Tag Archives: Goethe

Lenz by George Büchner

I admit that I’d never heard of Lenz–Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) until this review copy from Archipelago Books . Wikipedia identifies Lenz as a Baltic German writer of the Sturm und Drang movement. Here comes a slight digression….what is it with these artists who slotted into significant literary movements? Did they feel as though they had to live the very essence of the movement they were part of? Take the Sturm und Drang movement, for example. Lenz is one of those authors who fall under the movement’s umbrella, and his life appears to be an embodiment of the movement. Of course, this sets the mind off thinking about Oscar Wilde and the Decadents, Charles Bukowski and Transgressive Fiction, Byron and the Romantics etc… There’s a lot here to chew on, but back to Lenz.

Lenz is composed of the 1839 novella Lenz by Georg Büchner, Mr. L ... by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, and an excerpt concerning Lenz from Goethe’s Poetry and Truth. According to translator Richard Sieburth, Büchner’s Lenz is “an experiment in speculative biography.” Lenz, the son of a minister, rejected the study of theology and instead turned to literature. He then left his studies to become a “tutor” to the two young barons von Kleist and followed them to a number of garrisons. Later, he made friends with Goethe and became part of a group of young writers. A period of some literary success followed, but Lenz’s relationship with Goethe turned sour, and at Goethe’s instigation, Lenz was thrown out of the Weimar court. The translator’s afterword goes into some detail about the incidents that took place, but to give a hint: the trouble erupts over a woman.

Lenz begins with our main character, Lenz, wandering on the mountains. A simple walk turns into a monumental, epic journey, and we are privy to Lenz’s increasingly fragmented thoughts. It’s not immediately apparent, but becomes so as the story plays out, that Lenz is on the fringes of a total mental meltdown:

Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides. Only sometimes when the storm tossed the clouds into the valleys and they floated upwards through the woods and voices awakened on the rocks, like far-echoing thunder at first and the approaching in strong gusts, sounding as if they wanted to chant the praises of the earth in their wild rejoicing, and the clouds galloped by like the wild whinnying horses and the sunshine shot through them and emerged and drew its glinting sword on the snowfields so that a bright blinding light knifed over the peaks into the valleys; or sometimes when the storms drove the clouds downwards and tore a light-blue lake into them and the sound of the wind died away and then like the murmur of a lullaby or pealing bells rose up again from the depths of ravines and tips of fir trees and a faint reddishness climbed into the deep blue and small clouds drifted by on silver wings and all the mountain peaks, sharp and firm, glinted and gleamed far across the countryside, he would feel something tearing at his chest, he would stand there, gasping, body bent forward, eyes and mouth open wide, he was convinced he could draw the storm into himself, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the universe, it was a pleasure that gave him pain

That passage captures the beauty of nature–its violence and its peace, and through the sentence structure we also see Lenz’s erratic state of mind. But this scene is nothing compared to what awaits. An Alsatian pastor takes Lenz in to his home, and it’s there that Lenz unravels. The novella is a fictionalised account of the three weeks Lenz spent with Oberlin.

The second part of this volume, Mr. L  is an extract from the diary written by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who took on more than he planned when he took Lenz into his home. Oberlin chronicles three weeks of hell with Lenz throwing himself out of the window, trying to drown himself and getting way too familiar with a pair of scissors.

The third section’s matter-of-factness, written by Goethe, is in stark contrast to Lenz’s wildly irrational behaviour:

One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the dat, afflicting precisely those possessed of the most exceptional minds. Things that torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books and diaries.


Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their inmost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were throughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.

Obviously when Goethe wrote this, he was long out of patience with a man he once considered his friend–or at least someone you could safely invite into your home.  This volume gives us three very different views of Lenz–all of them unhappy, all of them tortured. Lenz seems to be a truly damaged individual–although Goethe indicates that at least some of the drama was fabricated. Lenz ended up in Russia, and he died there in 1792, aged 41, homeless on a Moscow street.

A few words on this edition… In terms of quality, the book reminds me of those excellent little high-quality pocket-sized editions from Pushkin Press. The cover is made of heavy card with flaps for both front and back covers. This is a dual German-English edition which is rather wasted on me as my two years of German stagnated after the discovery of the word “vater.” But really, this volume is a gem for anyone interested in German Literature (even if, like me, you can’t speak the language).

Special thanks to Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for arranging this review copy.



Filed under Büchner Georg, Fiction, Goethe

Elective Affinities by Goethe

For German literature month, co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, I decided to read Goethe’s Elective Affinities. After all, I already had a copy on my shelf, and I watched the film version of the book some time ago. Can’t say I was crazy about the film, and I much preferred the book. That said, I could really see that Goethe and I would never get along, and actually, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stand him in the flesh.  I’ve already made two posts regarding some of the reactions I had to this novel, and while I found myself disagreeing with Goethe on many issues, the novel itself is rather engaging in spite of its idealised characters and brazen snobbery (yes I know it’s the 19th C and hardly enlightened times). Anyway, a great read, and certainly one that did not induce indifference.

My Penguin version, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, includes a marvellous introduction which details just a portion of Goethe’s life. It’s Goethe in middle age, and this biographical information has direct relevance to Elective Affinities. Hollingdale states that Goethe lived with Christiane Vulpius for over 18 years, and they had five children together when Goethe married her in 1806. He was 57 and she was 41. Hollingdale explains that the marriage appeared to be a gesture of gratitude towards Christiane as she had bravely faced down Napoleon’s marauding army just 5 days before.  Marriage appeared to change Goethe:

But now that he was a married man, he discovered that he had all along harboured very stern moral principles with regard to the marriage tie, and he became an emphatic critic of the laxity displayed by the society in which he lived.

These ‘principles’ were sorely tested when Goethe fell in love with the eighteen year old Minna Herzlieb in 1807. Elective Affinities which began as a short story was written in 1808, but was then converted into the novel in 1809. Goethe’s “affair” with Minna was, according to Hollingdale, the “first of the affairs of his later life with women far younger than he.” How then did Goethe, in love with a teenage girl, and yet now married juggle those “stern moral principles” with his feelings & behaviour? For the answer to that question, read the novel.

Elective Affinities is a strange read. It feels as though it’s an ‘idea’ novel–and by that I mean the book is full of ideas that are then superimposed onto its characters. The result is not a character-driven book, but rather a book which explores ideas through the imagined actions and reactions of characters. For this reason, Goethe’s characters, at times do not appear human at all–not flesh and blood humans who rage, lust and fight. Instead we see idealised humans, and at times impossibly idealised humans. In some ways, Elective Affinities reminded me of Therese Raquin and Zola’s Scientific Determinism. That may seem to be a strange connection as there are no idealised humans in Therese Raquin, of course, but it is an ‘idea’ novel. Tancock, in his translation of Therese Raquin notes that Zola used a formula of sorts, and it’s exactly this formula that reminds me of Elective Affinities:

The formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.’

Elective Affinities begins on the large estate of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who were separated and married off to others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who was considerate enough to kick off and allow Eduard to return to his former sweetheart, now a widow. Charlotte and Eduard live alone, and Charlotte’s only daughter Luciane lives at boarding school. Charlotte also has a ward, Ottilie, the daughter of a deceased best friend. There’s the sense that Eduard and Charlotte have tried to create a perfect world on their estate and they are now engaged in non-stop renovations and property improvements. It’s an idyllic life, and one they’ve carefully crafted, but at the same time there’s a creeping sense of boredom. After all, just how many moss huts can you construct on your property before you start wishing for some action?

Action, or at least change, appears in the form of two individuals who arrive, by invitation, at the estate. Ottilie returns from boarding school, and the Captain, an old friend of Eduard’s, a man who’s fallen on hard times, is invited to stay. Charlotte isn’t particularly thrilled by the intrusion of the Captain, and she seems to have some sense of foreboding:

Remember that our pleasures too were intended to a certain extent to depend on our being alone together.

Charlotte argues that this is   “the first truly happy summer of my life,” and she’s sure that the addition of other people will shatter their private Eden. Eduard disagrees. He thinks that the “Captain’s presence will disturb nothing, but rather expedite and enliven everything.” Well at least Charlotte saw it coming, and as it turns out, Charlotte is correct. Nothing is ever the same again, and in essence, everyone’s lives are shattered.

The book is ostensibly about the actions of a handful of characters who struggle between societal conventions and the call of passion, but it is rife with Goethe’s philosophy. Hollingdale tells us that the story is about “Goethe’s idea of marriage, the currently accepted idea of it, and the passions with which neither idea seems able to cope.” But it doesn’t stop there. We also get notions of death, memory, and social criticism. It’s all good, but at times it does get heavy-handed. Instead of realistic characters, the action bends to philosophical soliloquy, and perhaps one of the best examples of that occurs when Goethe’s characters discuss chemistry (Goethe was interested in the subject). This is a reflection of what happens in the book and where the ‘elective affinities’ come in:

“Provided it does not seem pedantic,” the Captain said, “I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact; A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraces the other’s partner.”

“Now then!” Eduard interposed: “until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we can extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A follows B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.”

Of course, things don’t quite work out the way Eduard predicted.

Goethe’s depiction of Ottilie and Charlotte are both impossibly idealised, but the characterisation of Ottilie is the worst offender here. She’s the youngest character of the 4 (Eduard, Charlotte, the Captain and Ottilie), and she’s the wisest becoming more and more saintly and nauseating as the novel wears on until she’s ultimately cast as the virgin Mary in a tableau. I much preferred Goethe’s secondary characters, and it’s here that the author seems to let go of worrying about ideas and concentrates on character. There’s Mettler, a rather shady character who goes around ‘fixing’ divorces, and Charlotte’s horrible daughter, Luciane. She enters the novel rather late in the picture–like a whirlwind. Goethe calls her a “flaming comet.” She’s beautiful, selfish, vain, shallow, nasty and engaged to a nobleman who’s unfortunately ready to indulge every whim. As Goethe throws Luciane in the action, he seems to really get into her rotten nature. She’s a foil, of course, for Ottilie, and the two young girls are polar opposites. Nothing in-between for Goethe:

In general you might have thought she had made it her principle to expose herself to an equal measure of praise and blame, affection and disaffection. If she tried in a dozen ways to win people over, she usually managed to alienate them again through the sharpness of her tongue, which spared nobody. They never paid a visit in the neighbourhood, she and her companions were never hospitably received in some house or mansion, without she made it clear on the way home in the most uninhibited way how  inclined she was to find all human affairs merely ridiculous. Here there were three brothers who had politely waited for one to be the first to get married while old age overtook them; here there was a little young wife with a big old husband; there, contrariwise, a cheerful little husband and a clumsy giantess. In one house you could not move a step without treading on children, another she thought empty-looking even when crowded because there were no children in it. Certain elderly husbands ought to get themselves buried as soon as possible so that, since there were no legal heirs, someone could for once have a good laugh in the house again. Certain married couples ought to travel because they were in no way fitted to keep house. And as she criticized the people, so did she criticize their goods, their homes, their furniture, their crockery. Wall decorations of any kind especially excited her mockery. From the most ancient wall-carpets to the latest wallpaper, from the most venerable family portraits to the most frivolous copperplates, all had to go through it, she pulled them all to pieces, so that you had to marvel that anything for five miles around continued to exist.

Goethe grants that “there may not perhaps have been any malice” in Luciane’s rude, obnoxious behaviour, but she’s somehow rather refreshing after Ottilie’s impending sainthood, the faint whiff of Charlotte as burning martyr, and Eduard’s noble sacrifice to passion.


Filed under Fiction, Goethe

Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

I signed up for German literature month which is cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy Siddal, and I agreed to read a few German books during the month. My choices are here. I’ve already read Doris Dörrie’s Where Do We Go From Here?  and I just finished a second book, Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Here’s a post about a passage that struck me as terribly cheeky and autocratic, and which, I suspect, reflect’s Goethe’s philosophy.

Two of the novel’s wealthy characters, Eduard and Charlotte are obsessed with ‘improving’ their estate. It’s an obsession that gets the couple in trouble, but more of that in another post. Anyway, at one point, Charlotte sets out to improve the local churchyard:

Let us recall those alterations Charlotte had made in the churchyard. All the gravestones had been moved from their places and set up against the wall and against the base of the church. The ground had been levelled and, except for the broad walk which led to the church and then past it to the little gate beyond, sown with various kinds of clover, which provided a fine green and flowery expanse. New graves could be added from the end of this expanse, but each time the ground was to be levelled again and sown with clover. No one could deny that this arrangement provided a dignified and cheerful prospect when you went to church on Sunday or feast-days.

The families of those buried there were given no choice in the matter. Ok, so it’s picturesque, but not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Fancy that.

But for all that, there were some parishioners who had already expressed disapproval that the place where their ancestors reposed was no longer marked, and that their memory had thus been so to speak obliterated. There were many who said that, although the gravestones which were preserved showed who was buried there, they did not show where they were buried, and it was where they were buried that really mattered.

One local family who had arranged to give a “small bequest to the church” decided to withdraw their support, and the family’s solicitor eventually finds himself in front of Charlotte. He has this great speech about why everyone’s rights/choices in the matter have been violated:

You will understand that all persons, the highest and the humblest, are concerned to mark the place in which their loved ones lie. To the poorest peasant burying one of his children it is a kind of comfort and consolation to set upon its grave a feeble wooden cross, and to decorate it with a wreath, so that he may preserve the memory of that child for at any rate as long as his sorrow for it endures, even though such a memorial must, like that grief itself, at last be wiped away by time.

The entire passage goes on for quite a few more lines, but after giving his eloquent speech, the solicitor diplomatically agrees with Charlotte:

I can think of nothing more natural or more cleanly than that the mounds which have arisen fortuitously and are gradually subsiding should be levelled without delay, so that the earth, since it is now borne by all together, shall lie more lightly on each.  

What an ass-kisser.


Filed under Fiction, Goethe