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A journey alongside genius
on 28 July 2010
Two true stories woven together so as to provide a tragic love story and a direct insight into Goethe's mind. Simple, poetic, tragic and thoughtful. A journey alongside genius.
When Napoleon met Goethe he is reported to have said, "There is a Man!" Napoleon was a big fan of Goethe and read this book no less than seven times. Perhaps not surprisingly, because its semi-autobiographical nature makes it an almost direct insight into Goethe's genius.
The story is based on two separate but related true stories. First Goethe's own stay in the village of Wetzlar in 1771 when he was 23. He met Charlotte Buff who was engaged to Christian Kestner and seems to have fallen in love with her and possibly her with him, but neither acted on their feelings out of respect and possibly love for Kestner. The second concerns a mutual friend, Wilhelm Jerusalem, who shot himself over his love for Elisabeth Herd, a married woman. Much is known of the actual facts of these two stories and Goethe's synthesis of himself and Jerusalem into the fictional Werther follows the facts remarkably closely so that it seems when he talks about Werther's feelings he is describing his own.
Goethe has that clarity and simplicity of thought that defines genius and he has sufficient self-confidence in his own abilities so as not to need to display his cleverness. Instead he plainly and simply sets out the story and his/Werther's thoughts and emotions about what is happening. He tries to be a fine human being against the tide of his emotions, and there is much to appreciate in his relationships with others and in his observations about the simple pleasures in life. The reader is left with the strong impression that Goethe would have been a good and interesting friend; and the fact of his having a powerful and creative mind would never have interfered with that position.
As Werther falls further in love with Charlotte his situation becomes hopeless and, like Jerusalem, he decides to shoot himself using Albert's (Christian's) guns. The ending is gory and ghastly but, in Werther's mind, glorious because in death he will get to wait for Charlotte who he is certain loves him and not Albert.
The book was a sensation on publication and Werther mania swept Europe, including guided tours of Wetzlar and Jerusalem's grave. Suicide was said to have become a fashion amongst the young and they adopted Werther's (Jerusalem's) trademark dress of blue frock-coat, buff leather waistcoat and breeches.
For modern readers it is a remarkable and poignant love story, but also a chance to spend some hours in the company of a great and gentle mind.