Thursday, 18 August 2011

There's this bloke...

There's this bloke, you may have heard of him, German writer, goes by the name of Goethe - yep, that's the man.  Anyway, this is about a few of his writing things, you know, books, I mean.  He's not a bad writer, you know...

Immense understatement aside, basically Goethe is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English literature, and nobody with more than a passing interest in reading German can really avoid picking up one of his works before long.  Last year, I read Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, a rollicking, emotion-charged epistolary novel, and this year I have added to that with a bit more prose (I'm leaving Faust, his most famous work, until I'm a bit more confident in my German - like never...), so here are a few brief, confused thoughts on some of his works.

Earlier this year, I spent a good two weeks tussling with a monster of a book, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship), the first Bildungsroman and an absolute classic of German literature.  Wilhelm Meister, the son of a middle-class trader, is earmarked to step into his father's shoes; however, he has a passion for the theatre - and women -, and this leads him to decide to break out on his own and follow his passion(s).  A naive, young man, Wilhelm makes a multitude of mistakes during his travels, but the sum of his experiences will make him into the successful man he is to later become.

In this (rather thick) book, Goethe is asking us to be patient towards the young, putting forward an idea of youth as a time for experimentation, a chance to follow your dreams (which was not as self-evident then as it can be now).  It's all very interesting, but it did drag a little, and there are times when you wish that Wilhelm would hurry up and reach maturity a little faster...  In short, it's not one for the casual reader, unless that casual reader is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature (which you may well be - I know my readers are extremely erudite).  Werther, while rather melodramatic and over-the-top at times, would be a much better introduction to the great man's work for most of us.

Not all of Goethe's prose is lengthy though, and our next example is fairly brief.  Novelle is a, well, novella, written according to what Goethe decided novellas should be (and when Goethe decided something, there were usually people with chisels and stone tablets on hand).  In this short piece of fiction, a single event is described, a noblewoman's ride out into the countryside of her domain and the effects of a fire which breaks out in a nearby town.  When things go wrong, the writer shows us two ways of dealing with the same problem, allegories for dealing with issues in real life.

While not wanting to disagree with Herr Goethe though (sorry, Herr von Goethe), I was less than impressed with this brief story.  It's the sort of work which is better appreciated by literary theorists than readers, twenty or thirty pages of pretty words and little action which stops very abruptly (and I did check to make sure my e-version was complete...).  Having said that, it is short though, so you won't have to devote a lot of time to finding out for yourself :)

Luckily, my final choice for today was far more satisfying than Novelle - when I actually managed to find the whole text.  Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, which could possibly be translated as Entertainments of German Emigrés, is an intriguing work, consisting of seven stories of varying length contained and augmented by a frame narrative, the start of which takes up a good chunk of the book.  A family of nobles is displaced by the advances of the invading French troops, and, after a political quarrel upsets the peace in their temporary home, they all decide to ignore the events of the outside world and get along in harmony by telling each other interesting stories (the Unterhaltungen of the title).

Some of the stories are very brief, just a page or two, while others are regular short-story length, and most of them are retellings of traditional stories, specially treated by Goethe for this collection.  There is a moral element to the collection as most of the stories turn on the behaviour of the main protagonist, a bad decision or a moral weakness leading to an interesting twist in the tale.  The exception among the seven, however, is the final tale, Das Märchen (The Fairytale), which is a wild, radically-imaginative story which screams 'allegory' at a hundred paces and seems almost out of place amongst its more sedate counterparts.  In fact, it is often removed from this collection and published together with Novelle (which it effortlessly overshadows) in a single book.  The Will-o'-the-Wisps, the kings, the giant, the snake, the ferryman, the hero...  yes, they are (intentionally) allegorical, but I won't tell you what it's all about - that's what the internet's for :)

And what was that about the whole text, I hear you cry in chorus?  Well, as I started my e-text, it quickly dawned upon me that there was something funny about what I was reading, as if it was built upon a premise I was unaware of.  A quick check on German Wikipedia confirmed that my version (and, as it later transpired, virtually every other e-version floating around) was a drastically-reduced effort, containing only three stories - and none of the frame story...  So, after quickly rejecting the option of giving up (it's all for you, dear reader!), I managed to somehow find a complete online text, and with a bit of copy and paste, alter format, convert to PDF, upload to Kindle thingamajiggery, I was able to enjoy the whole text.  Brilliant :)  And, what's better, it was well worth it ;)

So, to summarise today's lecture:
  Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre - Interesting, but long, and not one for the novice.
  Novelle - A bit over my head and not my favourite bit of G-Lit (to put it mildly).
  Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten - Very entertaining, and difficult to source electronically (even in German!).

That's all for today, but never fear: there'll be more German-language delights very soon :)