Thursday, March 22, 2012

Goethe in shirtsleeves

One of Germany’s greatest literary figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, died 180 years ago today. His diaries, written throughout his life and later published in 13 volumes, have never appeared in English translations - with one exception. In 1999, Oxford University Press published The Flight to Italy, an eight-week diary written when Goethe was 37. Although no great claims are made for the book, the translator - T. J. Reed - says it shows Goethe ‘in shirtsleeves, moving not posing’.

Goethe was born in 1749 in Frankfurt to a lawyer and the mayor’s daughter, and was educated in Leipzig and Strasbourg. By 1771, he had returned to Frankfurt and was working as a lawyer. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was published in 1774. The following year, he made a trip to Switzerland, and then went to work in Weimar for Duke Charles Augustus. Over the years, he was given various administrative duties, ranging from finance to roads and from military matters to mining issues. Occasionally he gave readings to the Duke and guests.

Goethe was an inveterate inquirer, studying widely, not least human biology (he discovered the human inter-maxillary bone) and philosophy. The duke ennobled Goethe, and eventually released him from day-to-day governmental duties (although he remained at the centre of Weimar’s cultural life) allowing him to focus on writing. In September 1786, he embarked on a long tour of Italy, not returning until 1788.

In 1789, Goethe began a relationship with Christiane Vulpius although, scandalously, they did not marry until 1806, after she had borne him a son. From the 1790s, Goethe wrote widely on arts and literature, especially in his own journal Propyläen, and he developed a firm friendship with Friedrich Schiller. His most famous poem, Faust, an epic drama, was published in two parts, the first in 1808, and the second after his death on 22 March 1832. His other major works, include the novel Elective Affinities and The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister. Further biographical information is readily available at Wikipedia, Your Dictionary or the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Goethe kept a diary for most of his life. This was published by Böhlau in 13 volumes between 1887 and 1919, but almost none of it has been translated for publication into English. In the 1920s, Hugo K. Schilling, an American scholar of German who wrote a thesis on the diaries (discussed in Proceedings and List of Members of the Modern Language Association of America), explained the genesis of Goethe’s diary writing: ‘His diaries were private documents, they saw the light but late and are practically unknown to the public; even students of Goethe generally use them for reference only, and few ever read the thirteen volumes of them in the Weimar edition continuously in their entirety. Yet they alone [of all Goethe’s writings] give first impressions, fresh and vivid, recorded spontaneously and naturally with no interfering thought of ultimate publication in their original form. Goethe’s earliest attempt at something like a diary resulted in the Ephemerides of his Strassburg student days, a jumble of undated miscellaneous memoranda of no particular interest except as they throw light upon his extensive reading. Five years later he kept a fragmentary daily record of his first trip to Switzerland.’

The only diary of Goethe’s that seems to have appeared in English is The Flight to Italy: Diary and Selected Letters, translated by T. J. Reed, and published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1999. ‘This,’ OUP says, ‘is the authentic day-to-day record of the first eight weeks of freedom as Germany’s greatest poet heads for the Italy he has been yearning to see since childhood and finds himself in a new world of warmth and light. Leaving behind the difficulties of a decade in Weimar, the burden of administration, a difficult love-affair, and the frustration of not having time to work on his literary projects, he discovers himself again as a sensuous being and an artist. Goethe’s fresh and spontaneous notes, sometimes dashed down at crowded tables in primitive Italian inns, bring together art and nature, Antiquity and the Renaissance, aesthetics and science, observations of climate, rocks, plants and the Italian people, in an unpremeditated mixture through which the poet’s mature vision of the natural and human world can be seen taking shape. Never before translated into English, this diary brings us close to a great European writer at a turning-point of his life.’

Reading between the lines of the OUP promotional blurb, no great claims are made for this diary. Although there are occasional glimpses of Goethe the writer, most of the text is nothing more than a fairly ordinary travel diary, describing places visited. Also, while most of the entries in the text are dated like a diary, they read more like letters to someone rather than musings to oneself. In his introduction, Reed says Goethe ‘had no high opinion of this little document’, and that it is a wonder ‘he never destroyed it as he did so many of his other papers once they had helped him construct his mature retrospect’. (Goethe had used the diary to write a book about the whole trip - Italian Journey - which was translated into English by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, and published by Penguin in 1970.)

Nevertheless, Reed continues, ‘the diary is a book in its own right, all the more so for being informal, colloquial, impressionistic, under-punctuated, unpolished, with loose ends showing and changes of mind not tidied away. It is Goethe in shirtsleeves, moving not posing.’

8 September 1786
‘Reached the Brenner, virtually forced to stop at what is an ideal place for a rest. My first act is to tell you all the good things of the day just past. It was the kind of day you can savour in the memory for years. Left Mittelwald at 6, clear sky, a keen wind blowing, and the kind of cold only allowed in February. The near slopes dark and covered in spruce, the grey limestone cliffs, the highest white peaks against the beautiful blue of the sky made exquisite, constantly changing pictures.

Near Scharnitz you get into the Tyrol and the border is closed with a rampart that seals off the valley and joins up with the mountains. It looks very fine. One one side the cliff is fortified, on the other it just goes steeply up.

At Seefield by half-past 8. From there the route gets steadily more interesting. Up to this point it went over the hills that you climb out of Benedict Bayern, now you get nearer to the valley of the Inn and look down into Intzingen. The sun was high and hot. The clothes I brought with me - a jerkin with sleeves and an overcoat - that were meant for all seasons, had to be changed, and they often are 10 times in a day.

Near Cirl the route drops into the Inn valley. The situation is indescribably lovely and with the heat-haze high up it was magnificent. I only managed to dash down a sketch, the driver hadn’t been to Mass yet and was in a hurry to get to Innsbruck, it was the Nativity of the Virgin.

Now it’s down the Inn valley all the way, past the immense steep limestone face of the Martin Wall. At the point where Emperor Max is said to have got himself cragfast, I reckon I could probably get up and down without an angel’s help, though it would still be a criminally risky undertaking.

Innsbruck lies in a splendid position, in a broad rich valley between high rock walls and mountains. I felt like stopping there for today, but something inside wouldn’t let me rest.

The innkeeper’s son was Soller to a T. So I’m gradually coming across the characters I’ve invented.

It’s the Virgin’s Nativity. The people are all dressed up, looking healthy and prosperous, and making a pilgrimage to Wilten a quarter of an hour outside the town. I left Innsbruck at 2 and at half-past seven was here.’

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