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Books by Australian Author Liane Moriarty

18 Jun

I just copied a review of a book by Liane Moriarty and published it here:

https://auntyuta.com/2017/06/18/what-alice-forgot-by-liane-moriarty/

In the review it was said that the novel “What Alice Forgot” is going to be made into a movie to be released in 2017. I have already read this novel and I do hope that I soon may be able to see this movie, when it comes out this year.

Apparently there are also some other books by Liane Moriarty that might be made into movies:

https://www.popsugar.com.au/celebrity/What-Other-Liane-Moriarty-Books-Being-Made-Movies-43410408#photo-43410406

So far the only other book by Liane Moriarty that I’ve read is:

Truly Madly Guilty

The following is taken from a review about Truly Madly Guilty:

“IF ONLY THEY’D SAID NO…

Clementine is haunted by regret. It was just a barbeque. They didn’t even know their hosts that well, they were friends of friends. They could so easily have said no.

But she and her husband Sam said yes, and now they can never change what they did and didn’t do that Sunday afternoon.

Six responsible adults. Three cute kids. One playful dog. It’s an ordinary weekend in the suburbs. What could possibly go wrong?

Marriage, sex, parenthood and friendship: Liane Moriarty takes these elements of our lives and shows us how guilt can expose the fault lines in any relationship, and it is not until we appreciate the fragility of life that we can truly value what we have.”

You find the review here:

https://www.qbd.com.au/truly-madly-guilty/liane-moriarty/9781925481396/

In both books by Liane Moriarty that I have read so far, Liane depicts people that live in contemporary Sydney. What she writes about the characters’ Australian lifestyle seems very true to me. It makes me think about the way we live and what our priorities are. I am quite a bit older now than most of Liane’s characters. And I am a migrant to Australia who settled here nearly sixty years ago. As migrants my family had overall somewhat different lifestyle experiences from Liane’s characters on the North shore of Sydney. Still, a lot of the problems she describes in her books, problems that families may come up with, seem to be universal. I think the author herself is a young married woman with two young children. She would know first hand how demanding but also joyful marriage and the raising of young children usually is.  Often in a young marriage there is a lack of time to do the things together that bind together. And all too often the stresses of modern life may lead to divorce and great upheaval for the children.

 

 

Books I read in June 2017

4 Jun

Fletcher, John, 1934- Dust of the land

March, Mia The Meryl Streep movie club

Coelho, Paulo Adultery

The library sent me an email to remind me that I have to return the above three books by Thursday, the 8th of June 2017.

They say:

” Please return them, by the due date, or renew at: . . . . ”

And there is the URL of the Wollongong Library as well as their phone number. That means it is possible to renew by email or phone.  I can renew the books if I have not finished reading them by next Thursday.

It is a reminder only as follows:

“04 Jun 2017

Dear borrower,
Reminder Only:Your items are due soon”

 

The reminder was sent off 4 days early, which is quite helpful in case I want to renew.

To me these emails are a good record to see what sort of books I have been borrowing. All the above books happen to be large print books. I find large print is so much easier for me to read. When I read something on the computer,  I usually enlarge the print. To read small print, tends to tire my eyes.

The novel “Dust of the Land” by John Fletcher I did borrow for a second time, since I  very much liked reading it when I borrowed it the first time. I was happy to read it once more! It is an epic novel set in Australia. I am always on the lookout for good Australian novels.

I find Paulo Coelho is a very good author. I like his style of writing very much. The main character in the novel “Adultery” is a married woman,  who is going through a major depression. This is psychologically very interesting and written in a very sensitive way.

Mia March’es novel shows me something about contemporary life in America. For instance how a certain family deals with a tragic car accident,  cancer treatment, single motherhood and adultery. It is all there. And some interesting discussions about Meryl Streep movies!

 

And of course I recently read “The Dry” by Jane Harper as mentioned in this post:

https://auntyuta.com/2017/05/30/utas-may-2017-diary-2/

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

12 Mar

The following is a copy of one of my blogs from October 2014. You can find the blog with the above title here:

https://auntyuta.com/2014/10/11/george-orwells-nineteen-eighty-four/

I still did not finish reading the whole novel on ‘kindle’. Today I thought about it that we once watched a film version of the book. I wanted to see, whether wikipedia said something about the movie. I did find quite a bit about different movie versions. I also found the following entry about the book in wikipedia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nations_of_Nineteen_Eighty-Four#Airstrip_One

Here is a bit of what it says on the above page of wikipedia:

Ambiguity
Almost all of the information about the world beyond London is given to the reader through government or Party sources, which by the very premise of the novel are unreliable. Specifically, in one episode Julia brings up the idea that the war is fictional and that the rocket bombs falling from time to time on London are fired by the government of Oceania itself, in order to maintain the war atmosphere among the population (better known as a false flag operation). The protagonists have no means of proving or disproving this theory. However, during preparations for Hate Week, rocket bombs fell at an increasing rate, hitting places such as playgrounds and crowded theatres, causing mass casualties and increased hysteria and hatred for the party’s enemies. War is also a convenient pretext for maintaining a huge military–industrial complex in which the state is committed to developing and acquiring large and expensive weapons systems which almost immediately become obsolete and require replacement.
Because of this ambiguity, it is entirely possible that the geopolitical situation described in Goldstein’s book is entirely fictitious; perhaps The Party controls the whole world, or perhaps its power is limited to just Great Britain as a lone and desperate rogue nation using fanaticism and hatred of the outside world to compensate for political impotence. It’s also possible that a genuine resistance movement exists, or that Oceania is indeed under attack by outside forces.”

I say all this sounds pretty ambiguous. But what I remember about the novel and the film and what I’ve re-read this far this is the sort of picture I do get from this novel. All in all some pretty scary ideas about an imagined world. Sometimes these things do sound a little bit too true for comfort!

With the following link you can find a piece about what our Orwellian destiny might b e written in the AIM Network by By Ad astra:

https://theaimn.com/twenty-twenty-four-orwellian-destiny/

Twenty Twenty-Four – our Orwellian destiny?

 

Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

12 Feb

 

I googled today some reviews of this book.
The links to the two reviews at the top I publish to show how much two reviews about the same book can actually differ.

My thoughts on reading this book:

I am now more than halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity”.
I would agree that for me this book is not all that easy one to read. There are pages with a lot of information which at times I find rather difficult to digest and remember. However I can sense that all the information provided shows a lot about our modern world and how people in it are affected. Other sections in the book are very easy to read and show, how complicated ordinary lives can become in our modern world. I like being able to read parts of the book for a few hours in one go. Making it possible to read for an extended time, the book seems to be getting more and more interesting. I can’t wait to find out more about its characters!

An Amazon Book: Ritual and its Consequences

21 May

http://www.amazon.com/Ritual-Its-Consequences-Limits-Sincerity/dp/0195336011/ref=la_B001KHQ65U_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1463773318&sr=1-2

Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity 1st Edition
by Adam B. Seligman (Author), Robert P. Weller (Author), Michael J. Puett (Author), Simon (Author)

Going to the above link I found this interesting write-up:

“This pioneering, interdisciplinary work shows how rituals allow us to live in a perennially imperfect world. Drawing on a variety of cultural settings, the authors utilize psychoanalytic and anthropological perspectives to describe how ritual–like play–creates “as if” worlds, rooted in the imaginative capacity of the human mind to create a subjunctive universe. The ability to cross between imagined worlds is central to the human capacity for empathy. Ritual, they claim, defines the boundaries of these imagined worlds, including those of empathy and other realms of human creativity, such as music, architecture and literature.

The authors juxtapose this ritual orientation to a “sincere” search for unity and wholeness. The sincere world sees fragmentation and incoherence as signs of inauthenticity that must be overcome. Our modern world has accepted the sincere viewpoint at the expense of ritual, dismissing ritual as mere convention. In response, the authors show how the conventions of ritual allow us to live together in a broken world. Ritual is work, endless work. But it is among the most important things that we humans do.”

Here are some more editorial Reviews:

“In this whirligig world we do not know what to do apart from the done thing. Ritual and courtesy are, in contemporary parlance, suspect activities surplus to requirements. Like conformity, ritual attracts the adjectives ‘mere,’ ‘meaningless,’ ‘external,’ ’empty’ and ‘inauthentic.’ This book brilliantly expounds the creative potential and the necessity of ritual, and exposes the destructive possibilities of sincerity. It could be seen as part of a Jewish riposte to Christianity or a Confucian one to the Enlightenment, but Catholics and members of enclosed orders will like it too. Everybody should read it, especially American Protestants and post-Protestant secularists who suffer more than most from the ills of sincerity.” –David Martin, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics

“In this whirligig world we do not know what to do apart from the done thing. Ritual and courtesy are, in contemporary parlance, suspect activities surplus to requirements. Like conformity, ritual attracts the adjectives ‘mere,’ ‘meaningless,’ ‘external,’ ’empty’ and ‘inauthentic.’ This book brilliantly expounds the creative potential and the necessity of ritual, and exposes the destructive possibilities of sincerity. It could be seen as part of a Jewish riposte to Christianity or a Confucian one to the Enlightenment, but Catholics and members of enclosed orders will like it too. Everybody should read it, especially American Protestants and post-Protestant secularists who suffer more than most from the ills of sincerity.” –David Martin, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics

“An enormously important and paradigm-changing book. The audacity of its scope is refreshing–a turn to grand theory in an academic culture whose trend is to say more and more and less and less.”Common Knowledge

“…A new, interesting, and very fruitful approach towards understanding and using the concept of ‘ritual.'”–Religion

About the Authors
Adam B. Seligman is Professor of Religion and Research Associate at the Institute for Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. Robert P. Weller is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Research Associate at the Institute for Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. Michael J. Puett is Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University. Bennett Simon is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Training and Supervising Analyst at Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute

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Adam B. Seligman

The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Michael Puett

History and Presence
Robert A. Orsi

Uta’s Diary, Tuesday, 12th April 2016

12 Apr

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/abc-qa-germaine-greer-slams-claim-extreme-jealousy-causes-domestic-violence-20160412-go3xri.html

This link is about last night’s Q&A program. This program is on late at night, a bit too late for Peter and myself.  We decided we’re going to watch it  today. Luckily Peter could record this program.

I am very much looking forward to watch it, especially with Germaine Greer in the panel. Apparently there is some talk about domestic violence. For sure, there would have to be said a lot about this subject!

 

http://www.amazon.com/Heads-Tails-Winner-Blended-Australian-ebook/dp/B00O7UJ2PI/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1460411770&sr=1-2&refinements=p_27%3ABronwyn+Vanzino

Heads or Tails: Being a Winner in the Blended Australian FamilyKindle Edition

Kindle Edition

Here follows what Kindle says about this novel:

“Novel about a young koori man finding his identity in the emerging multiculturalism of Australia in the 1980s. The storyline focuses on a fictitious young koori policeman, James Finley (Fin). A born leader, Fin tries to help a man wrongly imprisoned. Anger at injustice threatens to devour him in the case and in his unusual personal life. He battles with finding his place in the early multiculturalism of Australia during the 1980s, when many want to use him for their own purposes. Fin finds he has to personally change to succeed in relationships and learns that the road to reconciliation is not as straightforward as many tell him it is, but he believes he can discover success and happiness – on his own terms – and has to learn to play by the rules in the pursuit of justice.”

I have read this novel on KindleI would like to have the paperback. However it seems not to be available any more. This novel was dealing with very interesting subjects. What is said about Fin in the above write up says it very well: This young koori man “has to learn to play by the rules in the pursuit of justice.”  

This novel is of course fictional. But I would like very much that more people in our society were concerned about the pursuit of justice. This koori policeman is a good example how multiculturalism can work in our society. The book shows how it can be quite a struggle for some people to find out about themselves and where they fit in. This does not only apply to indigenous people but also to migrants from different cultures.

Last but not least, here is a link to a blog with some excellent photos about cooking:

https://42weimar42.wordpress.com/

 

 

What’s great about Goethe?

29 Mar

In the English-speaking world, we are used to thinking of our greatest writer as an enigma, or a blank. Though there’s enough historical evidence to tell us when Shakespeare was born and when he died, and more than enough to prove that he wrote the plays ascribed to him, the record is thin. Indeed, the persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates is a symptom of how little we actually understand about his life. His religious beliefs, his love affairs, his relationships with other writers, his daily routine—these are permanent mysteries, and biographies of Shakespeare are always mostly speculation.

To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.

Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name. As it is, in the words of Nicholas Boyle, his leading English-­language biographer, “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being.”

Germans began debating the significance of the Goethe phenomenon while he was still in his twenties, and they have never stopped. His lifetime, spanning some of the most monumental disruptions in modern history, is referred to as a single whole, the Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe. Worshipped as the greatest genius in German history and as an exemplary poet and human being, he has also been criticized for his political conservatism and quietism, which in the twentieth century came to seem sinister legacies. Indeed, Goethe was hostile to both the French Revolution and the German nationalist movement that sprang up in reaction to it. More radical and Romantic spirits especially disdained the way this titan seemed content to be a servant to princes—and Grand Duke Karl August of Weimar, despite his title, was a fairly minor prince—in an age of revolution

One famous anecdote concerns Goethe and Beethoven, who were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way—which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn’t the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.

Goethe’s fame notwithstanding, he is strangely neglected in the English-speaking world. English readers are notoriously indifferent to the poets of other cultures, and Goethe’s poems, unfortunately, seldom come across vividly in translation. This is partly because Goethe so often cloaks his sophistication in deceptively simple language. “Heidenröslein,” one of his earliest great poems, is written in the style of a folk song and almost entirely in words of one or two syllables: “Sah ein Knabein Röslein stehn” (“A boy saw a little rose standing”). “The Essential Goethe” (Princeton), a rich new anthology, a thousand pages long, edited by Matthew Bell, which valiantly seeks to display every facet of Goethe’s genius, gives the poem in a translation by John Frederick Nims:

Urchin blurts: “I’ll pick you, though,

Rosebud in the heather!”

Rosebud: “Then I’ll stick you so

That there’s no forgetting, no!

I’ll not stand it, ever!”

Nims reproduces the rhythm of the original precisely. But to do so he adds words that aren’t in the original (“though”) and resorts to distractingly winsome diction (“urchin,” “I’ll not”). The result is clumsy and charmless. The very simplicity of Goethe’s language makes his poetry practically untranslatable.

English speakers are more hospitable to fiction in translation, and yet when was the last time you heard someone mention “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” or “Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s long fictions? These books have a good claim to have founded two of the major genres of the modern novel—respectively, the Bildungsroman and the novel of adultery. Goethe’s first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is better known, mainly because it represented such an enormous milestone in literary history; the first German international best-seller, it is said to have started a craze for suicide among young people emulating its hero. But in English it remains a book more famous than read.

This wasn’t always the case. Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe”—which was as much as to say, “Grow up!” Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the “physician of the Iron Age,” who “read each wound, each weakness” of the “suffering human race.” For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived. It was this very quality that led to his fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. For the modernists, being spiritually sick was a condition of intellectual respectability, and T. S. Eliot wrote that “there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe’s healthiness.” Reading Goethe today, even through the veil of translation, is most valuable as an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us.

The key to Goethe is that the spiritual “healthiness” so disliked by Eliot was not that of a man with a perfect constitution but that of a recovered invalid. He knew the “weakness” that Arnold described all too well. Goethe’s early life was a privileged one—he was the only surviving son of a prosperous bourgeois family in Frankfurt—and as a young man he teetered on the brink of waywardness. Though he studied law, at his father’s insistence, and even practiced briefly, the occupation was never more than a cover for what really interested him, which was writing poetry and falling in love. It was one of these early infatuations that plunged Goethe into the despair that would become the subject of his first success, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

This short novel tells the story of an unhappy love affair. Through letters written by Werther to a friend, we learn about his hopeless love for Charlotte, an affectionate and virtuous young woman who is already engaged to a worthy man, Albert. After Charlotte and Albert get married, Werther feels that he has nothing to live for, and decides to commit suicide—a decision that he communicates in a gothic rhapsody of emotion: “You see, Charlotte, I do not shudder to take the cold and fatal cup, from which I shall drink the frenzy of death. Your hand gave it to me, and I do not tremble. All, all the wishes and the hopes of my life are fulfilled. Cold and stiff I knock at the brazen gates of death.”

The book captured the sensibility of a generation, running, as Thomas Mann wrote, “like a fever and frenzy over the inhabited earth, acting like a spark in a powder magazine, setting free a dangerous amount of pent-up force.” At least some of Goethe’s readers took him to be endorsing and glamorizing Werther’s suicide. One young woman, a Weimar courtier named Christel von Lassberg, drowned herself in the River Ilm with a copy of the novel in her pocket. Goethe must have felt much as one might imagine J. D. Salinger felt about Mark David Chapman’s copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”—guilty, but also horrified at being so misread.

Yet, far from ennobling its hero, “Werther” is actually a warning against what Goethe sees as a consuming spiritual disease. What kills Werther is not disappointed love but toxic self-centeredness, subjectivity run wild. Whether he is enjoying the sublimity of a landscape or the company of Charlotte, Werther is always really only involved with himself, his own ideas and emotions. “The rich and ardent feeling which filled my heart with a love of Nature, overwhelmed me with a torrent of delight, and brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment—a demon which perpetually pursues me,” he writes. The fatal complication of his illness is pride. Werther is not just miserable but proud of his misery, which he takes as proof that he is exceptionally sensitive—finer than the world that disappoints him. Having identified himself with the universe, he finds that when he is unhappy the universe becomes a prison.

So far, Werther strongly resembles Hamlet, who calls Denmark and the whole world a prison, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” But Hamlet’s paralysis of will gives way, in Act V, to a commitment to the deed. “The readiness is all,” he declares, before finally taking revenge on Claudius. Werther, on the other hand, is never ready for action, because he has no momentous deed waiting to be performed. In this, he is a more modern figure than Hamlet, who, after all, was summoned by a ghost. Werther, like us, gets no help from the other world in directing his steps in this one.

Goethe knew his hero’s despair as well as any reader could. In fact, the book became scandalous for its resemblance to real people and events. Werther’s strained triangular relationship with Charlotte, whom he loves, and Albert, whom he respects as a friend, was taken directly from Goethe’s own entanglement with a woman named Charlotte Buff and her fiancé, Johann Kestner. Goethe spliced this story with that of a young man he barely knew, named Karl Jerusalem, who committed suicide—with a pistol borrowed from Kestner, just as Werther borrows Albert’s pistol for the same purpose. So closely did the events of the novel mirror those of real life that its publication, and then its enormous success, ruined Goethe’s relationship with Kestner, who wrote to complain about the way the author “prostituted the real persons whose features you borrow.”

The crucial difference between Goethe and his creation was that the poet found a way out of his labyrinth. In 1775, the year after “Werther” made him famous, he accepted an invitation from Grand Duke Karl August to move to Weimar, then a small independent duchy with a population of just a hundred thousand. Under Goethe’s direction and patronage, the tiny court became world famous for attracting some of the preëminent German minds of the age—notably, the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, Goethe’s friend and collaborator, and his early mentor Johann Gottfried Herder, the pioneering philosopher of language. But Goethe was not in Weimar simply as an ornament; to the dismay of the local aristocracy, he was quickly raised to the highest level of government, becoming the Duke’s most trusted adviser. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe finished none of the major literary projects he had in hand—he was too busy with paperwork.

This might seem, as it did to many at the time, a waste of Goethe’s genius—like harnessing Pegasus to a cart. But Goethe, with the unerring instinct that seemed to guide him throughout his long life, had chosen the existence he needed—an existence as unlike Werther’s as possible. Instead of remaining focussed on his own passions and desires, he subdued his mind to the discipline of the objective, of work and responsibility. He turned toward objectivity in other ways as well, particularly in his study of science. Throughout his life, Goethe published scientific theories and “discoveries,” most of which were wrong and roundly ignored by the scientists of his day. But, while he failed to overthrow the Newtonian understanding of optics, Goethe found in science a necessary distraction from self.

At the same time, he developed a conception of nature that provided an alternative to the mathematical and spiritless mechanism that the Enlightenment seemed to offer. “The Essential Goethe” includes a generous sample of his scientific writing, which reveals how much of Goethe’s science was devoted to the idea of holism—the sense, more an intuition than a theory, that the universe is a living organism that develops and grows. “We experience the fullest sense of well-being when we are unaware of our parts and conscious only of the whole itself,” he writes in one essay. “Life in its wholeness is expressed as a force not attributable to any individual part of an organism.” This vitalism fit in well with the world view that Goethe had learned from Spinoza, who held that nature is God and God nature. “All finite beings exist within the infinite,” Goethe wrote. In this way, science performed something like the office of religion, turning Goethe into a kind of modern, rational pagan.

Ten years of office work, of literary projects left incomplete, finally took their toll. In 1786, in a spirit of adventure characteristic more of a young poet than of a middle-aged civil servant, Goethe abruptly threw aside his work and left Weimar without telling friends and colleagues where he was going. Travelling under an assumed identity, he made his way to Italy, where he spent the next two years studying art and enjoying the country that he described, in one of his most famous poems, as “the land where lemon blossoms blow, / And through dark leaves the golden oranges glow.”

Goethe’s time in Italy marked a watershed in his life. He was thirty-seven. As a worshipper of the classical world and of Renaissance painting, Goethe found Italy—especially Rome, where he spent most of his time—to be a revelation and a rebirth. He wrote, “If I had not carried out the resolution I am now carrying out, I would simply have perished, so ripe had the desire become in my heart to see these sights with my own eyes.” Yet the book that resulted from this trip, the “Italian Journey,” has little to say about what was going on in Goethe’s heart. Instead, he focusses on the sights themselves—geological features of the country, garbage-disposal methods in the cities, a court trial, a theatrical performance. Much of Goethe’s Italian sojourn was spent trying, without success, to transform himself into a painter, and the book he wrote is a record more of things seen than of things felt.

Still, there is no missing the fact that this was a time of reawakening for the poet—spiritually and also sensually. As a young man, Goethe fell in love regularly; biographers define the periods of his life by the women who presided over them and the literary works they inspired. But these early romances tended to be platonic and idealized, much like Werther’s adoration of Charlotte. Partly, this was because Goethe took care to steer clear of anything that would commit him to marriage, which he assiduously avoided for as long as he could. An early relationship with Friederike Brion, a pastor’s daughter whom he wooed while he was a law student in Strasbourg, ended with the poet abruptly bailing on what Friederike, at least, had imagined to be an engagement. “Heiden­röslein,” with its parable of seduction and abandonment—a boy plucks a rose, which pricks him with the thorn of regret—grew out of Goethe’s guilt over what he knew to be his own bad conduct. Later, at the court of Weimar, the poet engaged in a very intense, decade-long but apparently nonsexual relationship with a married woman, Charlotte von Stein.

Things were different in Rome, where Goethe had a liaison, frankly sexual this time, with a Roman widow whose name is not known. This newly liberated erotic spirit trailed him back to Weimar, where, soon after his return, he met and moved in with Christiane Vulpius, a woman so much his inferior in education and social status that marriage seemed out of the question. He did eventually marry her, but not until almost twenty years later, in 1806, by which time she had already borne him a son. Many in Weimar were shocked by their open cohabitation and by Goethe’s choice of life partner—none more so than Charlotte von Stein, who turned with cold fury on her former spiritual mate. But the joy and liberation of these sexual experiences introduced a new strain into Goethe’s poetry, as in the famous fifth “Roman Elegy,” in which he describes counting the beat of hexameters on his lover’s naked back. This, too, was a kind of education, the poem insists: “Also, am I not learning when at the shape of her bosom, / Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Liberated from his more onerous court duties, Goethe was free to take up projects that he had first begun to think about years, even decades, earlier: the gestation period for the verse drama “Faust” spanned more than thirty years, for the novel “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” almost twenty. Such lengthy gestation gives both books a loosely woven, episodic quality. But Goethe’s persistence also testifies to the continuity of his interests and themes during his entire life. The meaning of education, the difficulty of embracing life and of living in the world, the danger and the redemptive possibilities of love: these questions, which animated “Werther” in the seventeen-seventies, are treated with greater maturity and complexity in these middle-period masterpieces.

The concept of Bildung—a word that means learning and education but also implies a cultivation of the self and of maturity—was central to Goethe’s thought, and he, in turn, made it central to German culture. For Thomas Mann, whose admiration of Goethe took the form of spiritual imitation, Goethe was above all an educator, but one who had first to learn, through experience, the wisdom he taught. Mann wrote that a “vocation towards educating others does not spring from inner harmony, but rather from inner uncertainties, disharmony, difficulty—from the difficulty of knowing one’s own self.”

This is the process Goethe dramatizes in “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” whose title can be taken in two senses. Literally speaking, Wilhelm, a bourgeois young man with artistic inclinations, apprentices himself to a touring theatre company, where he learns how to act and direct. Goethe writes with affection about the wide-open world of the actor, which is full of escapades and love affairs, bed tricks and impersonations. Indeed, so many scandalous things happen in the novel—from adultery and illegitimacy to arson, incest, and suicide—that it often feels more like a gothic parody than like an earnest Bildungsroman.

Yet the more of the theatre world that Wilhelm sees, the less he likes it, and the more he realizes that he is unsuited to this way of life. What he really needs is education in a deeper sense—an apprenticeship to life and society, which will help him figure out who he really is and how he should live. In particular, Goethe—that son of the Frankfurt bourgeoisie, who was given an ennobling “von” by the prince he served—wants to show how a middle-­class man like Wilhelm can find dignity and worth in a society whose ideals are still shaped by aristocrats. In this context, the idea of acting takes on a deeper meaning. “The nobleman tells us everything through the person he presents, but the burgher does not, and should not,” Goethe writes. “A nobleman can and must be someone who represents by his appearance, whereas the burgher simply is, and when he tries to put on an appearance, the effect is ludicrous or in bad taste.”

In short, Goethe the artist and the courtier is arguing against the artistic life and the life of the court, at least where Wilhelm is concerned. Like Werther, Wilhelm can be considered a failed genius—someone who is enough of an artist to be sensitive and ambitious but not enough of one to actually become creatively productive. This makes him a significant modern type, whose descendants will populate a great deal of modern literature. (Emma Bovary is one example.) But, where Werther can see no way out of his predicament except suicide, Wilhelm is allowed to end the novel as a father and a husband, prepared to enter into the responsibilities of adulthood.

Still, good is never as glamorous as evil, and Wilhelm Meister comes across as a little dull and worthy compared with the hero of Goethe’s most celebrated and canonical work, “Faust.” While Wilhelm learns to accept his role in life, Faust is defined by his refusal to be satisfied with anything life has to offer. As in the traditional folktale, and as in the Christopher Marlowe play, Goethe’s Faust sells his soul to the Devil, Mephistopheles. But in Goethe’s version what he asks in exchange is not magic powers or supernatural knowledge. It is, rather, experience—a life lived at fever pitch, “a frenzied round of agonizing joy, / Of loving hate, of stimulating discontent.” The condition of his deal is that the Devil may take his soul whenever he grows too contented with life: “If I should bid the passing moment stay, or try / To hold its fleeting beauty, then you may / Cast me in chains and carry me away.”

This is the central issue of Goethe’s life and work: on what terms is life worth living? For Faust, as for Werther before him, ordinary existence is flavorless and intolerable; like an alcoholic, he demands ever-stronger draughts of emotional intoxication. Above all, he demands the intoxication of love, and he finds it with Gretchen, an innocent and virtuous young girl, whom he seduces and abandons. Not until the end of the play, when Faust returns to find Gretchen in prison for infanticide, and on the edge of madness, does he realize how selfish his quest for experience has been. A heavenly voice announces that Gretchen will be saved—Goethe, no moralist when it comes to sex, can forgive her for being carried away by passion. But there is no salvation for Faust, whose crime is the one transgression that Goethe can never forgive—solipsism, the refusal to acknowledge the full reality of other people.

“Faust” and “Wilhelm Meister” can be considered wisdom books, in that they teach serious moral lessons. But they are the opposite of solemn; Goethe delights in his burlesque Mephistopheles, always mocking and jesting, as he does in the wild coincidences and improbabilities of Wilhelm’s career. This combination of earnestness and jovial detachment is what characterizes the mature Goethe, and what makes him unique; no other writer gives us the same sense that he has both seen life and seen through it.

In the last decades of his life, Goethe brought this Olympian perspective to a series of late masterpieces, from the examination of adulterous passion in “Elective Affinities” to the surreal fantasia on history and myth that is “Faust, Part Two.” (Neither of these works is included in “The Essential Goethe,” nor is “Werther”—indeed, it’s a measure of Goethe’s abundance that you could put together a second volume of another thousand pages and fill it with works that are just as essential.) Old age did not put an end to Goethe’s career as a lover: in 1821, when he was seventy-two, the widowed Goethe fell in love with a seventeen-year-old girl he met at a spa resort, and even proposed marriage. (She sensibly declined.) For Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!” Probably his vision was dimming and he just wanted someone to open a window. But it is also Goethe’s last perfect metaphor: one final plea for illumination, from a writer who had spent all his life seeking it. 

 

 

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