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An Irresistible, Almost Magical Force

April 22, 2014 | by

Goethe’s strange, elusive third novel, Elective Affinities.
Goethe_Campagna

Johann Heimlich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1787.

There were no best-seller lists in 1809, but it was quickly clear to the German reading public that Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities, which appeared in the fall of that year, was a flop. His first, The Sorrows of Young Werther, had inspired a fashion craze and copycat suicides, and had fired the heart of a young Napoleon. His latest effort, on the other hand, received befuddled notices from critics and little love from the coterie of writers and philosophers drawn to the Great Man. Everyone from the Brothers Grimm to Achim von Arnim to Wilhelm von Humboldt agreed that the book was a bore, that its plot made nearly no sense, and that its treatment of adultery bordered on the distasteful.

At sixty, Goethe was not one to let bad reviews get him down. The universally beloved Faust had appeared in 1808, and by 1810, Goethe was to have completed his Theory of Colors as well as his autobiography, Poetry and Truth. Nonetheless, in the correspondence he sent out around the time of publication, Goethe found himself compelled to admit that he had as little idea as anyone else of what he was trying to accomplish with his most recent book, or of what it had finally become. Then as now, Elective Affinities is an incredible, deeply mystifying read, the headstone of a man who hoped to groom the wilderness of life into an English park where even loss, pain, and death have finally found their proper place. Read More »

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