Sunday, 14 August 2016

THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by Goethe

I have been avoiding this brief novel for years. I am not really sure why. It just sounds sort of stupid. Famously, the novel was a huge success in 18th century Europe, igniting a fashion for yellow waistcoats, and setting off the first recorded wave of copycat suicides in history, which led to its ban in many countries. Death is I guess the ultimate compliment you can pay a work of art but somehow I just figured the story would annoy me.

And it did annoy me. I mean, who kills themselves because the woman they love marries someone else? JUST HAVE AN AFFAIR. Or: RUN AWAY TO TAHITI. Or: JUST MEET SOMEONE ELSE. Having said that, it is a remarkable novel for the period - anything before 1750 or so can be hard-going (CLARISSA, for example. I thought this lengthy early novel would be an interesting challenge. Challenging, it is. Interesting, not so much.). Yet having said this, I recommend this book. It carries an air of extraorindarily contemporary freshness. Take this:
All learned schoolmasters and educators agree that children do not know why they want what they want, but that adults too, as well as children, stagger around on this earth,like them not knowing whence they come or whither they go, pursue true goals just as little as they, and are just as completely governed by biscuits and cakes and birch rods: nobody will believe that, and yet it seems to me palpable.
I am ready to grant - for I know what you would say to this - that the happiest are those who like children live for the day, drag their dolls around, dressing and undressing them, slink with bated breath about the drawer where Mama keeps the sweets locked up and, when they finally get hold of what they want, gobble it down by the mouthful and cry, "More!" - those are happy creatures. Happy are those too who give sumptuous titles to their shabby occupations, perhaps even to their passions, recommending them to the human race as gigantic operations contributing to man's salvatin and welfare!"
There's much of this kind. Much of the sweetness of death that is weirdly compelling, even today. I'm not sure I'm ready to kill myself, but I can see how someone might be.

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