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Werther Lives On: Sequels through the Ages

Mar 18, 2016 5:13:00 PM
By Richard Dyer

By Richard Dyer

Readers of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther hungered for more; after all it was a sensational success in 1774—and for two and a half centuries afterwards. But it was not a book that demanded a sequel. After all, the “narrator” of the novel is young Werther himself, writing letters to a friend, and after the last letter, he commits suicide.

But after the firestorm of acclaim that arose after the first publication, sequels appeared almost immediately. One of them told the story from the point of view of Charlotte, Werther’s great love; another, called The Joys of Young Werther, contrived a happy ending that Goethe loathed—and he despised the author of the happy ending for the rest of his life. Goethe himself revisited and revised his first great success 13 years later, and that revision is the one most people read today. He again returned to the book in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, written over a period of years at the other end of his life.

Meanwhile, Werther was translated all over the world; even Frankenstein’s monster read it. The book has never been out of print, never stopped being read; to this day young writers return to the archetypal story of unrequited love, which also survives in stage adaptations, in Massenet’s opera, in the movies and on television.

Thomas Mann

By far the most significant literary response to Werther is Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns, a novel by the most important German literary figure of the 20th century that reflects his lifetime study of the most German literary figure of all. Mann wrote the novel late in the 1930s after he decided not to return to his home in Hitler’s Germany and to remain and live in Switzerland instead; when that too became dangerous, Mann moved to America and even became an American citizen. Mann spent 13 years in California before returning to Switzerland for the last two years of his life, passing away in 1953.

Like Werther, Charlotte in Weimar is based on a fact: Charlotte Buff Kestner, the woman who inspired the creation of Goethe’s Charlotte in Werther, did in fact meet Goethe again 45 years after the events in his novel. Almost nothing is known about this occasion beyond a couple of letters that mention it. She wrote to one of her sons, “I made a new acquaintance with an old man who, if I had not known he was Goethe, and even knowing it, made on me no pleasant impression.” Out of these bare facts Mann produced a novel of 453 dense pages, some of it invention, but all of it based on Mann’s thorough knowledge of Goethe’s life, works, and character.

It is not an easy book to read—the author of the introduction to the current English-language paperback edition points out that the novel requires multiple readings, and that it cannot be read at all only once. Mann's prose is musical and rhythmic, and images and themes recur as Mann develops them; the book is full of allusions to Goethe's writings and intricate interconnections of detail.

The difficulties of the book are compounded by the stodgy text by his official and exclusive translator, Mrs. H. T. Lowe-Porter. Mann scholars have pointed out many mistakes and misunderstandings in Lowe-Porter’s work, but more disturbing is her attempt to reproduce as much of Mann’s German syntax as she can and far more than is useful; the result is neither German nor English, instead, some impenetrable language like Deutschlish or Engdeutsch. Most of Mann’s books have been retranslated since her day, some of them more than once, but this one has not, perhaps for copyright reasons.

In no way is Lotte in Weimar a conventional novel, although some novelistic conventions are present—Mann is alert to period detail, with clothes, furniture, decoration and the minutiae of daily life. But Goethe does not meet Charlotte until page 394, when she appears in his home as an invited dinner guest; their exchanges are mostly small-talk and Charlotte is dismayed at the sycophants who surround Goethe and shocked by the coarseness of some of his conversation. They meet once again, perhaps, in the last chapter, when he sends his coach to pick her up after an evening in the theater. He is seated in the shadows within the coach, or Charlotte imagines this, and they do finally have the conversation she wishes she had had earlier—or they don’t, and she imagines what they might have said if such a conversation were to have taken place.

Charlotte Buff Kestner

In the second paragraph of the novel, Charlotte, her daughter (also named Charlotte), and a maid descend from a coach and check in at the Elephant Inn in Weimar, in late September, 1816 (the Elephant Inn still survives). She has travelled to Weimar to visit another of her children who now lives there, but hopes to encounter Goethe; she has brought along a copy of the dress she wore the first time they met. Charlotte, who was 18 at the time of Werther, is now 63; her beloved husband Johann Kestner (“Albert”) has died, as have some of the dozen children she bore him. Goethe has just turned 67 and is now a widower, but still prey to serial obsessions with lively and beautiful young women—Charlotte was not the first and certainly not the last of many—he proposed to his final love in 1823. For decades he has been an international celebrity and his home the object of pilgrimage.

A waiter or maître d’ from the hotel greets Charlotte and recognizes her, and soon she has a series of callers, one per chapter—all but one of them know Goethe well and speak of him at length from their different but complementary perspectives, prodded along by Charlotte who is sensitive, inquisitive, and alternately delighted and dismayed by what she hears. There is even a long story about Goethe’s son, who finds himself in a situation similar to the one his father was in 45 years before. Charlotte has been a good wife and a good woman, but she is by no means as conventional as she believes she is; her intelligence, graciousness and fineness of feeling are altogether out of the ordinary. Meanwhile the townspeople crowd the square, eager for a glimpse of her. The identity of the “real” Charlotte has long been public knowledge everywhere in Germany, and she has spent her life resenting her unsought and unwilling celebrity.

The famous seventh chapter departs from the rest—it is Goethe’s 75-page internal monologue, Mann’s version of stream of consciousness, a survey of Goethe’s interests and obsessions, and Mann’s insight into the working of his mind. The eighth chapter depicts the dinner at Goethe’s house and the ninth the final conversation between Charlotte and Goethe.

In a sense, then, nothing “happens” in Lotte in Weimar. In another sense, everything does because this is a novel is about psychology, nuances of communication, perception and feeling; it is about celebrities and "ordinary" people who, in their individual ways, are extraordinary; it is about the fretful relationship between “real” life and art. And there are real moments of humor in it too—the characterization of the maître d’, as well as Rose Cuzzle, a star-struck English groupie who seeks out celebrities, clings to them, draws their portraits and demands their autographs. Then, too, Charlotte’s discoveries about Goethe the man, as opposed to Goethe the artist, parallel Mann’s feelings about Goethe, who loomed over the young Mann the way Shakespeare has loomed over generations of young and ambitious English and American writers.

Lotte in Weimar seems an unlikely subject for a movie—but in 1975 a film was made. Werther, of course, has long interested movie makers. Film and television versions exist in French, Spanish, English and German (several in German), some of them updated to the present—the story remains resonant. And there are probably even more DVDs of Massenet’s opera; all in all there have been nearly 90 different recordings or DVDs of the opera, which not something anyone could have foreseen 50 years ago, when Werther was rarely performed outside of France and Italy. The Metropolitan Opera did 10 performances of it between 1894 and 1910 and did not present it again until 1971 when there was a new production for Franco Corelli—there have been 71 performances in Lincoln Center since then. The principal reasons for the growing and belated popularity of Werther are the poignancy and relevance of the situation and Massenet's impassioned musical response. There are magnificent and gratifying roles for tenor and mezzo, and over the last four decades most of the important tenors, from Corelli to Jonas Kaufmann, have appeared in the opera.

One of the recent films about Werther was a pop hit in Germany in 2010. There it was called Goethe!, with an exclamation point; for release in America it was retitled Young Goethe in Love (no longer with the exclamation point). It is essentially a picturesque, romping rom-com that stars the delightful Miriam Stein as a free-spirited Charlotte and two popular German actors as Albert and Goethe, Moritz Bleibtreu and Alexander Fehling. The atmosphere, if not the setting, is that of a Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston film, and of course it doesn't have to end with suicide because Goethe (unlike Werther) didn't kill himself. Fehling is altogether unbelievable as Goethe: a young and randy scamp who never stops pouting and smirking. Goethe's novel is about obsession descending into madness; Young Goethe in Love! is mostly about sex. Goethe and Charlotte meet accidentally on horseback; we don't learn what they do with the horses, but soon they are naked and going at it along the wall of a ruined castle.

There is no reason for such a film to be accurate. Albert is not a close friend of Goethe's, as he was in fact—at least before the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. That is what makes the love triangle in the novel so painful—Charlotte loves both men, they both love her, and each other. The film also depicts Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, the historical figure who committed suicide because the married woman he loved would not leave her husband, as Goethe's roommate; in fact, they scarcely knew each other, but Albert did know him and researched his suicide for Goethe's use. In the film Charlotte is the one who sends Goethe's manuscript to the publisher, although in life she detested Goethe's depiction of herself and her beloved husband. Meanwhile one of the principal themes in the musical score is Schubert's setting of a poem that Goethe hadn't written yet (and Goethe himself did not understand or like Schubert's songs).

If the film's goal is to entertain rather than inform, it meets its goal—the scenery is beautiful and attractive people take their clothes off.

Lotte in Weimar, the 1975 film, is completely different. Obviously it is without the nuance, detail and insight that Mann brought to his book, but it doesn't have to describe anything; it just shows us Weimar—although the flashbacks were not shot in Wetzlar, which was inaccessible in West Germany. It even brings new visual symbols, most obviously in the hotel room where Charlotte meets the people who come to see her and interview her—although she ends up interviewing them. On a mantel, a large goldfish tries to swim in a narrow, high tubular vase—a metaphor for Goethe, trapped in his celebrity, or Charlotte trapped in hers.

The film is slow and stately, but honest and sincere, and it helps to have read the novel—actually both of them, Goethe's and Mann's. The only serious distraction is the way the soundtrack keeps returning to impassioned passages from Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which of course is way out of period and completely alien to the classical style of the city and Mann's treatment of the emotional situations.
There are however some quite remarkable performances, including the poised and perceptive acting of Lilli Palmer as Charlotte. In 1975, Palmer was about the same age as the historical Charlotte when she met Goethe again; she remains agelessly beautiful, her face an unselfconscious mirror of every flicker of emotion.

Palmer was a German actress from a Jewish family who escaped Hitler's Germany and wound up in England in movies and also, later, onstage; she was married to Rex Harrison for 13 years, during which they became the most prominent English acting team on Broadway and in Hollywood (and on television). After their divorce, she remained active both in theater and movies until her death in 1984. She had a long and happy second marriage. Harrison was married four more times, but when he died in 1990, his will asked that some of his ashes be strewn over Palmer's gave in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. And so they were—a romantic gesture worthy of Werther himself.


Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Topics: 2015/16 Season, Goethe, Long Reads, Werther

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