Because He’s Worth It

David Simpson

Goethe’s most famous novel was once a Europe-wide sensation. There were Werther-themed prints, figurines, jewellery, perfume, fans, crockery and men’s clothing. The novel itself first appeared in English in 1779, as a translation of a translation: The Sorrows of Werther: A German Story was based on the French version. Translations of French novels made up a large part of the fiction published in England in the 18th century; English authors on their own seem to have been unable to satisfy the expanding market, and the whiff of scandal associated with novels, only partly displaced by the Pamela cult of sentimental virtue, could be both disavowed and enjoyed when books were written by and for the French. But after Werther, and not least because of its success, many more German books were made over into English.

The novel is made up of letters written by Werther to his best friend, supplemented by passages written by an ‘editor’. Werther comes across as something between a manic-depressive drama queen and a sensitive young man struggling with a world that does not live up to his hopes and desires. He is perhaps both at once: he is kind to children and the poor, but also given to gnashing his teeth in public. He starts his story by confessing that he might bear some responsibility for leading on a girl he didn’t care for, and ends it by killing himself with a pistol borrowed from the husband of the woman he loves but can’t have. Goethe was indiscreet enough to call his heroine Charlotte, after a woman with whom he had been infatuated, leading to Charlotte Buff-Kestner’s unsought celebrity when the book became a bestseller. The suicide motif he took from someone he had known, Karl Jerusalem, whose family similarly found themselves in the limelight. Goethe himself lived a long and successful life and died apparently as happy as any of us can expect to be.

Another of the novel’s legacies was said to be a fashion for suicide among the young, who took Werther as a model for action against a corrupt and unfeeling world. There were perhaps no more than one or two such suicides, or rumours thereof, but the rhetoric of disapproval was ready and waiting: some kinds of reading were dangerous. Whatever the facts, the ‘Werther effect’ is still used to denote copycat suicide. Along with this legacy there are the more familiar kinds of afterlife: Massenet’s opera, Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar, which describes the meeting between Goethe and Charlotte Buff-Kestner in later life, and Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sufferings of Young W (1972), a resetting of the story in a dreary East Germany. And, most recently, there is a movie, sort of. Werther is very much a novel in the head, and doesn’t easily lend itself to cinematic adaptation. Philipp Stölzl’s Goethe! (2010), opportunistically titled in English Young Goethe in Love, takes as its primary story the writing of the novel rather than the novel itself, and has Lotte make up for her rejection of Goethe by arranging for the publication of his book and so making him famous. The movie has done fairly well worldwide, grossing $5.6 million so far, presumably mostly in Europe, as receipts in the US have been very small: $162,000 in 29 weeks.

Who might now read Werther? Stanley Corngold and his publisher argue boldly that it’s a ‘timeless’ masterpiece: ‘it breathes, it lives,’ they say, thanks to the qualities of Corngold’s new translation. What makes a book timeless, and what on the other hand might make it hard to engage a reader distanced from its historical situation and its original language? Men and women still feel misunderstood, underappreciated, condescended to and confined to jobs they don’t like. The class consciousness that Werther experiences is hardly a thing of the past, even in post-Thatcher Britain, with its avowed commitment to merit alone, or at least to money alone. The trials and tribulations of sensitive young people are seen in numerous books and movies: in Sons and Lovers, for example, or The Catcher in the Rye, two other books that found a wide readership by speaking in similar mode.

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