14 November 2013

The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe

You would think that this is a book one would enjoy in their angsty youth and grow to despise as they got older, but funnily enough, it seems to be the opposite in my case. I used to think that Werther was annoying, melodramatic, and silly, but reading the book again now, I found him strangely lovable. More importantly, however, I was completely blown away by the novel itself. It is so brilliantly constructed; these little random bits of observations (that make the epistolary trope genuinely convincing) that fit together in such amusing ways, as when Werther marvels at how a man could have been deluded by his wife for years, and begins the next paragraph with "No, I am not deceiving myself!" and explain his conviction that Lotte loves him. Reflections about nature and children and literature form this wonderful tapestry of ideas that provides a broader sense of a worldview full of idealism and contradictions. Werther is brimming with passion and zest for life, while also being arrogant, hypocritical, and blind to his own privilege. But he manages to be mostly charming nonetheless. You'd expect the enjoyment you get from the book to be of the campy, cynical variety, but it's actually not--there is something genuinely winning about its earnestness and funny little thoughts. I was discussing it with a friend today, and I think he kind of nailed it when he said that it's a novel that could very easily have been a total flop, and that it took someone like Goethe to make it work. It's actually a pretty incredible book, and really interesting as a clearly very carefully and thoughtfully constructed work of fiction.

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