Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An unbearable little cry, in which distress and satisfaction were equally mixed - the slimy, tattered little doll and The Goethean Meaulnes

Goethe has distracted me from Alain-Fournier.  I had hoped to pursue the Goethean thread, but I am not sure many people would understand what I was talking about, and I am less sure that I would understand it, either, so perhaps that should wait for another day.

I’ve wondered if a Goethe re-read is in order.  Goethe was a titan, but I am not sure any single work conveys his capaciousness.  He was, among other things, almost beyond form, meaning that his novels and memoirs and plays and poems do not look quite like novels and plays and so on should look, except that “should” is then demonstrably wrong.

Generations of German-language writers have benefitted from Goethe’s expansion of literary form.  Judging by the most recent German novel I read, a Jenny Erpenbeck novel that takes its title from Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering (1821), they are not yet free of him.

Alain-Fournier borrows liberally from Goethe – form, theme, scenes, and, I suspect, images.   This is what I mean – I should go back to those Wilhelm Meister novels, and Elective Affinities, and [insert long list here].  Le Grand Meaulnes works within, for example, Goethe’s all-encompassing “renunciation” framework.  This is how I cope with the mass of Goethe, by the way – I reduce him to one word that I barely understand.  Goethe = renunciation.

I detected Goethe most strongly in Alain-Fournier’s theatrical interlude, right in the center of the book, where I picked up whiffs of the theatrical troupe arguing about Hamlet in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and young Goethe or young Wilhelm, or both, staging puppet spectaculars.  But I do not quite remember the equivalent of the clown’s “falling act” in Goethe:

And every time, as he fell, he gave a little cry, different every time, an unbearable little cry, in which distress and satisfaction were equally mixed.  At the climax of the act, climbing on a heap of chairs, he made a tremendous, very slow fall, and his shrill, agonized wail of triumph lasted as long as the fall did, accompanied by gasps of terror from the women in the audience. (II.7.)

That may well be an act Alain-Fournier witnessed himself, but whatever its source, it is powerfully strange, as uncanny as Adalbert Stifter at his woozy best.  What does it mean?  It must mean something, yes?

This act is followed by a puppet show – I had known, per Goethe, that there would be puppets – although this puppet is actually “a little doll, stuffed with bran” that the falling clown has had hidden in his sleeve the entire time:

In the end, he made all the bran that was inside her emerge from her mouth.  Then, with doleful little cries, he filled her up with porridge and, at the moment of greatest concentration, when all the spectators were watching open-mouthed and all eyes were on the poor pierrot’s slimy, tattered little doll, he suddenly grasped her in one hand and threw her with all his strength into the audience…

Suddenly, I forget where I got the idea that Le Grand Meaulnes is much like Proust, or Hoffmann, or Goethe, or any other book ever written.


  1. Hi A.R.

    "Suddenly, I forget where I got the idea that 'Le Grand Meaulnes' is much like Proust, or Hoffmann, or Goethe, or any other book ever written”.

    Even if…

    How can you be sure that just because something is similar that it is derivative? And if derivative, how can you know that that derivation’s meaning is intended to be the same?

    Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is derivative of “Hamlet” but is Stoppard’s meaning the same as Shakespeare intended with "Hamlet"? I think not.


  2. Answers: I cannot be sure. The meaning is never intended to be the same (otherwise, why bother?).

  3. Ah, Goethe...

    I read 'Die Leiden des jungen Werthers' last year, and I have a copy of 'Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre' waiting (im)patiently on my shelves (and e-books of the Wanderjahre on my Kindle!). Now I can't wait to get started :)

  4. I need to read Elective Affinities-it has been on my to-do list for quite some time.

  5. Then, with doleful little cries, he filled her up with porridge

    Wow, gross! (And exciting for my growing index of gross stuff in literature.) The doleful cries somehow make it much more disturbing.

    I have yet to read any Goethe. I know he's going to get me riled up, so even though his work was/is so influential I haven't made time for him. I should undoubtedly remedy that.

  6. Emily - riled up? What ideas have you picked up about Goethe? I mean, any great writer ought to get a good reader riled up.

    Anna - Good. I find it an icy novel, but I know people who genuinely love it. I do not believe anyone in English was writing anything remotely like it at the time or for long after. I do suspect that the Brontës read it. Follow it up with some Kleist!

    Tony - Wanderjahre is so strange. As if the first Wilhelm Meister novel were not odd enough. Goethe's sense of form became even looser as he aged.

    Maybe I'll write more about this tomorrow. A list post - people always dig those, right?

  7. Re: "riled up": it's this problem I have with Romanticism. I have a hard time getting past the overwrought emotionalism to the point where I can understand and assimilate the other interesting things Romantics were doing & the influence they've had. At least I've had this problem with W. Wordsworth (except Tintern Abbey), Coleridge, Keats & P. Shelley. I just don't know if I'm up for The Sorrows of Young Werther. I feel exhausted whenever I read excerpts.

  8. Ah, then you are in luck. Goethe is not a Romantic. He's a Classicist.

    Mostly, he's above all of that, a school of one.

    I mean, Goethe, an overwrought emotionalist! Goethe is not Werther! Maybe I will rant about that tomorrow.

    I forget to comment on your mention of the doleful cries, which are, indeed, a crowning touch. What's wonderfully disturbing, and the reader really needs to imagine the scene, is that the cries are obviously those of the clown.

  9. Somehow I have always felt too intimidated to read any Goethe-maybe it is because I think to much will be lost in translation in reading his major work-

    off topic-found out today that one of the leading writers in Urdu- got his start as a translator of Victor Hugo into Urdu and Hindi-

  10. Actually, there are a lot of good Goethe translations now, of novels, poems, plays, etc.

  11. Hi A.R.

    I’ve always considered “The Sorrows of Young Werther” as romanticism’s first novel. I think Goethe is not a Romantic in the same way Christ was not a Christian.


  12. If, Vince, you mean that Goethe, like Christ, was writing before the thing itself was named, then, no. If you mean that Goethe, like Christ was an ironist, then I love the idea.

    Werther can be the first Romantic novel without Goethe himself being a Romantic. What people do with his book is not his fault.