The superb Michael Hofmann

…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.

That is from his NYT review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.  It is so far my favorite review of the year.  Here is another good part:

When the young duke reeled him in, the barely older Goethe performed the duties of a cabinet minister. He built roads. He oversaw mines. He was put in charge of a theater. He shrank the deficit. He was someone at court. He put Weimar on the map. He met Napoleon, he met Beethoven. He corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt. He helped Schiller run a literary magazine. He was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.

There is something almost clownishly omni-competent about Goethe. He was a great beginner who ultimately finished most of the things he began. (“Faust,” which he had on the go for about 60 years, was completed in the last year of his life; Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” look by comparison like something finished the following morning.) He was interested in geology and anatomy, he developed a theory of color, he made watercolors and sketches himself, 3,000 of them. He went looking for something called the Urpflanze — the basic, or original, or prototypical, plant. He acted in his own plays. He wrote poems in many modes effortlessly. They entered the language (German, that is). When he finally grew frustrated with his married friend Charlotte von Stein, he eloped with Italy for a couple of years. He buried his wife; he buried his one surviving son. He buried his best friend, who died at 45. Near the end of his life, he gave perhaps the best description of himself, as “a collective singular consisting of several persons with the same name.” We rarely see or feel the hand in the many glove-puppets.

Here are earlier MR posts on Hofmann, one of the most underrated writers and thinkers today.


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