BOOKS: Time to Come Down from the Pedestal ; LITERATURE Love, Life, Goethe by John Armstrong PENGUIN Pounds 16.99 Pounds 15.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

By Schler, C J | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), July 2, 2006 | Go to article overview
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BOOKS: Time to Come Down from the Pedestal ; LITERATURE Love, Life, Goethe by John Armstrong PENGUIN Pounds 16.99 Pounds 15.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897


Schler, C J, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Of all the formative figures of European literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is one of the most revered and yet - outside his native Germany - the least read. While his bust rests securely in the pantheon of the greats, it occupies a rather dusty niche there. Why should this be so?

This may partly be down to a resistance to German literature in this country, though the plays of his friend Schiller have been revived on the London stage with great success in recent years. It is also true that Goethe has not always been well served by his English translators. Though he had powerful advocates in 19th- century Britain, notably Carlyle and G H Lewis, they were hampered by the widespread view that key works - the Roman Elegies and the novel Elective Affinities - were immoral or even obscene' in Bayard Taylor's Victorian translation of Faust, the Walpurgis Night scene is peppered with dashes.

Worse still, Goethe's forceful, direct and often informal German was rendered into a stiflingly archaic literary English, reinforcing what was perhaps the greatest obstacle to his popularity: the notion that he is too "Olympian", too abstruse, and too aloof from ordinary concerns to engage the general reader.

In this lucid and engaging book, John Armstrong blows away the dust from this most misunderstood of major writers, and reveals a fascinating and often likeable figure whose work is of the utmost relevance to the problems we face today. And if Love, Life, Goethe is more of a straightforward cradle-to-grave biography than its subtitle might lead one to expect, Armstrong, a philosopher at Melbourne University, never loses sight of his central idea: Goethe's belief that the job of the artist is to help people to live happily and well.

It is ironic, then, that Goethe first shot to international fame, at the age of 25, with a novel that became the handbook for moody, alienated youth everywhere: The Sorrows of Young Werther. Yet Goethe's intention was not to glorify romantic disaffection but to warn against it. Werther loves a girl who doesn't love him, feels undervalued by his superiors at work, and suffers social humiliation at the hands of some tedious snobs. These are all quite normal experiences that can happen to most of us. We endure them, learn from them, and emerge the stronger for it' poor Werther borrows a pair of pistols and blows his brains out. It is Werther's outlook on life, Goethe is saying, rather than his experiences, that drags him down.

Somewhat chastened to find himself acclaimed the high priest of a cult he so vehemently opposed, Goethe joined the Privy Council of the small German duchy of Weimar, where he devoted himself very seriously to his administrative duties overseeing the army, roads and mines.

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BOOKS: Time to Come Down from the Pedestal ; LITERATURE Love, Life, Goethe by John Armstrong PENGUIN Pounds 16.99 Pounds 15.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
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