Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two exciting readalong opportunities - Goethe's Italian Journey and the ghost stories of Henry James

So exciting I expect no participants at all.  But if these sound interesting, please, by all means.

First, it is the bicentennial of the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey, his account of his momentous stay in Italy from 1786 to 1788.  It was meant to be a long vacation but turned into something more significant.

For November’s German Literature Month, courtesy of BeautyIs a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life, I will revisit Goethe’s book, among his most genial.  Some of the book is typical 18th century tourism, but other parts, especially the long stay in Rome, turn in to something much deeper.  This is the central text on the neurotic Northern vision of Italy, the idea that Italy is the place to really live.

I slipped out of Carlsbad at three in the morning; otherwise I would not have been allowed to leave.  (Sep. 3, 1786, p. 23)

Goethe had deliberately avoided two previous chances to visit Italy because, I don’t know, his Bildung was not sufficient or something.  This time, he plunges.

I will read the W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer translation (Penguin Classics), which is just under five hundred pages and is lightly abridged.  The other translation seems to have a similar page count.  Maybe it is also abridged?  I expect the book will take me a month to read, at least.  What’s the hurry?  My German Literature Month plans otherwise mostly involve plays – Wedekind, Hofmannsthal, Mann.

Second, for October, the ghost stories of Henry James.  Is this more or less them?

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868)
The Ghostly Rental (1876, what a scary title)
Sir Edmund Orme (1891)
The Private Life (1892)
Owen Wingrave (1892)
The Friends of the Friends aka The Way It Came (1896)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
The Real Right Thing (1899)
The Third Person (1900)
The Jolly Corner (1908)

Look, already I learn something interesting.  James was not so interested in the ghost story, and then for ten years he was quite interested.  My understanding is that the turn to ghosts was partly commercial – a boom in the interest of magazines – but I just read “The Private Life” and there is no way that that is the kind of ghost story The Atlantic Monthly was dying to publish.  The ghosts are highly conceptual and highly Jamesian, literalizations of the metaphor of people being different in private than they are in public.  Surprise, it’s also a story about a writer!

I wonder about the completeness of the list.  “The Altar of the Dead” (1895) has nothing supernatural, but how is it not a ghost story – the two characters are obsessed with one particular ghost.  Maybe “The Aspern Papers” is a ghost story for similar reasons.  Everything everyone does is to please a dead poet.

I do not plan to read all of these stories.  I will do “The Turn of the Screw,” certainly, since it has been twenty-five years or more since I read it.

I plan to write about these stories as the spooky Halloween impulse strikes.  If you write about one I have not read, I will jump to it.

I read “The Private Life” today just to double-check, I guess – will this be fun?  Sure, sure.


  1. Tempted to join you with the Goethe, my classic/Kindle choice for the year...

  2. Me too (Goethe). Could be interesting to compare HJ's Italian Hours. His ghost story project is also appealing - will have to see how pressures of work go before I commit. But as Tony says, very tempting!

  3. Wonderful. Tony can read the German and keep the rest of us honest.

    Yes, there are lots of ways a comparison to James could be useful. It would be interesting to see what changes over a hundred turbulent years.

  4. It's the ghost stories that tempt me the most.

  5. I am tempted, too. "Should I read a new one now? No, no, wait until October, at least."

    "The Private Life" had a number of good things in it that are not at all ghost-related, as I assume ill generally be the case with these stories.

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  7. Tempting! I have had Italian Journey unread on my shelves for a long time now. But no ... I can't put aside the Mahabharata yet again...

    I can't think of any Jamesian (Henrian rather than MRian) ghost story you've missed. But if James indeed turned to the ghost story for commercial reasons, he had a damn strange idea of the kinds of prose style likely to be popular!

  8. I joked on Twitter that James's prose will be scarier than the ghosts.

    "The Real Right Thing" is I think the shortest one - for James, really short, 14 pages - if anyone just wants a sample of Halloween James.

  9. "The Altar of the Dead" and "The Aspern Papers" surely have a Gothic feel to them, though. It's like the ghosts are there, but afraid to come out of the background and enter the action of the story. Certainly the protagonists are haunted.

    Goethe, though, yes! The Penguin Classics edition will be shorter than whatever volume of Proust I'll be reading in November.

  10. "The Altar of the Dead" is one weird James story.

    Goethe's book actually has a connection with Proust, with Marcel's obsession with Venice.

  11. I would love to reread The Turn of the Screw, so this might be just the push I've been needing to actually do it!

  12. Oh good. I'll shoot at the end of October for "The Turn of the Screw," and write about some of the shorter ones earlier. Ramp up to "Turn of the Screw." I plan to have no opinion whatsoever on the "reality" of the ghosts.