I’m not an expert at literature in the German language, but I’ve noticed a similarity in some of their novels, starting with Goethe’s very long “Wilhelm Meister”. In brief, it’s about the title character’s journey to maturity. His story proceeds along lines Kierkegaard later described in “Stages in Life’s Way”. Wilhelm moves from an aesthetic phase in which he judges according to how beautiful or pleasing an activity or task or relationship is to an ethical phase — what’s right or wrong — to spiritual stability. How does a mature mind view the world? What’s the place of faith in God? “Reverence” is a prominent motif.
The translation I recently read is made up of 7 slender paperback volumes. I read it decades ago and recall my fascination with the character Mignon and her harpist guardian, in whom Wilhelm takes an interest. (Mignon is one of the famous female characters in post-Enlightenment European literature. Ambroise Thomas, for example, wrote an opera about her.)
Reading the story again, I didn’t feel comfortable with the translation. It seemed wooden and unnovelistic, so I began reading another translation I’ve also had for decades but not read before, a two-volume edition that the historian Thomas Carlyle based on a version of the novel that Goethe published on the way to his final revision. It reads like a novel and is faithful to Goethe’s temperament and his humanity. I haven’t yet gotten to Mignon and events beyond, but I presume the growth of Wilhelm’s judgment as he passes through an array of experiences will be vivid and convincing.
“Wilhelm Meister” has had many followers. One of them that I’m reading now is called “The Man Without Qualities” by Robert Musil — a monumental work about 1700 pages, of which I’ve read a third. It’s set in Vienna in 1913 and focuses on a group of people who plan an alternate campaign to the official celebration of the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s seventy years in office. Musil describes the lives of well-placed, influential people and one lowlife man in prison for murder. Ulrich is the title character whose chief feature is that he supposedly lacks the skills — the qualities — to function effectively in a modern urban society. As well, there’s plenty of discussion of Austria’s unusual position in world affairs.
Musil refers to Goethe several times, as if to alert the reader that he’s carving out a place for his work in the honored tradition of the “bildungsroman”. My favorite among his references to the old master is when he says that Goethe is uneven as a story-teller. Ha! Ha! A good one.
I’ve decided that the way to read this novel is to understand that Musil adopts an ironic attitude toward everything, including his unnamed narrator. Musil died in 1942 and left his work unfinished. I’ve been astonished at how up-to-date his thinking is. His narrator could be an accomplished sociologist at one of our top universities.
Another novel that fits in with the tradition I’ve been examining is “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann, who acknowledged the superiority of Musil’s work, while Musil resented the prominence that went to Mann. This isn’t the place for me to expand on my adventures with Mann’s novels, so I’ll say only that he found the steadinness to explore characters and communities — Hans Castorp and sanatorium, the biblical Joseph and Israel and Egypt — thoroughly, maturely, and relevantly in times of extreme difficulty.
My last example is also from the first half of the 20th century — Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”. Hesse imagined an artistic-intellectual-spiritual community where the members could develop their talents without influence from the confusing world. It’s the sort of society that couldn’t exist today — or ever — because no government or private consortium would pay for its upkeep without insisting on influencing what was taking place.
I’ve sometimes thought, though mostly as a private joke, that I’d be happiest at an academy similar to Hesse’s Castalla, which resembles the school to which Wilhelm Meister sends his son Felix, but, if I remember correctly, the main character in “Glass Bead Game” leaves Castalla and returns to the world he once left behind. That’s about right, I think. The world is where most people want to be — fulfilling themselves, living with others and helping them, and striving to make the world somewhat better.
Stories about coming to maturity don’t usually end in tragedy or defeat. Insight into oneself and the world is a considerable achievement on its own. Robert Musil wrote approvingly about Goethe’s dictum that we should think in order to act. I believe that these novels all share an underlying theme — that wisdom leading to fruitful action is often hard to come by but worth striving for.