Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Goethe the novelist

Elective Affinities, by Eric Edelman
Thoughts about Goethe as a novelist came to me rather indirectly. In an essay on the novels of Anthony Trollope, I encountered the following observation: "One might read Jane Austen’s novels through and never suspect that there was better medical advice to be had in London than in the country. One might read them through and never know that there are courts of law in London. In Mr. Trollope’s novels you never forget these things. Indeed, you see a good deal of the machinery of Parliament and of the greater administrative offices of the State. … The great web of London is the centre, and some kind of London life for the most part the motive power." The observation was by a contemporary of Trollope's, Richard Holt Hutton.

Since reading Hutton's comments many months ago, I have been thinking about how different Goethe is from either Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, both masters of the English-language novel. When I first read the opening of Elective Affinities many years ago, I thought I might be entering into Austen's world. All of her novels take place in a tightly circumscribed social milieu with a small set of characters: "three or four families in a country village." Nothing could be more circumscribed than the setting of Elective Affinities: a country estate quite like that of Hartfield in Austen's 1815 novel Emma. At the center of each novel is a moral problem. Despite the disturbances caused by Emma's moral lapses, in the end all is in order. In Goethe's almost contemporaneous novel, published in 1809, the story ends much differently, with a complete overturning of the moral order.

What is interesting in connection with Trollope is that Goethe knew a lot about how government worked. As a minister and advisor in the duchy of Weimar, as a resident there for over 50 years, he was intimately concerned with affairs of state. In fact, one might compare him to Trollope of whom Henry James wrote: “Trollope was familiar with all sorts and conditions, with the business of life, of affairs, with the great world of sports, with every component part of the ancient fabric of English society. [He had traveled the globe] The background of the human drama was a very extensive scene. ... But his work is full of implied reference to the whole area of modern vagrancy.”

As for Goethe, there was so much he could have said, but there is not a hint of business or of politics or of a greater social world in his three large novels. (The Sorrows of Young Werther is an exception, but it was written before he went to Weimar.) Although, like Trollope, he begins his novels matter-of-factly, introducing the setting and dramatis personae with some precision, evoking character as briskly as we come to understand our acquaintances (I am paraphrasing Holt Hutton here), from there Goethe goes all symbolic. Even such major activities as the estate reconfiguration or the painting of the walls and ceiling in the chapel in Elective Affinities stand for more than themselves.  A boat ride is fraught with implications.

In this connection, Michael Lipkin, in an essay on that novel a few years ago in The Paris Review, wrote as follows: “Only Goethe could write a sentence like 'He took note of all the beauties which the new paths had made visible and able to be enjoyed,' skipping, in typical Goethe fashion, right past the actual beauty to linger on the sensibility of organization that makes it possible.” To return to the contrast with Trollope with which I began, Lipkin also writes: "Occupation, in the middle-class sense that would come to define the nineteenth century—making things, buying things, selling things—held little interest for Goethe."

I wrote a post on the novel back in 2009, which marked the centenary of the novel's appearance, and in which I included a lovely painting entitled Elective Affinities by the Colombia artist Nohra Borras. It is a theme that has attracted many artists and illustrators. The image at the top of this post is by the New York artist Eric Edelman, whose website contains many striking collages on literary and philosophical subjects.