A penetrating, engrossing biography of a literary giant.

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.

Pub Date: May 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-87140-490-9

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2017


If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998


The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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