Translated from German by David Dollenmayer

The Marienbad Elegy (the second part of Goethe’s Trilogy of Passion) is a moving testament to the devastation of heartbreak. Goethe composed it at the age of 74, following the rejection of his offer of marriage. Ulrike von Levetzow was Goethe’s last great love. She was 19.

The age difference raises all kinds of questions. What kind of relationship was this? Was Goethe just being a silly old fool? Did the rejection come as a surprise? A Man In Love is Martin Walser’s assessment of the events surrounding what is considered to be Goethe’s best and most beautiful poem.

It’s 1821 and Goethe is spending the summer at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně in the Czech Republic). He is by this time a national treasure, actually almost a national monument because of his age. His novella, The Man of Fifty, in which the eponymous man is rejuvenated by the love of a much younger woman, has just been published to great acclaim. Goethe is about to experience something similar.

He meets the Levetzows, mother and her 3 daughters. Ulrike, then 17, is a serious girl, well educated and capable of verbally sparring with the great man. He spends time with them, then more with her. His infatuation begins, because those eyes of hers …. Two years later, they meet again. He hasn’t stopped thinking of her all this time. Now he detects a change in her demeanour, in the way those eyes look at him. The aches and pains of old age melt away; he has the energy for long walks, to attend balls. And the deal is sealed when they attend a fancy dress ball: she as Lotte, he as Werther. They have not consulted with each other. This is evidence that they are soulmates.

Or are they?

We don’t ever see inside Ulrike’s head or experience her feelings at being pursued by a famous old man. Everything we see of her is relayed through Goethe’s infatuated eyes. Is what he interprets as flirting, simply witty repartee? Her gracious tolerance of his attentions, just good manners? As for this Werther/Lotte “connection” – isn’t that a foreshadowing of failure? Because that relationship didn’t end well in The Sorrows of Young Werther. How could its author ignore that?

While Ulrike remains a mystery, Walser leaves nothing of Goethe’s inner life to guesswork. Shifting the viewpoint from 3rd person omniscient, to 3rd person indirect, to 1st person, each section gets closer to the inner core of the man until it becomes as intimate as The Marienbad Elegy itself, the poem which Goethe showed only to his closest friends, and which, remarkably, is included in full in both the original German and David Dollenmayer’s new translation.

I particularly appreciated Part Three which consists of heartfelt and heartrending letters Goethe wrote to Ulrike after his proposal had been refused. Regardless of whether Goethe had deluded himself, they show an earnest and sincere man, struggling with the grief of his loss and the unhappiness of his remaining days. They show the vulnerability I see in the Stieler portrait of 1828. (Again, it’s all in the eyes.) I love the conceit that these might have been the letters that Ulrike von Levetzow ordered to be destroyed as she lay on her death bed some 70 years later in 1899.