The Man of Fifty by Goethe

It’s not accurate to say I don’t care for Goethe, but it is accurate for me to admit that I haven’t bothered to read him in the past. For one thing, I am not a fan of German Romanticism, and then again there’s the ubiquitous Faust plot–a story that’s so pervasive it’s easy to imagine that you know it even if you haven’t read it.

This brings me to my copy of The Man of Fifty, published by Hesperus Press and bought simply because I liked the sound of the plot.

The Man of Fifty begins with a middle-aged major arriving at his sister’s estate. The major is there to arrange the transfer of property between family members and to finalize marriage plans between his son and his niece. The major is on the brink of retirement and in his imagination, he has the rest of his life planned out. His son’s marriage to his cousin, the daughter of a baroness, ensures that the family fortune will remain intact, and the seal of success is set for the next generation.  It’s a plan that seems to work for everyone, so the major is stunned when his sister tells him that her daughter Hilarie no longer wants to marry her cousin. Instead Hilarie has fallen in love with her uncle.

Well at this point, I had to stop and take stock of the situation. I’d heard of cousins marrying, but an uncle and his niece? That takes some time to absorb, so I took a breather before carrying on with the rest of the tale.

Hilarie does indeed claim to be in love with her uncle, a man she favours over her young, handsome cousin. After all, the girl hasn’t seen much of her cousin, but on the other hand she’s seen her uncle frequently. As a reader, it’s fairly easy to discern that Hilarie is infatuated, but in his turn the major is flattered. At first he’s stunned but then the idea grows on him and it also appeals to his vanity. Suddenly he finds himself less pleased with his appearance and worrying about ageing:

“Previously he had been perfectly happy with both his person and his servant; now, standing before the mirror, he did not like what he saw. He was no longer able to ignore the grey hairs, and even a few wrinkles suddenly seemed to have appeared, He brushed and powdered more than usual, but in the end he had to leave things as they were. Even the cleanliness of his clothes was no longer satisfactory, as he suddenly noticed lint on his coat and dust on his boots.”

Of course, this is a toxic situation, but the major runs with the idea of marriage to the girl intended for his son. Goethe asks: “Who would not have been seduced by this idea in the presence of such a beautiful young woman?”

The next day, a guest, an old friend comes to dine. He’s a remarkably well-preserved man, an actor who admits that some of his secrets to his seemingly youthful appearance can be found in his cosmetics bag. The actor upbraids the major for allowing his appearance to slip:

“For example, it is irresponsible,” he continued, “that your temples are already grey, that here and there your wrinkles are beginning to join up and that the crown of your head is threatening to grow bald.”

The actor then leaves the bag and his valet behind so that the major can have a makeover. The major, after all, wants to minimize his age now that he’s decided to court and marry his young niece.

Of course there’s a problem. What of the major’s son? How will he react to the news that his father has swiped his bride? The major rides off to break the news to his son only to discover that his son is in love with a beautiful older widow….

A Man of Fifty really is a delight–and this is due mostly to the silly behaviour of the novella’s main character. Reading the tale brought many other stories to mind–and these ranged from the unsuitable, bewitched lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the panting, lustful stupidity of many 20th century fictional males. But what’s so interesting here is that no one’s behaviour ever gets out of control. Just as the family property is sensibly transferred without the gnashing of teeth, there are no duels, no fights, and no wills are destroyed. Instead everyone acts perfectly civilized even as they fall in and out of love as easily as changing a suit of clothes.

Since this is a story about vanity, ego and ageing, more details of the major’s foibles would have been delightful–although I must admit that the sentence dropped about his tooth was sheer bliss. The novella is essentially gently comic, and we can all chuckle knowingly at the major’s foolishness as he switches from dreaming of ways to spend his peaceful retirement and rapidly adjusts to new images of himself as a hot commodity. But at the same time, the major is a sympathetic character. It’s fairly easy to identify with the major’s shifting emotions and sudden worry about ageing and growing old–especially with some particularly poignant passages written by Goethe who was also around his 50th year:

“At the threshold where he now found himself, he suddenly realised with great force that the years, which at first bring one beautiful gift after another, gradually begin to take them back. A missed vacation to the baths, a summer passed without enjoyment, an absence of the usual mobility, all this caused him to notice certain physical discomforts to which he took great offence and showed more impatience than was reasonable.

Just as for women it is deeply distressing when their formerly undisputed beauty is first called into question, so for men of a certain age, even if they still retain all their vigour, the faintest feeling of insufficient energy is extremely discomforting, indeed frightening.”

The foreword, written by A.S. Byatt discusses similar romantic issues (May-December relationships) in Goethe’s own life, and I always appreciate a bit of bio especially if it puts the story in context. The excellent introduction, written by translator Andrew Piper states:

“The slim volume of The Man of Fifty is the perfect counterweight to the ponderous bulk of the collected work perched imperiously on any library’s or scholar’s bookshelves.”

Piper argues that The Man of Fifty should have a “corrective effect” on our assumptions about Goethe, and he’s right; this slim novella certainly caused me to rethink Goethe. Now I can’t write this author off so easily,  and so I bought a copy of The Elective Affinities.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Man of Fifty by Goethe

  1. I haven’t read Goethe yet – but you have convinced me by this great review that I should give him a go. Although I can’t claim to have former “undisputed beauty” I can relate to the idea of the years starting to take back their gifts. That’s a wonderful way of saying it. On the other hand, I am reminded of Murakami’s description of “the blessed right to grow old” and I think I will think of that as I move closer to me 60s!

  2. Thanks Gummie:
    That line “the years, which at first bring one beautiful gift after another, gradually begin to take them back” has been repeating itself in my head all day long. I agree–a beautiful way of describing it.

    Don’t know when I’ll get to The Elective Affinities–funnily enough I saw the film version and was not impressed by it a few years ago, so that will be a test.

  3. A fine, and informative review. I haven’t read anything by Goethe other than Italian Journey. Marriage to cousins etc was quite acceptable in those days I suppose, but surely they would have baulked a little at uncles/nieces? Books certainly admit you to different worlds don’t they

  4. Well I have a Marquis de Sade lined up (if it ever arrives), so all bets are off on that one.

  5. I tried his Faust years ago and didn’t take to it. I have to admit, I only read this review out of passing curiosity, the idea of a Goethe didn’t tempt.

    But now it does. It sounds rather enjoyable. I’ll probably pick it up in a bit and give it a spin, give Goethe another try and see if I end up rethinking him too.

  6. Well it is a novella and I’m beginning to think this is not a bad way to go to ‘try out’ some of these authors.

    It could have been better, but if Goethe had pushed the cosmetics much more, he stood the risk of making the major a buffoon. And as the story stands, the major is a sympathetic character and not grotesque at all.

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