Love, Life, Goethe: How to be hapy in an imperfect world, by John Armstrong

The poet as Pollyanna
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At the end of his book John Armstrong describes its origins: "One evening I was feeling particularly anxious and despondent and I tried to imagine, as vividly as I could, what Goethe would say if he could walk into the room and sit beside me on the sofa and hear out my worries." Then come a couple of pages of Goethe talking encouragingly to John. No book could thrive after such a start in life.

To be clear: I believe that we may be radically influenced in how we live by studying the life and works of a writer; also, that Goethe, a great writer, is not well enough - neither widely not discriminatingly enough - known outside his own language. So of course I must applaud an intention to make him better known and to dispose a reader to be affected by his life and writings. But John Armstrong's execution of that intention will not do. I'm afraid he has done more harm than good.

The reason for the failure, or at least the mark and sign of it, is that sofa: the cosiness, the homely sentimental personalness. Writers are there to unsettle us, to unhouse us and send us abroad; not to be ingested into our parlours.

Love, Life, Goethe is not a biography of Goethe, nor is it a critical introduction to his writings. It is a cross between Life Style and hagiography. John Armstrong knows a good deal about Goethe's life but cannot be called his adequate biographer because he overlooks many of the encounters by which that life was and still is defined: encounters with such predecessors and contemporaries as Winckelmann, Günther, Lenz, Hölderlin, Sir William Hamilton, Kleist, Byron. Against such people - and there are many more - the essentially self-confident Goethe defined and defended himself. But John Armstrong is not much interested in the sort of living exchange in which a character struggles, sometimes perilously, for his own identity. That is why his book is akin to hagiography. The vita of the revered subject is laid before us not in the struggles but in almost static moments out of which an unambiguous moral may be extrapolated.

The method is extraordinarily regular: an emblematic moment followed by a little moralising caption. Goethe is nearly shipwrecked coming back from Sicily. Armstrong: "This isn't just one more near miss - it's also an image of life itself. Life is a very slow shipwreck; but it's the only life we have." Goethe visits Plessing, a melancholic. Armstrong: "People like Plessing seem to employ their considerable mental ability in finding new ways of being distressed." And so on, observations on events in the vita to which the only possible reply is "How very true".

Goethe did indeed wish to be happy; but unless that wish is shown in practice in its ruthlessness, against a nearly crippling fear of illness and death, then the truth, and so the value, goes out of the telling. We need to feel the effrontery, the voracity, the zest, anguish and terror. We get none of that. We get something we'll feel comfy with at home. When Goethe, aged 81, heard of the death of August, his hapless son, in Rome, he wrote to his friend Zelter, "Over the graves then, onwards!" He lives more in those few words than in John Armstrong's many.

There are many things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in John Armstrong's philosophy, irony and poetry being two of them. And without those he is bound to be at a loss with Goethe. I said this book is not literary criticism. It doesn't pretend to be. It aspires to paraphrase and fails even at that. Armstrong paraphrases the works one after the other in the same spirit in which he paraphrases the life. Indeed, the two are much the same; they are material for banal moralizing. This from the account of Egmont: "It might be tempting to keep your teenagers under lock and key but to be a genuine parent requires allowing some degree of autonomy, and that is painful because it might be used badly." He reads Tasso and Iphigenie as though they were versified treatises on how to behave at court or among barbarians. No complexity, no shifting of sense according to whose perspective you adopt. In Armstrong's favourite among Goethe's works, Wilhelm Meister, he notices neither Mignon nor any irony; no irony either in Elective Affinities or Faust. His paraphrase of the plot of Faust is a horrid debacle.

For John Armstrong's purposes Goethe would have done much better to write nothing but a weekly column in the 'Weimar Mail on Sunday'. Out of that no doubt you might bodge together a philosophy for rubbing along quite nicely in this naughty world. Goethe did indeed have opinions - on dogs and crucifixes, for example - but he is chiefly remembered as a poet.

Poetry being, even by John Armstrong, less able to be paraphrased into cosy homily, we experience little of Goethe's in this book. A mercy; but also the fatal hole in the heart of the entire undertaking. For Goethe's great achievement, that flings the reader's eyes wide open in amazement, is the stupendous breakthrough of the early 1770s; the erotic delight of the playing of hexameter and pentameter in the Roman Elegies and other poems after Italy; the wonderful abundance of the West-Eastern Divan nearly 30 years later. The deed of life is there, in the neologisms, the new rhythms, the wit, the hungry appropriation of other cultures for a dynamic self to express itself. Reading that adequately might indeed change our lives.

Armstrong will keep demolishing views - on Goethe's sex life, on his role as the "Sage of Weimar" - that nobody has held for decades. Worse, he cannot be bothered to get things right. The book is littered with confusions, misreadings, misquotations, mistranslations, errors of fact. But they are a fit part of the whole endeavour which is, to be brutal, the sloppy domestication of a great (and very recalcitrant) subject into something we might be able to manage without discomfort. Armstrong zealously wishes us to know what Goethe is "getting at", "going on about", what the message is that Goethe "is trying to send us". But our lives will not be enlivened by the poor versions he passes on. It is sad that he could not serve better the man he so admires.

David Constantine's translation of Goethe's 'Faust Pt 1' is published by Penguin