I have to give credit where credit is due–this book came to me via Pechorin’s Journal.
Memoirs of a Good-For-Nothing really is an odd little book, or perhaps I’m just an odd reader. Apparently the book is extremely popular and holds a certain affectionate standing in German Literature. I kept thinking I was reading a fairy tale, and according to the book’s back cover, I am not incorrect. The author Joseph von Eichendorff apparently had a thing for German folk song, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that lyrics of folk songs appear numerous times in this light-hearted, 19th century tale that charts the journey of a wastrel son.
Here’s the book’s opening paragraphs:
The splashing and clattering of my father’s millwheel was again in full swing, the snow on the roof was melting fast, and the twittering sparrows fluttered to and fro as I sat in the doorway and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, revelling in the warm sunshine.
At that moment my father came out. Since the crack of dawn he had been stomping around irritably in the mill, and now, his nightcap perched crookedly on his head, he shouted at me:
“You good-for-nothing! Here you are, basking in the sun again, stretching your limbs until they ache and leaving me to do all the work by myself. I don’t see why I should keep you any longer. Spring is just round the corner, so out you go into the world and earn your living for a change.”
The good-for-nothing son (now our hero) decides to take the hint and leaves to seek his fortune. Taking his fiddle, he hits the road. Since the hero has tremendous good luck, he largely manages to fall on his feet, and when he does veer near disaster, his good temperament and innate charm saves him. Well this is just one way of looking at it of course. Those who wish to be less generous could call the good-for-nothing an amiable idiot as he’s largely oblivious of most things in life–although I did note that he cherishes flowers and music and he even manages to fall in love.
Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing really is a great deal like a fairy tale. There are no magic beans, but there were times when the character charmed me and other times when he annoyed me. I couldn’t get over the image of him skipping around Bavaria wearing lederhosen–although I learned to content myself with the image of him sporting a “crimson dressing gown with yellow dots.”
After concluding the novella (which is translated by Ronald Taylor, by the way), I passed over to a complete switch, The Post Office by Charles Bukowski. Could two books be more different? As it turned out this complete contrast made me reflect a bit more on the lightheartedness and innocence of Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing. Perhaps it’s a fairy tale for adults. No, get your mind out of the gutter–not the porno stuff. But perhaps this simple German tale is a primer for how to live:
- Enjoy the sights and sounds of life.
- Don’t dwell on the negative and ignore the bad stuff if at all possible.
- Have a light heart and enjoy yourself.
- It’s all in the attitude.
The good-for-nothing’s sunny disposition causes him a great deal of trouble and yet at the same time it causes him to sail through life with a certain obliviousness. He has the beautiful sweet dreams of those who sleep with a clear conscience, and he also has moments of profound thought that belie his happy-go-lucky demeanour:
“That same moon,” I thought to myself, “is shining at this moment on my father’s mill and on the white palace; my lady is asleep, all is quiet, and the fountains and trees in the park are rustling as they always did, and nobody cares whether I am there or not–or even whether I am alive or dead.”
Then I wondered if perhaps we tend to underestimate happy people.
The novella’s introduction makes the point that this tale embodies the “values with which the Romantics of the nineteenth century sought, in their diverse ways, to infuse their lives and their art.” I recently read Goethe’s The Man of Fifty which was first published in 1829. Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing was published just a few years before in 1826. While both novels, written under the mantle of German Romanticism, yield completely different subject matter, there is a similar generosity of spirit and a refreshing forgiveness of human foibles found in both volumes.