How many biographies of Goethe does a girl need in her library? The pre-#germanlitmonth rummage through the TBR revealed the answer to be 4! How did that happen? How indeed!
A more pressing question would be which to read for Goethe week. The Safranski was undoubtedly too long, and the two short ones looked far too serious (given everything else I’m reading this month). That leaves the fourth, which is narrated by Mephistopheles. Now that’s going to guarantee an irreverent look at the great man, and perhaps the unveiling of a few stories that you won’t find anywhere else ….
The premise is that Mephistopheles was assigned to – what shall we say – the seduction of Goethe’s soul, and the young precocious Johann Wolfgang, already “conceited as a peacock”, came under observation from the age of 5.
Goethe’s life is dramatised and illustrated in 7 chapters; covering his childhood in Frankfurt, his “wild” adolescence, the pre- and post-Italian years in Weimar, as well as the Italian trip that made him a man. It’s not a detailed biography by any means, but it is an entertaining one, focusing on details that interest a devil! Like the time, aged 15, he got involved in falsifying legal documents and kept himself out of trouble only by turning in the rest of the gang! (Did you know about that? Me, neither). Or his various problems with the ladies including the tortures of first love, his shameless behaviour with Lotte Buff (his best friend’s fiancée) who inspired The Sorrows of Young Werther, his puppy-dog devotion to Charlotte von Stein, his relationship and eventual marriage to Christiane Vulpius, and his final love, Ulrike von Levetzow, at the age of 74.
As satirical as the illustrations are, they are nevertheless informative. How do you think of Goethe? As the great polymath, the elderly statesman, the immortal standing side by side with his friend Schiller on a pedestal in front of the National Theater in Weimar?
I certainly never think of him as a bemused, inexperienced, young man, moving to Weimar at the age of 26, under the patronage of Duke Carl Augustus, to be bestowed with great administrative responsibilities. Nor do I think of Weimar (where I bought this book) as an almost bankrupt rural village. But this (almost certainly exaggerated) page brought home Goethe’s reality to me more immediately than words alone can.
There were two reasons why I wanted to incorporate a Goethe Week into this year’s #germanlitmonth. 1) To assuage the nagging guilt of having hosted a Schiller week in 2015, and 2) to celebrate 200 years of the West-Eastern Divan. Objective 1) will be met this week, objective 2) won’t. Like the Safranski biography, it’s too big a read for #germanlitmonth, and besides I want to read Hafiz’s Divan first. So in a nod to Goethe’s Divan, let me end with Moser’s illustration. It shows how contented Goethe was at the time he composed it with Marianne Willemer. Because home life at the end was anything but a happy time …
As for the battle for Goethe’s soul, you’ll have to read the book (in German) to discover whether Moser delivers a Faust Part 2 cop-out or not!