A masterful life of the prolific playwright, novelist, statesman, and poet who defined German romanticism.
After the production of his play Götz, 24-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) soared to fame throughout Germany, “a new star in the literary firmament,” a genius acclaimed for his “earthy, powerfully visceral tone” and “liberation from the conventional rules.” The following year, he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in a three-month burst of creative energy, drawing on the “stormy” romantic turmoil in his own life. Safranski, biographer of Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others, brings sensitivity and authority to a sweeping chronicle of Goethe’s life, drawing liberally from the writer’s autobiography and correspondence as well as other contemporary sources. The author has made the unusual decision to incorporate Goethe’s own words in italics rather than introducing quotations, resulting in a seamless, flowing narrative that foregrounds Goethe’s perspective while still offering a rich historical, philosophical, and artistic context. In a preface, conclusion, and two brief essays that punctuate the biography, Safranski pauses for reflection on Goethe’s work, relationships, state of mind, and intellectual interests, which included mysticism, alchemy, nature, and the existence of God. The young Goethe was influenced by Johann Gottfried Herder, already a famous writer although only five years older than his new friend. Goethe’s “candor, eagerness to learn, self-confidence, unself-consciousness, inventiveness, and playful and carefree nature” charmed Herder; for his part, Goethe was enchanted with the iconoclastic thinker whom Safranski likens to “a German Rousseau.” Later influences included Spinoza, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Byron, the Sturm und Drang writers who passed through Weimar, and Schiller, with whom he collaborated on plays. Prominent are his many passionate love affairs, often with married women, that fueled his work. Safranski places his sister among those women, noting “an erotic edge to their relationship.” Throughout, the author ably elucidates Goethe’s works, emphasizing the significance of Faust as a herald of modernism.
A penetrating, engrossing biography of a literary giant.