Book of a Lifetime: Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship, JW Von Goethe
Friday 11 April 2008
Asked at school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "astronaut". In the late 1960s it didn't seem totally impossible, even for a working-class Scottish kid. But I moved on to more outlandish ambitions, telling my secondary English teacher I was going to be a novelist. Don't bother, he said, there are already far too many of those.
Wise advice, and no doubt a few people would say I should have heeded it, but we all need a dream - and that's what Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is about. It was my teacher who put me on to it, indirectly. In fact he got me into classical music, and I was spellbound by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's rendition of some mournful songs by Schubert whose words, I discovered, came from Goethe's novel – one of the most influential literary works of the early 19th century.
Everybody has heard of Goethe, but the English have always had a tricky relationship with him. AS Byatt puts it perfectly: "Little of his major work resembles the forms and values we are comfortable with in our own literatures." That's why I like him.
The hero of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship dreams of a life in the theatre, as exotic to him as space travel might seem to us. When an actress breaks his heart, he sets off with a touring company, encountering strange characters such as Mignon, an androgynous child, and a gloomy harp-playing minstrel whose songs Schubert set so beautifully. Goethe's writing is simple, elegant and uncluttered; the naturalism lures us into a story that gets odder by the page.
Coincidences mount; there's a book-within-the-book that seems a complete digression. Then we find ourselves back with Wilhelm, at a mysterious castle where he meets members of the secret Society of the Tower, who have been conducting events all along. Everything connects; Wilhelm's life is a scroll in their library. We can see what Byatt meant: this is strange stuff, and one writer hugely influenced by it, surely, was Franz Kafka. So were Walter Scott, James Hogg and Thomas Carlyle: Goethe's sense of the uncanny found a receptive audience in 19th-century Scotland. As a teenager, I found Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship a remarkable book, and when I re-read it (after working it into the plot of my own novel) I enjoyed it more.
Goethe was a scientist as well as a writer, and while the novel is billed as the classic coming-of-age tale, or Bildungsroman, it's far more than that: a story of education and disillusionment, a novel of ideas ranging across literature, philosophy and politics, a masterpiece that resists all pigeonholing.
Not the kind of writing we may feel totally comfortable with – but a kind that can stay with you for a lifetime.
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