Saturday, May 23, 2015

Goethe biographies

Goethe Girl with cowboy poets
I am enjoying an extended (eight days) absence from Manhattan, visiting friends in northern Arizona. One item on our itinerary is a trip to Monument Valley. I continue to be interested in the different geological formations of Europe and of the American West.

On the flight out I started reading Andrew Piper's biography of Goethe (2010), which appears in the Brief Lives series of Hesperus Press, offering, as per the back jacket, "short, authoritative biographies of the world's best-known literary figures." Such is Goethe, as Piper reminds us throughout this very readable biography. Early on, I had the feeling that Piper worked with a chronology Goethe's life at his side, assuring that all the high points were treated, but he is seldom abstract or vague. For instance, after Goethe returned to Weimar from Italy he was made director of the theater, expending a decade of energy and time. This is followed by a nice detail that gives an impression of Goethe's ambitions as well as the limitations he endured: "The theater was of modest size (fourteen rows of benches in a fifty-foot-long room with a twenty-foot-wide stage), although its initial repertory was not: it consisted of eleven operettas and thirty-five plays in the summer season alone."

Works for sale at Phippen Museum Western art show in Prescott
Piper has the enviable ability to summarize, with pertinent detail, large historical moments, as, for instance, the opening gestures of the French Revolution in a single short paragraph and its initial effects on Germany (none, aside from the interest of intellectuals). He is also good at sketching, in a few strokes, the kernel of Goethe's works, although occasionally producing a clunker, e.g., re Werther: "It is the story of a young man with too much emotion. He falls in love with another man's fiancée, is an incessant reader, and imagines that he can see the entire universe in a blade of grass. By the end of the novel, he will shoot himself in the head as a copy of Lessing's play Emilia Galotti lies open on his desk."

Generally the insights are better, and Piper is good at relating Goethe's poetic production to his life or experience. On Tasso: "In it we can see how difficult courtly life had become for Goethe and how retreat and solitude had emerged as fundamental ingredients of his own creativity. ... Torquato Tasso was one of the most eloquent laments about the artist's awkward position in the world."

Arizona watercolors by Margarethe Brummermann
Schiller is introduced as an "itinerant playwright who had been unable to find permanent employment at one of the handful of large repertory theaters in the German states. His first play, The Robbers, had been a tremendous sensation ..., but he had never been capable of churning out standard bourgeois fare like Kotzebue or Iffland." On the success of Schiller's inaugural lecture in Jena: "No one cold move a crowd quite like Schiller."

Each "stage" of Goethe's life channels different priorities. For instance, the felt immediacy of the early poetry ("Mailied") gives way go "an artistry of reflection ("Auf dem See"),

It is a good overview, a very intelligent one, and it also places Goethe in a larger European context, with references to Keats, Carlyle, world literature, and so on. Lately I find myself interested in more partial studies of Goethe, which include two that I am currently reading, Albrecht Schöne's study of Goethe as a "Briefsteller" and Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar. More news on those two books to come.

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