As the final week of GLM V dawns, it’s time for me to join Poppy’s Novella November. I will devote the whole of this week to the form, and I suspect much of it to Pushkin Press, who publish a rather fine line in German novellas.
Let’s start with Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W and my squeals of delight when I saw that Pushkin were to publish a new translation earlier in the year. You bet I had pre-ordered it before I finished reading the Pushkin catalogue! I first read and enjoyed this novel during my year in Munich (1980-1981), when it was only 8 years old. Since then it has established itself as a modern East German classic and was christened “The Catcher in the GDR-Rye” by Die Zeit.
Which tells much about the protagonist, Edgar Wibeau. Young, disaffected, at odds with the petty rules of communist East Germany. The title, with its nod to Goethe’s classic, tells us more. He’s having a tough time in love, as in life, and it’s not going to end well. In fact, it doesn’t even begin well. The story starts with a series of obituaries. Edgar has been electrocuted while living in a Berlin summer house. The question is, given the Wertherian undertones, was it suicide?
The second surprise comes as soon as the story proper begins. The police are questioning Edgar’s estranged father and Edgar himself is commenting on the scene – taking exception to his father’s sanitised history of his son.
Whoah, stop right there! Bollocks I didn’t! I had plenty to do with girls, if you want to know the truth. Starting when I was fourteen.
Those are Edgar’s first words, and they set his tone for the piece: Plain speaking, irreverent and funny. No trace of Werther’s 18th century sentimentality about him, and he hasn’t run away full of angst and despair. There’s been an unfortunate accident, and he doesn’t want to face the consequences. Plus he is a bit sick of being heralded living proof that a child in a single-parent family can be raised successfully. At this point, he isn’t even acquainted with Werther. That happens when he finds a discarded copy of Goethe’s novel in the summer house. His critique?
It just wasn’t real guys .. And the style. Hearts and souls and joy and tears all over the shop. … The whole thing was made up of all these letters from this loon Werther to his mate back home. It was probably meant to seem super-original or spontaneous or realistic or something. That bloke that wrote it should have a read of Salinger. That’s real, guys!
The irony is that his experiences over the summer render him and Werther inseparable. To survive, he finds work as a decorator, and his relationships with his colleagues are fraught due to his inexperience …. and his cockiness. He soon takes to quoting Werther to everyone. He keeps in touch with his best friend WIlli through a series of cassettes. Each message includes a Wertherism attuned to his mood. When he falls in love with the caring but unobtainable Charlie, who like her C18th counterpart Charlotte, is engaged to another man, he finally experiences Werther’s heartache for himself.
The tapes that Edgar sends to Willi are used by his father to piece together his son’s story after his death. This earthly investigation is accompanied throughout by Edgar’s commentary, whose dry, ascerbic tone never falters, not even when the topic is his own death.
It was probably for the best. I probably wouldn’t have survived the failure of the …
No, I’m not giving that away. It involves a whole comical subplot involving the invention of something we take very much for granted today. That and the cassette tapes plant the novel firmly in the 1970s. Nevertheless Edgar’s emotional journey is no doubt being repeated today, and, while I don’t have much patience with today’s adolescents with attitude or even Goethe’s Werther, I did become fond of Edgar. I closed the book with profound sadness at a) a life cut short and b) a read that passed by so quickly. I would happily have continued reading for another 139 pages.
© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2015