Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

What an odd thing the novel was.

Goethe's second novel Wilhelm Meister's Years of Apprenticeship came out in 1795. It's a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, maybe the very first. Young Wilhelm is the son of a successful upper-middle-class merchant; his father expects him to join the family business. But Wilhelm has caught the theater bug, from a traveling puppet show that played at his house when he was a kid.

When the novel starts Wilhelm is having an affair with the actress Mariane. He's maybe twenty. (We learn about the puppets when Wilhelm bores Mariane with his backstory, when all she wants is to hop in the sack. Our man Goethe is capable of irony, as it turns out.)  Mariane is genuinely fond of Wilhelm, but she's got somebody else, somebody richer, on a string, too. What will Mariane do? Will it be Wilhelm or Norberg? 

Mariane doesn't entirely get to decide. She's guided by her maid/procuress Barbara; Wilhelm is led by his friend Werner, who's sure all actresses are unfaithful; the lovers' relationship wasn't meant to be. Mariane flees and the heartbroken Wilhelm takes to his bed. Eventually Wilhelm rouses himself and decides to renounce all artistic aspirations. Those poems he'd written for Mariane? Burned.

Really, renunciation? Ha! Wilhelm sets off on a commercial trip pursuing his father's interests with the intent of putting art behind him. He manages to complete a few business visits, but soon falls in with actors, decides to act himself, writes plays and adaptations of plays. He pays little attention to the business he was supposed to be transacting. (Somewhat improbably it seemed to me, but that's the way it was.) He takes the money he has, and finances an acting troupe, but the sets and costumes are destroyed when they are attacked by bandits.  Wilhelm manages to wangle them jobs with another impresario.

What should be the nature of a German national theater? Wilhelm knows the French classics, Molière and Racine, but then one of the characters introduces him to Shakespeare. In real life much of Shakespeare had just appeared for the first time in German in a prose translation by Christoph Martin Wieland; Wilhelm and crew decide to do Hamlet, with Wilhelm playing the title role. There's much discussion of what's a proper production. (The manager Serlo suggests that the audience would like the play much better if Hamlet didn't die at the end...Wilhelm vetoes that.)

Wilhelm has a habit of falling in love repeatedly; that's OK, because the girls fall in love with him in return. (That's a young Goethe painted by Angelica Kaufman to the left. Rather dashing, don't you think? Maybe a little autobiography here?) Should he stay with that second actress, lively and fun? The practical housekeeper? The Countess? (Already married, though.) Natalie the Amazon? (As he thinks of her.) At least some of these relationships aren't chaste because by the end of the novel Wilhelm learns he has two children by different women. Somebody slips into his bed the night of a cast party and he's not sure who.

That's most of the novel, but then there are some very odd twists. We get a couple of embedded stories, one the story of a woman who becomes a pietistic Moravian Brethren; this story provides comfort to the dying sister of an actor. The other embedded story involves characters in the present whom we've met in other contexts, an incest plot, and more Moravian Brethren. Wilhelm feels bad when he learns he may have unintentionally driven some of the characters into this rather ascetic religious practice. 

And then! We get a secret society, which has been guiding Wilhelm's actions all along. Which I'm not sure I really comprehended at all.

I read most of the novel in Thomas Carlyle's translation from the 1800s, available at Project Gutenberg, then started over and read the whole thing in H. M. Waidson's translation from the late 1970s. (Waidson was a British professor of German at Swansea University.) I can't say that either translation amazed me. Carlyle is Carlyle, perhaps overly rhetorical. The Waidson felt flat in places, though my reprint at least was marred by typos. (For example, 'natter' where 'flatter' was meant; I had to look up the German, also available on Gutenberg, to figure out what was meant. The German word was schmeicheln.)

Goethe wrote a sequel, Wilhelm Meister's Years of Wandering, which came out in installments in the 1820s.

The book--it is Goethe, after all--includes poetry, verse from plays or songs sung by various characters. Some of them are famous: 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt' has been set to music by Beethoven, by Tchaikovsky, by Schubert (multiple times) and that's not the whole list.  Here's one of the Schubert versions, one of a collection of songs that all come from Wilhelm Meister:

One from my Classics Club list.