New York Times
June 16, 2017
In many instances, the Germans have been content for the lives of their great literary figures to be written by Anglo-American biographers; there is a narrative flair, a curiosity, an animation, a love of character and anecdote, a juice, that it seems only the English provide. Biography may be the true vice anglais. Frances Wilson’s De Quincey and Ruth Scurr’s Aubrey (both published last year) are clever, considered and brilliantly unorthodox books; Richard Holmes’s lives of Shelley and Coleridge are masterpieces on any terms; would it have occurred to anyone but an Englishman or an American to call a life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan “Uncorking Old Sherry”?
And so, some early biographies of Kafka and Thomas Mann were written in English; the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages. Against such a background, the appearance in English of Rüdiger Safranski’s “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art” is a bit perplexing. (Happily, the cringe-making subtitle is utterly disregarded in the text itself.)
Safranski’s book (a best seller in Germany) is aimed squarely at a German readership of Bildungsbürger, educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases. It doesn’t feel the need to locate Goethe for a non-German readership. Safranski is an energetic writer, without much refinement or subtlety. Dozens of obscure names scoot past the reader’s eye with nary a word of introduction or presentation. There is little sense of the tiny, mad ferment of the so-called Age of Genius (the 1770s) — as if a nation had acne — the thing that Penelope Fitzgerald caught so miraculously well in her novel “The Blue Flower.”