Second Thoughts: A life wrapped up in work: Nicholas Boyle on the desires behind Volume I of Goethe: The Poet and the Age (Oxford, 15 pounds)

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The Independent Culture
Since publishing The Poetry of Desire, the first volume of my biography of Goethe, I have received lots of letters. I suppose the nicest was the one telling me about the W H Heinemann prize. But I am an academic, so the letters which mattered most to me were from people who said they had had little previous knowledge of the subject but had been gripped by my story, and seen its relevance, say, to understanding Germany since the last war, even since reunification. I wrote the book as I did because I believe that the ultimate purpose of the academic study of literature and culture is what is sniffily called popularisation. Moreover, in trying to make your thought interesting to as wide a public as possible, you open the way to a new understanding of its basis.

My book is not primarily a literary biography (only one of the reviewers spotted that). If I adopted the biographical format, that was because it was imposed on me by Goethe himself.

The puzzle that I wanted to solve was how Goethe came to be the first literary man after Petrarch and Rousseau - and he is far more secular than Petrarch and far more literary than Rousseau - to make his life and his work inseparable.

The Romantic and post-Romantic conception of the poet as someone who writes about his own experiences (which the deconstructionists have not really abandoned) goes back to a great shift in religious sensibility which took place at the end of the 18th century. Goethe was, even for his contemporaries, the prime example of it.

I nevertheless deliberately separated the literary and the biographical chapters: both to allow one kind of reader to skip, and so as to show another kind that the problems of literary and biographical interpretation really do run parallel, and that this is not chance. Goethe was continually telling stories about himself: my task was to tell the story of his stories, the one he didn't tell.

Volume I had to evoke a corner of 18th-century Europe - partly glittering, partly domestic - while reinterpreting a great and prolific poet and an extraordinary man. I am sometimes surprised at my own cheek. Volume II will centre on the greatest upheaval of modern European history (that is certainly how it seemed to Goethe): The French Revolution.

Volume I took 13 years to write. I hope I won't keep my readers waiting so long for the Age of Reunification, but modern academic life does not leave dons much space for writing. I suppose the letter I now most want to receive is from some kindly foundation, offering me time to get on with Volume II.