Thursday, 7 March 2013

Den Unge Werthers Lidanden/The Sorrows of Young Werther by J. W. von Goethe 4/5 [re-read]

First published: 1774
Original title: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers
Original language: German
Translation to English by:
R D Boylan, 2002
Page count: 182

GoodReads says: For more than two centuries the very title of this book has evoked the sensitivity of youth, the suffering of the artist, the idea of a hero too full of love to live. When it was first published in Germany, in 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther created a sensation. Banned and condemned but embraced – especially by the young – it has continued to captivate.

I say: I downloaded this from as well as borrowed two Swedish versions by different translators, and then I read the English version and compared the Swedish versions before settling on one translation that I can’t remember and may look up sometime never.

So, The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel made up of letters sent from Werther to his friend Wilhelm, where he tells of his life in a village where he falls unhappily in love with Charlotte, who is engaged to Albert. He walks around being extremely sentimental and reading, first The Odyssey by Homer and then Ossian by James Macpherson, comparing his life to these literary works. Realising that he’ll never get Charlotte, Werther leaves the village to work for a while, but later returns because he cannot stand to be away from her.

And then I can’t say much else as that would be a spoiler.

I recall reading this as a teen and thinking Werther melodramatic and rather silly, but still loving the language, and I felt the same way this time. Perhaps enjoying the language much more than I recall – both the English and Swedish translations were wonderful and I am in love with Goethe’s wordsmithery.

And yes, I am aware that ‘wordsmithery’ isn’t a real word.

Anyone who knows me (or reads this blog regularly) knows that I don’t like sentimentality – at all – and Werther is no exception. I did find myself annoyed with his constant lamentations and thick-headedness, but it was said in such a beautiful way I could co-sign a lot of his metaphors and similes. Perhaps it’s the archaic English (and Swedish) that throws me off, because I am very much aware of the abundance of hyperbole in his letters.
Must it ever be thus, that the source of our happiness must also be the fountain of our misery? The full and ardent sentiment which animated my heart with the love of nature, overwhelming me with a torrent of delight, and which brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment, a demon which perpetually pursues and harasses me.

I mean, that is some serious embroidery, but somehow it doesn’t make me too nauseous. 

Words aside, what I found most interesting was Wether’s philosophising about life and death. It reminded me so much of Albert Camus’ thoughts on the absurd that I got slight chills reading it. Although Werther was mad with love for a woman he couldn’t have, and I don’t particularly want to condone his final decision, I absolutely understand it – and actually think it gives the novel all the depth that makes me love it.

I feel the need to explain myself (even though I shouldn’t have to) by saying that as a self-professed absurdist, I understand his final decision, even though I wouldn’t encourage anyone to follow his example.

Aside: that should keep me covered.

Since I cannot really go any further with this review, as everything I want to discuss is of a philosophical nature (having covered the literary one in class), I’ll merely say that this gets a 4/5 because of the hyperbole and silliness of Werther, but I still think this is a novel everyone should read – preferably in their teens (after they’ve gotten over their first heartbreak).

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