Thursday, February 28, 2013

From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end - Goethe, Stifter, Goethe, Keller, Goethe

I have not written about the literary tradition of Indian Summer.  It is a Bildungsroman, a novel of personal growth, of which Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796) is not the first but for a long time the most read, the most important.  Certainly the center of the German tradition.  So that is the tradition.

R. J. Hollingdale, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, argues that “the overwhelming presence of Goethe” crushed nineteenth century German-language literature and channeled the “most original” thought into philosophy, a field “Goethe had not harvested” (9-10).  Hollingdale is not wrong.

The existence of Indian Summer and other German literature would seem to refute Hollingdale, if it were not for passages like this, where a mother is giving her son, who is maybe twelve, a gift:

“You’ve been asking me for them for a long time, which I’ve had to refuse since you weren’t yet ready.  They are the Works of Goethe.  They belong to you.  A great deal in them is for a more mature age, indeed, the most mature.  You can’t choose which books you’ll now take in hand or which ones you’ll save for later days.  Your Foster Father will add that to the many kindnesses he has shown you; he’ll choose for you, and you’ll obey him in this, just as you have in everything up to now.”  (144)

The mother has given her son her personal set, full of her notes and underlinings.  Her son protests, but she insists, and anyway “Since I will probably still want to read the works of this remarkable man sometime during the remainder of my life I am going to buy a new set of books.”

With Goethe you do not simply read a book, but rather a fifty volume set, tied up in string.  Or that is what Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry does:

As if I had all these threads [of association] together in the clumsy knot of the string, I fell upon it and hastily began to untie it, and when at last it came loose, the golden fruits of his eighty years of life fell apart gloriously, spread over the couch and tumbled over the edge on to the floor so that I had my hands full, trying to hold the riches together.  From that hour I did not leave the couch, and I read for forty days on end, during which time the winter returned, and the Spring came back, but the white snow, whose shining I saw but heeded not, passed me by like a dream. (Green Henry, tr. A. M. Holt, III.1, p. 312).

Now that is a serious reader.  Green Henry (1854-5/1879-80) is yet another jumbo-sized Bildungsroman, although with an entirely different flavor than Stifter’s novel.  Where Stifter’s Heinrich has two father figures, poor Green Henry has no father at all; where Heinrich moves smoothly from one stage of growth to the next, Henry stumbles from mistake to mistake, eventually, in an inversion of Stifter, rejecting an artistic vocation and entering the Swiss civil bureaucracy.

Henry does not even get to keep his set of Goethe.  His mother takes it away because of its dangerously addictive properties.  Goethe was the Angry Birds of the nineteenth century.  But readers of Stifter know that Goethe needs to be read under proper adult supervision.

Both Indian Summer and Green Henry are drenched in Goethe.  There are constant allusions and references to Goethe, or at least Goethe’s work is so all-encompassing and inescapable that the later novels appear to be constantly referring to Goethe. Keller, Stifter and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (and its 1821 sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Wandering) share a common ethos.  They are all novels of idealism, Kantian ideas worked out through fiction.  Stifter is in a way the most radical of the three, with the most abstract characters inhabiting the most “realistic” landscapes.

Eh, I should do some sort of massive re-reading of Goethe.  I do not know how to convey what a titan he was.  And in the context of Stifter’s and Keller’s novels, he had only been dead for twenty years!


  1. The "massive reading of Goethe" is a very remarkable project. One gets a very different impression than merely dabbling with Werther, Faust and Elective Affinities. You reach a point where you see the connections between theory, poetry, fiction, theater, biography, science--and the connections between art, the mind and the world. It is an amazing and all-encompassing vision (and read chronologically his ouvre is a bildungsroman!) One begins to see how he literally overwhelmed his century. Certainly not the impression you get from just reading the poetry or the novels.

    If you ever get to the "massive re-reading" count me in. It's been several years and I know there is still much to be gained from yet another journey through his works.

  2. Werther is especially deceptive. Goethe as anguished Romantic - no, Goethe is a classicist!

    Actually, Goethe is like Shakespeare, all-encompassing. Based on the evidence, these two are the most intelligent humans to ever turn their attention to literature.

    Maybe I will try to organize this as a (slow) project sometime, so people can join in where they like. I haven't read anything like 50 volumes of Goethe, more like a dozen or so, but every one is worth a return.

  3. Yes, the Werther problem. Just another example of why you don't want to be identifying with characters.

    If this is the dozen volumes you're in good shape:

    Princeton has done an excellent job putting together reasonable translation of just about all of the really core works. I'm sure someone can tell me I am wrong, but in my experience the quality tends to drop off beyond this set of works.

    The exceptions would be Eckermann's Gespräche and the poetry. I think they could easily have added two more volumes of great poetry (plus I have doubts how well one can really understand Goethe's poetry in English translation-but that's a different issue). However, if I remember right, I think this edition had a really excellent introduction to the poems.

  4. Very close - I have read the equivalent of ten of those (not the science volume, which I will never read, and not the essays, which look promising). I did not always read that particular edition - I read Carlyle's Wilhelm Meister for example.

    That volume of Goethe's poetry is outstanding, lacking only, as you suggest, another couple hundred pages. The complete Roman Elegies, say. Boy would that one surprise people who have only read Werther.

  5. Ah, Goethe — Werther has always been a deception to me and I still don't feel able to read it. Wilhelm Meister, I have read a lot of times since my teenage years and poetry too, always reading it while listening to music at the same time, and frequent returns to Elective Affinities. Some incursions in the science volumes, too …
    And, always thinking of Goethe, I've been reading Stifter intensely the past five years, in French, my language, and a bit in German too. I read it and read again (as I've been reading and reading again Soseki for the last twenty years) with a special love for Indian Summer and The Sisters, and most all, for Der Hagestolz (I don't know the English title). Or most of all, just the last part of Indian Summer with the strangeness of the love story.
    Now Keller's Green Henry, this "jumbo-sized Bildungsroman", seemed to me at first a wonderful continuation after Indian Summer — say the first 250 pages — until Henry went to town and to painting and the novel turned rather to be a deception, especially if you compare it with the (very short) Stifter's Nachkommenschaften which is a tale about painting too, and also about parentage, origins, recurrence. Strangely, Nachkommenschaften drove me to some early Thomas Bernhard's texts — maybe the seclusive atmosphere.
    I read your blog from time to time and really enjoy it !

  6. Catherine, thanks for the note. How nice to hear from someone who has read so much Stifter, more than I have. And how frustrating - most of the texts you mention as especially good are not available in English.

    It is fascinating to me how, given that they share a common root and tradition, how different the Keller and Stifter novels are. The one is almost a parody of the other.

    You are reinforcing my desire to return to Goethe. Hmm. When, when?