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'The Essential Goethe' offers English-language readers a major new tool

This new compilation puts before readers a smattering of just about everything Goethe wrote in his busy lifetime.

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The Essential Goethe
Edited by Matthew Bell
Princeton University Press
1,056 pp.

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The German novelist, poet, diarist, and all-around literary polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been pleasing and impressing readers – and also daunting and mystifying them – ever since he rocketed to overnight fame in 1774 with the publication of his novella "The Sorrows of Young Werther," which swept through the reading public like wildfire and eventually prompted Napoleon Bonaparte to award the author the Legion d'Honneur.

For English-language readers, that ongoing grapple with this towering author – at once inviting and forbidding, universal and strange – gains a major new tool in The Essential Goethe, a new 1,000-page compilation volume from Princeton University Press, edited and with an Introduction by Matthew Bell, a professor of German literature at King's College, London. The volume he edits here is drawn from the 12-volume Princeton edition of Goethe's collected works, and his introduction brims with the kind of innocence only a lifelong academic can summon; there has been, he tells us, “a demand for an edition of the collected works that offers the reader a similar breadth of coverage in a more manageable format. The present volume satisfies that demand.” 

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The rank and file of the general reading public will perhaps have missed that yearning demand for more and more Goethe, and they might have thought that any such demand had been met already by the 1,000-page selection Elizabeth Mayer did for Everyman's Library back in 1999. Bell writes that his own doorstop volume is “the most comprehensive and representative selection of Goethe's writing that has ever been made available to the English-speaking reader in a single volume,” and although his volume is actually shorter than Mayer's (and heavier, and more expensive), it works hard to put before readers a smattering of just about everything Goethe wrote in his busy lifetime.

Bell includes a detailed timeline of that lifetime, and readers will study it in vain for any hint of what we expect from towering artistic geniuses. There's no poverty. There's no suffering. There's no clawing up from obscurity. Goethe was born into a wealthy family in Frankfurt am Main in 1749, studied law, traveled widely, met Beethoven, corresponded with Byron, had a few rather polite love-moonings, married, had children and grandchildren, became a senior advisor to a German Grand Duke, and died peacefully after a brief illness in his eighth decade. In his entire adult life, he never wrote a word except in the well-justified certainty that the entire Western world would want to read it.

A life of such complacent comfort should have produced exactly what Goethe resembled on the surface: a self-satisfied and slightly banal civil servant and boring literary dabbler. And the genuine mystery of the man is how much more Goethe was than the sum of his biography; in German, virtually everything he wrote, in addition to being charming and intelligent, holds a peculiar, unmistakable electric charge.

The question with volumes like "The Essential Goethe" is to what extent – if any – that electric charge can be conveyed in translation. This book includes such disparate works as a selection of poems, dramas like "Torquato Tasso" or the enigmatic "Egmont" (both translated by Michael Hamburger), "Iphigenia in Tauris" (translated by David Luke), and of course "Faust" (translated by John Williams), plus all of the novel "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship", the first part of Goethe's travelogue "Italian Journey," and generous selections from his philosophical and scientific writings like "Theory of Color" or "On Morphology." Young Werther and his sorrows make no appearance here, which is certainly refreshing but fairly severely undercuts the “essential” in the title.

It's a longshot that this volume's efforts will convince anybody of that “essential” in any case. The crackle of the German Romanticism that Goethe raised to such an art form, for example, is notoriously difficult to translate; it most often comes across here as mopey sentimentality, as when Wilhelm Meister encounters a rainbow and opines, “Why is it ... that the brightest colors in life always appear against a dark background? Must raindrops, or tears, fall if we are to experience true joy?” Or in the "Italian Journey," when Goethe is recalling the first time he visited Bologna and toured its paintings by Caracci, Guido, and Domenichino and can't manage to disassociate them from their religious context: “We cannot get away from the dissecting room, the gallows, the abattoir, and the suffering of the hero; there is never any action, never any immediate interest, always some fantastic expectation from outside.”

Readers get hundreds of pages of this stuff in "The Essential Goethe," and aside from Bell's 25-page introduction, there's no critical apparatus at all – no work-by-work commentaries, no footnotes, no endnotes. One can't help but wonder how much more approachable the book would have been if it had dumped the author's babblings on chromatics – giggled at even in Goethe's own day – in favor of providing lots more context for a writer who badly needs it when he's away from home.