page of Werther. In a sense, he’s a self-indulgent, foolish young man who kills himself when he can’t have Lotte, who already was engaged to Albert when he met her. In another sense, however, he acquires an enviable depth of conviction and loyalty to his emotions.
At the critical moment in the action--before his suicide, that is--Werther embraces and kisses Lotte as he has longed to do. This is a confession on both sides. Obviously he was in love with her. He, she and Albert all knew it. Obviously he wasn’t returning to her home village again and again out of mere friendship. And obviously, Lotte bears some responsibility for enjoying the way in which he adored her. She pushes him away, but at least this much has come out between them: had things been different, she certainly would have welcomed his suit.
Europe at that time was on the eve of convulsions we may not have seen conclude. It’s hard to lay all the blame on romanticism, but time and again, the vertigo of living through periods of failing states and raging egos brought on revolution, war, and mindless sacrifice.
It’s in this sense that Goethe was ahead of his times. His young Werther, not all that impressive a young man, became a symbol of modernity. He was unbridled subjectivity. When his mood was such that the fields and valleys were beautiful, so it was. When his mood darkened, the fields and valleys darkened, too.
The novel expertly draws to a conclusion, terminating the epistolary nature of the narrative and resting in the hands of an unknown, unnamed “editor.” He does a fine job of stitching the action, more bits of letters, and different perspectives together.
What we have to imagine--and here comes the challenge to the historical imagination--is a readership that had never encountered a figure so rich with passion, self-contradiction, and self-destructiveness, at least not in the novel form.
It’s said, and I agree, that Goethe’s vigor comes more from his study of Shakespeare than Racine or Corneille. So we won’t suppose that Othello hadn’t registered on the European consciousness, but again, this was a book, a private experience, in a new age of reading, not the theatrical framework of Shakespeare’s London or Racine’s Paris, for that matter. As such, the subjective, the private, the intimate, comes to the fore. There’s no crowd around you when you read a book; you’re in the book alone; you’re in there with the tormented Werther. He oppresses you; you worry for him; you can see he’s being led on; you can see he doesn’t care...you can see that this kind of living won’t end well, not at all well.
The death scene and its aftermath are wonderful. They have just the right pace and remind me of the wrap-up at the end of Hamlet, in particular.
As a final note, I want to come back to the translation. One of the precepts Corngold followed was not to use any word that wasn’t in use in 1774. This hasn’t impaired the translation, although I am not sure what the connection is between German in 1774 and English in 1774. At one point, I was surprised to see the word “whoosh.” I haven’t checked the OED; undoubtedly Corngold has. But I highlight it to make a different point. This is the first time I’ve read Werther in English. The German is, in fact, full of analogs to the word “whoosh.” By this I meant at Goethe had a gift for writing a stormy, throaty, physical kind of German that whooshes through the eyes and ears. As Werther’s mood darkens, so does Goethe’s German: it becomes more muscular, ominous, and stormy.
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