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.
What has changed since 1787, the date of the revised edition which is the basis for this translation? The obsession with books, perhaps, or at least ‘high’ literature, that drives so much of Werther’s self-image. He loves poetry, especially Homer and Ossian but also Lessing and Klopstock. His story raises the question of whether too much reading, or a certain kind of reading, is healthy or dangerous for the unformed personality. Rousseau had asked the same thing in his preface to Julie, or the New Héloïse, another European blockbuster that told the story of an adulterous passion but stopped short of a suicidal ending. If today’s readers can’t take this too seriously, they can without much difficulty dub in analogous concerns about the consequences of television violence or video gaming. The debates are very much the same, and derive from similar habits of solitary imaginative experience, whether sitting under a tree with the Iliad or hiding under the bedclothes with a laptop. Werther makes himself what he is by way of books, an old-fashioned resource. It is one of the ironies of literary history that a book widely held to be a danger to young people when it was first published is itself an inquiry into the effects of compulsive reading.
Here is a passage from Werther’s first letter, reflecting his enthusiasm for a place new to him on an early summer’s day:
Solitude in this paradisiacal place is a precious balm to my heart, and this season of youth, with its abundance, warms my often-shuddering heart. Every tree, every hedge is a bouquet of blossoms and makes you want to turn into a May bug, so as to float in this sea of fragrances and draw all your nourishment from it.
A May bug? Goethe’s Maienkäfer is an odd word, either an old form of Maikäfer (‘cockchafer’) or a misprint for Marienkäfer (‘ladybird’, the choice of at least one earlier translator). The cockchafer is a large flying beetle quite destructive of vegetation that usually emerges in May – not a very poetic creature with which to identify. Is Goethe making fun of Werther? Is he not enough of a countryman to get his species straight, in which case the word we want might be something like ladychafer? A ladybird is more appealing, but even delicate insects don’t feed on light and air. Has Werther been reading his Greek myths, like the one in which the cicadas become so entranced with their own singing that they forget to sleep or feed, and therefore die?
No translation, and certainly not one, like Corngold’s, without explanatory footnotes, can hope to capture the nuances of another language written at a different time, and it would be churlish to convict Corngold of failing at an impossible task. But any reader of the novel is going to miss a lot of what Goethe might have been up to. Still, we get enough clues to suggest we don’t have to take Werther in complete good faith – a suggestion Goethe played up in his revised edition. The book constantly asks us to make decisions about Werther’s character and about his values, or his worth (Wert, in German). Indeed, we have to decide about his name – is it his Christian name or surname? Everyone else in the novel goes by his or her first name, and if we think of Werther this way then he becomes a more vulnerable figure than he might seem if we think of him as having a family name only, which would make him sound a bit like a young man on the make (which he is). The mononym is odd because Werther is not like Wilhelm, Albert or Lotte – which are very clearly first names. It smacks of the medievalism common in literary circles at the time, not of the pietist-Christian conventions of the Johanns and Joachims of the day. Wert-Herr can mean ‘worthy man’ or more specifically ‘worthy of the army’, perhaps alluded to when Werther feels ‘like a man … stripped of his sword’ and again when he botches his fatal shot and dies a lingering death rather than making a decisive exit. The precursor is Rousseau’s St Preux, whose name (‘St Valiant’) is given to him not by his mother but by Julie herself in a gesture of romantic condescension. Werther is also werter, more valuable, more worthy, so that a defensible English translation might get the spirit of things by not observing the supposed untranslatability of proper names and calling him young Worthy or Wortham. Plenzdorf’s novel picks up on the wordplay by calling his hero Edgar Wibeau and having him insist on the French pronunciation of the second syllable, giving us a German-French compound meaning ‘how handsome’.
Goethe in fact seeds his narrative with plays on Werther’s concern with his worth, with how he is seen and judged by others and by himself. Where Corngold has him asking Lotte whether he might ‘deserve the good fortune’ of being her relative, the German reads ‘des Glücks wert sei’; and when he and Lotte visit the well that is already ‘so dear’ to him and becomes ‘a thousand times dearer’ because of her presence, we read ‘mir so wert und nun tausendmal werter ist.’ After her mother’s death Lotte tells him that ‘she was worth your knowing her’: ‘sie war wert, von Ihnen gekannt zu sein.’ Corngold doesn’t capture this wordplay regularly enough, and so misses Werther’s obsession with value, his fruitless pursuit of a moving target – value itself – which (according to the logic that Marx would make famous) is always displaced, always relational, always changeable, and certainly impossible to contain in a proper name. Werther is always chasing himself, or the self he thinks he is.
It’s a self educated by books, and thus by imaginary relations and mediated experiences, the most famous of which occurs when Werther and Lotte look out at a storm: ‘She put her hand on mine and said, Klopstock! … and I sank into the flood of feelings that she poured over me with this byword.’ This is an exemplary moment: Werther shaken to the roots by a byword, or battle cry, or password, or even slogan (Losung). His is a life lived through secondary sources. As he looks into her eyes it is Klopstock he thinks of addressing: ‘Noble poet! If you had but seen yourself idolised in this glance.’
Book 1 of Werther is a spring and summer book; its letters go from May to September, and it takes place outdoors: walks in the countryside, reading outside, intimate sociability. The presiding author is Homer, who comes from a land where lemon trees bloom. Book 2 is a winter book. It covers 15 months, from October to December of the following year, and changes mood dramatically. There are only a few short letters written in the summer months, as if Werther can’t write at any length until we get to early autumn: ‘As nature declines into autumn, it is becoming autumn in and around me. My leaves are turning yellow.’ He has been doing a boring job working with a man he doesn’t respect and who takes issue with his literary deviations from a traditional bureaucratic German. It is a world where people look over their shoulder to make sure they are cutting the right figure, where everyone is obsessed by rank and reputation, and where he undergoes the humiliation of being quietly asked to leave a social event because he’s not the right sort. Nature is dead to him: ‘At night I resolve to enjoy the sunrise, and I do not get out of bed.’ Away from Lotte, the provincial town he lives in has no charm: it is a ‘dreary hick town’ full of ‘strangers’. And the weather is terrible. The reading matter that accompanies this phase of Werther’s life, and exaggerates its miseries, accordingly shifts: ‘Ossian has driven Homer from my heart.’ Northern mists displace the Mediterranean skies and further thicken in the brain of an unhappy young man in a rotten job with no friends to turn to and a longing for a woman who loves someone else.
There is one great scene left before the end, and it is all about Ossian. The story is now in the hands of the editor, since Werther is hardly writing letters. He has left his job and is drifting, forlorn and lost. He has told Lotte he wants to die, and she has told him to ‘learn moderation’ and ‘be a man’. This only drives him further into despair, and when she asks him what he has to read, he has nothing. The solace of books is no longer available. So she reaches into her desk and pulls out his own translation of Ossian (which is Goethe’s). He reads aloud, and after six pages Lotte bursts into tears and they weep together. They embrace, kiss passionately, break off, and Lotte leaves the room ‘trembling between love and fury’. This is their last meeting before Werther’s gruesome end. It takes 12 hours for him to die.
Corngold (as J.M. Coetzee has pointed out in a review of the book) misses the theme of secondariness in the Ossian scene by printing Macpherson’s ‘original’ English (itself a notorious forgery and recognised as such from its first appearance) rather than trying to render the effects of a translation, which was also the one Goethe himself made. And yet Goethe’s translation, derivative as it may be, is enough to move Lotte to reveal her feelings. Reading together is more satisfying but also more dangerous than sitting alone on a bench with Homer. By reading his work to someone else, Werther is making himself a man of letters, but also hastening the crisis to come.
The recourse to a translation doesn’t seem to diminish the power of the moment for those caught up in it, but it also raises questions given the novel’s interest in translation and its nature and propriety. The German language had been taking on foreign words throughout the 18th century, especially words from French: this is the time when Samuel Johnson also was worrying that English speakers were starting ‘to babble a dialect of France’. Incorporation of foreign words into a language can be a sign of its lack of vocabulary (Cicero thought Latin needed to borrow from Greek), of its commitment to cosmopolitanism (Schleiermacher advanced a version of this argument), or just a matter of individual affectation, whether to impress others or to ironise the habit of doing so: pretentious, moi? Werther is full of passages where the hero is deploying his habit of using foreign words, mostly French. Is he at the cutting edge of a historical shift in demotic German or a pompous young man wanting to seem fashionable? Then, too, we can find moments where he uses a deliberately Germanic word for a different effect. The task of the translator is almost impossible here. Sometimes Corngold gets lucky and can carry Werther’s non-German word over into English with roughly the same effect. Adieu and en passant still register as foreign words. But there are a lot of foreign words in Werther, and they mostly fail to register as such in the translation. Then there is the opposite problem: Corngold’s choice of ‘gourmands’ to render Schluckers (arguably a foreignised plural of a German word) and ‘marionette’ for Drahtpuppe misses Werther’s doggedly German word-choice.
Corngold’s declared aim is to use words current in English around 1787, in the hope of giving some sort of historical flavour to a translation that must also read as modern enough to be gripping. Goethe is being offered as an ancient, one of the greats whose essential meanings we can access without footnotes and academic introductions, without the sorts of niggling qualification I have been making. There are slip-ups: ‘homey’ for heimlich, ‘nickel’ for Kreuzer. For the most part, however, Corngold hits the spot, or a spot, in producing a fluent and readable text that doesn’t distract from the story. But Goethe’s story is more about textuality than any translation is likely to capture, and Corngold misses much of this.
Werther ends up in an unmarked grave, but his name lives on in and as a book, the most enduring of all the commodities generated by Werther fever. There is a form of celebrity that goes with having only one name: Pelé and Madonna but also Homer and Ossian. One of the outcomes of the book’s popularity was a market for the clothes Werther likes to dress in: blue coat, yellow waistcoat and trousers. Stölzl’s film gets at this comically in having Werther borrow these clothes from a friend, who tells him that they are all the rage (already!). And it is not unlikely that Goethe is alluding to the colours of the more or less progressive British Whigs – another borrowing. In one of his late letters Werther comments on how sorry he is to have to retire his outfit (in which he danced with Lotte for the first time) because it is getting shabby. He has ordered another one ‘just like it’. And then: ‘It doesn’t have quite the same effect, though. I don’t know – I think in time I might begin to like it better.’ This passage is also in the first edition, so we can’t attribute it to Goethe’s wry acknowledgment of the book’s notoriety. This is a writer who knows the value of the replica.