Meeting the Master of Metamorphosis

Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar ISBN 978-3-596-90402-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A curious thing happened to me lately. I was half-way through this book and I felt reluctant to share it with you. Bizarre. That’s not me. The book had cast a very special spell upon me, its language, the absence of any action, the long descriptions, the multi-layered message – I felt like keeping it all to myself. I had the feeling that me diving into this book was something too intimate to be shared. Very bizarre.

My reluctance however vaporized later, so here we are for another review of one more novel by the German writer and Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann. I love Franz Kafka for some reasons and I love Thomas Mann for very different reasons. And of course I love Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that goes without saying. The nmain idea of the novel is to portray Goethe i his many facets and his many apparent contradictions.

Different witnesses testify about the aged writer in intimate conversations with Lotte, Goethe’s first love, the woman who inspired his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Lotte, almost as old as Goethe, has come to Weimar to see the man who immortalized her, and her visit causes a sensation in the little town. The inhabitants venerate the master of German literature, and everybody wants to see the woman who inspired Goethe’s fictional Lotte. Each of those who gain access to Lotte sees the writer through a different lens, and their testimony gives the real Lotte a way to gauge her visitors and prepare for the meeting with Goethe, a meeting that she has been looking for, a meeting she is apprehensive of at the same time.

In these conversations, Thomas Mann picks up a couple of subjects he has written about in other works. One is the German-French antagonism in politics and aesthetics, that soured the relations between the two countries during the 19th century. It reflected among others a presumed difference in national characters and in types of morality, the subject that permeates Mann’s essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man“. Mann, through the words and thoughts of Goethe himself, also attacks the Romantic Zeitgeist of the first half of the 19th century in Germany, a time when writers, painters and musicians were rebelling against the ideals of the Weimar Classic era and against Goethe’s generation.

Mann portrays Goethe through several levels of conflicts: personal, social, artistic and political. What I find remarkable is Mann’s talent in creating the illusion of reporting from the 19th century in the language of Goethe’s time. It may appear a little cumbersome, but it gives the novel a singular authenticity. It is no longer Mann telling the story, the characters themselves seem to be reporting live from the Weimar of 1816 and push the story forward. As I said, there is hardly any real action, but Mann was a clever story-teller creating tension, stretching the patience of the reader to the limit and beginning a new chapter with a new angle on Goethe just at the right time. Wonderful!

Goethe appears as a tyrant in personal affairs and as a political man: He doesn’t think too much about the freedom of the press, he appears as a law-and-order proponent, and his admiration for Napoleon even after the latter’s fall knows no bounds. He is open to flattery by the rulers, seems to look down on women, he is easily seduced by the comfort a public office provides and strictly opposed to any revolutionary ideas of the youth. In Mann’s portray, Goethe is shown as a politically conservative and anti-democratic person while asking at the same time for a high degree of tolerance for his own liberal lifestyle and the freedom of his own literary and scientific ambitions.

In his own introspection, Goethe justifies his desire to live, to enjoy, to create as the only way to transcend death – physical, moral and spiritual death. This end seems to justify any means, the exhibition of other people’s intimacies in literary works included. The great master also touches a highly sensitive subject: Germany’s identity. Goethe’s distance to Germany mirrors Mann’s distance to his home country. They both do not really trust their contemporaries. Goethe was wary of the young Romantic revolutionaries, while Mann abhorred the Nazis who had taken over the country and forced him to flee. The big question in 1816 and in 1939, when “Lotte on Weimar” was published, was: Who can legitimately claim to represent Germany? And who may legitimately claim to represent Germany today? The embattled chancellor Angela Merkel? The populistic nationalists from the AfD-party? Mann’s novel proves to be unexpected food for thought!

There are a few more surprises in this novel, which I will not reveal as I do not want to spoil your reading pleasure. Goethe and Lotte first meet in a stiff and semi-public context, seen through the eyes of Lotte, and a second time in a more intimate context. Mann demonstrates his excellence as narrator here. The emotional showdown between the two characters is sublime, a witty conclusion, thrilling to read, revealing Mann’s deep affection for the fate of two imagined human beings with their contradictions, their faults, fears and sacrifices. “Emotions are everything that is”, Goethe at some point confesses, and their metamorphosis is his own personal obsession.

Both Thomas Mann and the Romantic composer Robert Schumann were big fans of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann composed an overture inspired by Goethe’s epic poem “Hermann and Dorothea”:

Schumann, Heroism and the Fate of Refugees