The Times has a good piece about the reaction to the series and the ways it might push some sad kids over the edge. Naturally, the Young Person binge-watched “13 Reasons Why” weeks before her dean sent all upper school parents a note of concern. Her review was predictably withering: “Are people really upset about a fictional girl in a series on… Netflix?” But then, she’s under no illusion that the creators of this series wanted to “help” or “start a conversation.”
The agitation over this series did remind me of “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” which tells the life story — not quite memoir, not quite fiction — of a woman who killed herself. The writer is Peter Handke, a great playwright. Is it concerning that he applauds his mother’s suicide? Might it push a literate, adult reader over the edge? Doubtful. But in a few pages, an adult reader — well, me, anyway — gets a view of a promising life that got beaten down for decades. It’s a remarkable story, unlike anything I have ever read. To read about it, click here.
And then there’s Goethe, who is the gold standard of suicide stories. Might it push a literate, adult reader over the edge? Doubtful. But it will provide a delicious reading experience.
There are writers who sell books by the truckload, and then there is Goethe, who, at 24, burst on the scene in 1774 with ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther.’ Overnight, young men dressed like Werther. Talked like Werther. Even — and how crazy is this? — committed suicide like Werther.
There’s more: Napoleon kept the French translation of ‘Werther’ with him during his Egyptian campaign. Mary Shelley mentioned ‘Werther’ in ‘Frankenstein’ — indeed, Werther’s suicide inspires the monster to kill himself.
Clearly, Goethe had touched a very sensitive nerve — just as he would continue to stir things up during his long career as a diplomat, scientist, philosopher, dramatist, poet and essayist.
Okay, ‘Faust’ is eternal. And ‘Elective Affinities,” Goethe’s novel about marriage and infidelity, will always appeal to readers who like their smut high-toned. But what, two centuries and change later, is the appeal of ‘Young Werther’? Does it have anything to say to us? Or is it just an exhibit in the Museum of Literature, a dusty classic only a graduate student could love?
Well, let’s see.
The book is told in letters written by over-educated, hyper-sensitive young Werther. “I could not draw anything just now,” he laments at the start of the novel, “and yet I have never been a greater painter than at the present moment.” Mist, shadows, shafts of sunlight all pierce his soul; in blades of grass he feels divine love. Imagine what an actual woman would do to him!
Soon enough he meets her. Her name is Charlotte — Lotte — and, naturally, she is “an angel.” Oh, he knows better than to write this way: “Everyone calls his loved one thus, does he not? And yet I cannot describe to you how perfect she is … so much innocence combined with so much intelligence; such kindness with such firmness; such inner serenity in such active life.”
Are you rolling your eyes? You should — because there is not one word in this rapturous description of her earthly charms. I mean: her body.
No, Werther is the high-minded type. And that’s a good thing, because Lotte is engaged. So they have the kind of friendship that occurs only in fiction or in male-female buddy movies like ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ They dance. They talk (endlessly). She plays piano for him. And when he gets really excited — children, turn your eyes from this screen — he kisses her hand.
Enter Albert, Lotte’s fiance. Werther is crushed: “The idiot now stares with wide eyes because the other man really arrives and carries off the girl.” His happiness is gone; life is misery. He stops writing. When he resumes, he notes his amazement that he “ran into this situation with full awareness, step by step. How clearly I have seen my condition, yet how childishly I have acted. How clearly I see it still, and yet show no signs of improvement.”
Pretty hard to believe this was written 200 years ago, isn’t it? This is the language of ‘Oprah.’ Or Lifetime TV. Or those novels with Fabio on the cover. Just much better written. [To buy paperback from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle edition — for 99 cents — click here.]
Try as he might, Werther has no ability to end his fixation: “I cannot understand how another can , how he dare love her, since I alone love her completely …” But he always acts the gent around Albert, and maintains his status as best friend to Lotte.
Ultimately, though, that’s not good enough for Werther; he now … wants her. “If you could once, only once, press her to your heart, this void would be filled.”
Silly boy! He won’t really settle for a hug, and, in time, he reveals the beast behind the poetry. And things end — well, badly. “Workmen carried the coffin. No clergyman attended.”
Have you ever felt this way? I have. The first time I feel in love as a teenager, when love seemed like the only thing that mattered. And then again later. And then — amazing, I was older, I knew better — one more time. I think that’s true for all of us: “Nothing in the world makes us indispensable but love.”
‘Young Werther’ validates the emotions of the young, touches the nostalgia of the old. Its 144 pages are sufficient to reduce a large world to a single face. Along the way, Goethe offers us some Smart Thoughts about that process. Forget that Werther is far more miserable than you ever dreamed possible — in your letters (okay, your e-mails) you can use some of his best lines.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
Photo credit: IMDb