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Crying Over Werther
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I just finished reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 novel about a heartsick youth that had a huge influence on the later Romantic literary movement. I mention it only because it's been on my to-read pile for forty years. Figuratively speaking. What happened to the enticing trade paperback I bought for a "German Literature in Translation" class back in college, many changes in residence ago, I have no idea.

Werther and the other books on the reading list sounded enticing to me, but as usual I found myself in a tiny minority. Only one or two other students signed up so the class was cancelled.

The previous semester I had reveled in "French Literature in Translation" which covered authors ranging from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Voltaire right up to New Novel proponent, and literary gadfly, Alain Robbe-Grillet. I've always been eager to read something which to me is new and exotic. So, I kept my class books rather than returning them for a refund.

But as an English Lit major I was too snowed under by actual English literature to get around to reading translated German. For the "Early English Novel" alone I ran through a marathon of twelve or fourteen books, mostly the size of Vanity Fair and Tristram Shandy. Luckily we were given a severely condensed version of Richardson's Clarissa, estimated to be the longest novel in English at 984,870 words. Even at that it was a monstrous tome, though not as monstrous as Lovelace who...well, I don't want to give anything away in case you plan on reading it soon!

Thus the years passed and Werther remained unread. I was reminded of him during my recent orgy of nineteenth century French literature when one author after another expressed a debt to Goethe's protagonist. Though my class book was long vanished, the text is readily available on Gutenberg.

The question you're probably asking is whether the forty year wait was worth it? As an insight into literary history, yes. As a reading experience...well....

Not that it wasn't fascinating in its way. But I found it hard to believe that even a callow youth could be quite as obtuse, whining and cruelly self-centered as Werther. Although, considering some of the poetry people have committed on the Internet, I might be wrong.

Maybe I would have felt more sympathy had I read about Werther's tragic crush when I originally intended to, when I was nearer Werther's age. Then again, I had enough sense to never write poetry.

I wonder what Goethe's attitude was while writing the novel? It was based on his own youthful infatuation with a woman already spoken for and he did not seem to stress Werther's abject stupidity. In his later years he claimed at least to regret airing so much autobiographical material in public, saying that "if Werther had been a brother he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by the vengeful ghost."

If only we could all be haunted by having written in our feckless youth one of the most influential books of all time, however embarrassing. When I was twenty four I was writing unpublishable science fiction like "The Blue Centipede of Happiness."

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