Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fortnightly Book, February 24

So having done modernist business-like, we now move to Romantic art and philosophy. The next fortnightly book is one I've been meaning to read for a while, but which I never managed to get around to: Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the second novel of the inimitable Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. What can be said of Goethe? Nothing that does justice to the man, who made Renaissance men look like underachievers. He had a father who, unable to achieves his life's dream, poured everything he could into his children's educations so that they might have more options than he had. Thus the young Goethe studied six languages (not counting German, of course), learned fencing, riding, and drawing. He went into law and hated it, beginning instead to take an interest in poetry, which began to take fire not long after he became friends with Herder. At twenty-five he wrote his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was an instant success and made him famous. He had an interest in just about everything, and never stopped studying. His two great interests were science and theatre.

The love of theatre is especially relevant to Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the story of a young man he tries to succeed in the theatrical life; over the course of time he changes from being a youthful dreamer to an integrated man, someone with his life in balance. The book, however, is like Goethe: it contains too much for any summary to do justice to it. And it does seem to elude serious summary; at least, even bold critics balk at giving one. So we'll just have to take it as it comes.

I will be using the Heritage Press edition, so the translation is that of Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle, of course, is a Scottish philosopher who also had broad interests that defy easy summary. He was perhaps the most important conduit for Romantic thought moving from Germany to Britain, and his translation of this work is certainly part of this.

This edition of the work has illustrations, both lithograph and line drawing, by William Sharp. Sharp is interesting in his own right. He was actually born Leon Schleifer in an area of Austria that is now part of either the Ukraine or Poland (I have found conflicting answers here); he studied at the University of Berlin but fled Germany at the rise of the Nazis because he was Jewish. He was a sort of jack-of-all-trades artist, having started out in the design of stained glass windows and expanded from there into engraving and other kinds of illustration; in the day he was probably most famous for his courtroom drawings and his political cartoons.

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