Goethe Galore

As an experienced language learner and an avid reader, I find I learn the most quickly by reading as much as possible in the target language. After my first year of French, I studied ahead a bit and read L’étranger and a few other books. With Russian, I read tons of short stories. With German, for some reason, I thought I could read Faust by Goethe.

Yeah, I was really stupid. I happened across a copy accidentally at Barnes & Noble in Newark, Delaware, that great cultural centre of the US, after having searched for it for months rather surreptitiously in other cities. This copy, luckily, had a parallel English translation by Walter Kaufmann, a renowned translator from Germany. I can not recommend this translation more, to be quite honest. The whole translation is also in verse, often mimicking the same metre as the original German, and is very close to the original in feel and meaning, something I can only appreciate now that I can read the original without much trouble.

Goethe was perhaps one of the greatest minds who ever walked the face of the Earth: scientist, writer, poet, statesman, on and on. He was absolutely indefatigable and did not waste a single moment of his life, so it seems. Many of his contemporaries were astounded he could write as much as he did, and such masterpieces, while busy with so many other obligations.

Aside from being one of Germany’s greatest writers, he was also a scientist who to some degree pioneered colour theory. The science that interested him was the sort one could do at home, and which one could apply practically. There’s a great video on YouTube by the channel “School of Life” on Goethe, if you want to learn more.

There is a memorial to Goethe in the Tiergarten across from the Holocaust Memorial. It’s sort of hidden behind a mass of trees and you may not notice it if you aren’t looking for it.

Stadden Memorial with Goethe Memorial in the back for scale

A post shared by Stadden Charles Höfgen (@stadden1) on

A few days ago, I wandered into a bookstore near me in Steglitz, which sells old books in particular and used books in general. The place is massive, and I’m curious to know how much they pay in rent. Some books I added to my wishlist while there were “Complete Works of Lenin, Stalin, and Marx”, all leather bound and sturdy volumes, in total fifty or so, for the price of €540. Absolutely wonderful find, except that’s more money than I currently possess, I think. Also featured were old volumes by Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. which were really quite smashing.

I picked up a relatively crummy copy of Faust by Goethe. The book itself is not particularly well manufactured, but it is interesting as a piece in and of itself. Plus, because it was so crummy, the woman reduced the price in half without me even asking. It was printed in 1920 in the standard Fraktur font. Here’s a snap:

My copy of Faust by Goethe, printed in 1920

A post shared by Stadden Charles Höfgen (@stadden1) on

The font is as difficult to read as it looks. You get used to it, though. This was the standard font for all German-language printing until the Nazi era, at which point Germany changed over to the more user-friendly and international Antiqua font, which is meant to imitate handwriting and comes from the fifteenth century.

Another fun example of the Fraktur font is this plaque from my tandem partner’s grandparents’ house, with the inscription in the caption.

To come back to Faust for a bit, it is necessary to read it at least once. The story is almost entirely different from the version Goethe wrote, since Goethe, being a Romantic, was concerned with the idea that man, through education and struggle, could redeem himself. Therefore, spoiler alert, rather than being dragged to Hell at the end of the play, he ascends into Heaven, having conquered the deal he made with Mephistopheles through his constant desire to know more and more.

And, yes, the whole thing is a play. It takes a few hours to perform, from what I hear, much like a Kabuki play, which often last up to fifteen hours. I haven’t been able to find a movie version of the whole thing (but if anyone knows of one please please tell me).

There is also a great great book called Mephisto, by Klaus Mann, which plays with the ideas of Goethe’s Faust and sets it in the context of the Third Reich. The main character, Hendrik, happens to have my last name, which is sort of strange. There is a movie of that book, which I highly recommend, directed by Szabo Istvan from Hungary.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s