Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: Le Petit Nord by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding

le petit nordOriginal Publication Date: 1920

Genre: ??? (See my review)

Topics: Newfoundland, travel, orphans, wily missionaries,






Review by : Chrisbookarama

Le Petit Nord is a collection of letters written by an unknown narrator to her British friend Joan during her year as missionary in St Anthony, Newfoundland.

Long before airplanes and the Trans-Canada Highway, travel to the northern parts of Newfoundland was a long and arduous journey. The narrator first sails into St John’s and from there takes a train to Run By Guess as a little diversion before her heading north. The trip does not go well, as soon as she steps outside she is attacked by mosquitos and “the roadbed was not constructed on the principles laid down by the Romans.” This is her first experience on “the Rock.”

After her short vacation, the lady heads to Come By Chance and her journey begins in earnest as she boards a steamer for St Anthony. The little ship avoids ice floes and storms (by the way it’s now the end of June). Though she finds the scenery beautiful, she can’t get used to “the language of the people.” They do not say “How are you?” but “How’s da fish by’?”

When she finally lands in St Anthony, one of her first duties is to feed thirty-six orphaned children with one herring, a feat to put Jesus to shame. By this time, she’s learned not only is the pantry empty but she’s lost her luggage during the trip. She has nothing but it’s still more than what these children have. Many were found in isolated homes where the parents had died or disappeared, often long before the children were discovered; they were dirty, starving, and frightened. Unsurprisingly, the children are difficult and have developmental issues. She loves them all in her own way. She is firm with them but kind. She has lots stories of their shenanigans for Joan!

Speaking of Joan, she must have insulted Newfoundland in a letter, because  the lady takes her to task: “I want to violently controvert your disparaging remarks about this "insignificant little island."” She, in a short time, has come to love St Anthony and its people. They have no school, and the closest hospital is in St John’s. The poverty is extreme but:

When I look about me and see this poverty, the ignorance born of lack of opportunity, the suffering, the dirt, and degradation which are in so large a measure no fault of these poor folk, I am overwhelmed at the wealth of opportunities. Here at least every talent one has to offer counts for double what it would at home.

She greatly admires the women. When a road was needed to be built and the men were away fishing,  they chopped a path through the wilderness for it. In her letters, she speaks of characters like the kitchen maids Senath and Tryphena, a crewman of the ship The Northern Light she calls The Prophet (Prophet of Doom), and a Feminist named Elmira, who “had the courage of her convictions, and did not marry.” Her letters contain the tales and beliefs of the people, including stories of sled dogs, polar bears, and a creature called Yoho.

As for the lady herself, she has many adventures. She witnesses the Aurora Borealis and hears the sounds they make. She weathers a variety of storms, and takes a ‘cruise’ by dog sled. During her final days as missionary, she travels around the other ports of Le Petit Nord onboard The Northern Light and sees puffins, icebergs, whales, and dolphins. Everything you’d expect to find in a Newfoundland and Labrador Travel brochure!

When I first read Le Petit Nord, I was under the impression that these were actual letters written by Anne Grenfell.* However, upon going over the story again for my review, I started to get the feeling something else was going on. First of all, who is Katie Spalding? What does she have to do with this? Anne Grenfell was the American wife of Dr Wilfred Grenfell, the founder of the St Anthony Mission. The narrator never mentions her own name nor does she mention the year. The narrator is English not American, so she can’t be Anne who was born in Chicago. I did some internet digging and found this thesis in Collections Canada that points out that Katie Spalding was the secretary for the Grenfell Association. Both she and Anne created "a collection of pseudo-letters” that was Le Petit Nord. They were writing propaganda to get money out of people in England for the Mission. Ruh-roh! I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I am scandalized! I just thought Anne was a really great letter writer.

Of course, even if it is propaganda, it’s entertaining propaganda. The foreword claims that all these events happened, only the names have been changed. Maybe these things did happen, or maybe they didn’t, but even of they did probably not to one person. I found the whole book delightful nonetheless, even if the narrator is Lady Von Fakerson. It’s funny and full of adventure. Any damage it did was well before my reading of it. Wily missionaries.

So, what is the genre? Fictionalized memoir? A epistolary novel?

This was a Librivox recording narrated by a real Newfoundlander, Sean Michael Hogan. Please listen to it, it’s great!

Download Le Petit Nord by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

*I had used the name Anne in this review before my discovery, I then changed it to ‘the narrator” or “the lady.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Harlot High and Low by Honore de Balzac

book cover Original Publication Date: 1847 French: Splendeurs et miseres de Courtisanes
Genre: suspence. romance, sociological analysis
Topics: mores, price of success, love, prostitution, crime, money and power, Paris
Review by :Bridget/Anachronist @portable pieces of thoughts 


The book is a sequel of “ Illusions perdues” (‘Lost Illusions’) and the last part of ‘ La Comédie Humaine’, a series which forms a cohesive overview of French Parisian and Provincial society during the Restoration and July Monarchy. Like the previous part it features the same main characters: Lucien Chardon /de Rubempré and Vautrin. In order to make it more lucid let me summarize the first part very shortly before progressing to the second.

 Lucien starts off as a young, handsome, talented man from good but impoverished family. He hopes to make his mark as a poet and, in order to do so, he moves from his provincial home to Paris. After being spurned by an aristocratic lover, he is forced to prostitute his talent in different newspapers in order to survive. Things go from bad to worse and Lucien, who had made a lot of foolish mistakes and doesn’t possess a strong character to somehow make up for them, is about to commit suicide. In the last moment he is approached by a sham Jesuit priest (read: devil incarnated), the Abbé Carlos Herrera a.k.a Vautrin, an escaped convict and criminal mastermind. They make a pact in which Lucien agrees to follow Vautrin’s instructions on how to conquer Paris promising to share his future riches and glory.

 Vautrin manages to arrange a very profitable marriage between Lucien and a rich aristocratic heiress named Clotilde de Grandlieu. It revives Lucien’s ambitions and hopes. Clotilde is intelligent but ugly; she fancies Lucien but he prefers his secret lover, a prostitute called Esther Van Gobseck, known as the Torpedo. Esther and Lucien fall truly in love with each other. This fact might have thrown a wrench into Vautrin’s best-laid plans; instead of forcing Lucien to abandon Esther the clever man allows him to continue the affair, secretly making a good use of it.

 Pretending to be a clergyman again, Herrera/Vautrin convinces Esther that, in order to deserve Lucien, she must become a completely different person. He sends her to a convent for a period of time to be taught how to become a proper Catholic girl (Esther is Jewish but it doesn’t matter) and a true lady. She tries her best but she’s a whore at heart; she does what she has to do out of love, though. Once Esther has been turned into an acceptable mistress Herrera allows her and Lucien to continue their affair secretly. For four years Esther remains locked away in a house in Paris, totally secluded, taking walks only at night in a carriage, pretty much breaking any connection to her old Torpedo days. One night, however, the Baron de Nucingen, a rich banker, spots her in a park and falls deeply in love with her.

When Vautrin realizes that Esther became Nucingen’s obsession he decides to use it and advance Lucien’s prospects. The plan is the following: Vautrin and Lucien are 60,000 francs in debt. The luxurious lifestyle that Lucien has had to maintain in order to impress the family and friends of his future wife costs a lot and their creditors are getting impatient. They also need one million francs to buy the old Rubempré land back, so that Lucien can marry Clotilde and settle down like a real aristocrat. Esther out of love for Lucien agrees to become a courtesan again and milk as much money as possible out of the impossibly rich Nucingen.

Things don’t work out as smoothly as Vautrin would have liked – and the ending is very bitter. Still the show goes on for those rich and priviledged.

 What I liked: 

 Balzac explores the artistic life of Paris in 1821-22 and furthermore the nature of the artistic life generally. He does it in a great way. He starts a simple story of a weak young man being helped by an older, more experienced and cunning tutor and then it explodes into a multi-novel epic. The narrative is powerful enough to carry readers past any of the flaws – I wasn’t bored for one single second. The deception, corruption, and trickery, at every level of society are brilliantly displayed, often almost off-hand, in casual conversation because everyone expects nothing different.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, from the maids Herrera uses in his carefully orchestrated plans to various members of high society. I liked this book especially because, although Balzac doesn’t do badly with the romance he builds his novel around, he doesn’t really have much patience for it. He, like me, is not a romantic person at heart, believing in more primal instincts – survival, cunning, logic. Love doesn’t conquer all: no one is ever allowed to forget that Esther is a whore and likes her job, that it’s practically in her blood and that she can be little else, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she adores her poor, infatuated, ambitious Lucien.

Criminals are perceived similarly – the author even admires them for being true to themselves and their instincts. Small wonder Vautrin steals the show in every part of his series. Balzac’s writing, even at its messiest, it’s never less than forceful. The best thing about him is that he never offers a didactic or ‘social’ novel (mind you we are dealing here with an 19th century writer - compare that to any Dickens book!), and ultimately it’s for the best that he lets himself get carried away by the nasty criminals so readily. A novel meant to be about prostitution, with a courtesan (or harlot) in the title, manages to dispense with her services for its entire final part: that’s a bit odd but entirely deliberate. Balzac knows where his strengths lie and when Esther (or, especially, Lucien, the weakest link in the chain) no longer serves his narrative purposes the author is quick to brush them aside (by killing them, no mercy) and concentrate on the anti-hero he can have the most fun with.

 What I didn’t like: 

 A Harlot High and Low is part of Balzac’s grand ‘Human Comedy’ series, and like many of his novels it’s one that seems to get out of hand. It seems too long; what’s more the author simply doesn’t have any patience to describe good moments in full – the happy four-year period Lucien and Esther were granted by Herrera occupies…one paragraph.

 And speaking of that period…I do wonder how Esther managed such a long seclusion. During that time she led a life of a vampire and should have succumbed to serious depression – think about vitamin D deficiency among other things. Also the obsession of the rich old banker with a prostitute he just glimpsed once or twice was a bit over the top.Well- different times, different criteria. At last, Balzac’s inability to make Esther and Lucien more forceful heroes, in my opinion prevented A Harlot High and Low from being a great novel; in fact I would love nothing more but them turning the tables on that devilish Vautrin.

 Final verdict: 

 It’s summer so treat yourself with this one, especially as it can be read as a stand-alone. It might not be flawless but still the writing style is superb. If you know French I highly recommend reading it in original version.

 Download A Harlot High and Low Honore de Balzac at Goodreads

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: Framley Parsonage

Original Publication Date: 1860

Genre: Fiction
Topics: Social standing, romance
Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings
Framley Parsonage
by Anthony Trollope
There are two main plots in the book; the first revolves around the young impetuous clergyman, Mark Robarts and a shady financial decision. He guarantees a bill for an untrustworthy man, which puts his own future in jeopardy. The second plot regards his sister Lucy and the wealthy Lord Lufton who falls for her. Lufton’s mother is opposed to the marriage and Lucy feels that to accept the Lord without his mother’s approval would be wrong.
The strength of the novel lies in its characters’ sincere struggles. We feel for Lucy as she wrestles with her feelings. Our hearts break for Mark Robarts even though we know he made a stupid mistake. Trollope has built a fascinating world within the Barsetshire society and now four books into the series we recognize characters and remember their stories from previous books.
**A few of my favorite SPOILERY scenes:
When Fanny Robarts finds out about her husband’s financial ruin she is beyond kind and patient. She makes it clear to him that no matter what happens, she is on his side. He already feels ashamed and sick for what he’s done and nothing she could have said would have made him regret his actions more. Choosing to show him love and forgiveness in that situation was such a demonstration of strength and compassion.
I was absolutely giddy over Doctor Thorne’s sweet romance with Martha Dunstable. They were not young, but with the help of his niece they both realized how happy they would be together. His honest-to-a-fault love letter was too funny. It’s never too late to find love.
BOTTOM LINE: I so enjoyed this one, but I will say I couldn’t help comparing it to “Tooth and Claw” throughout the book. Both are great, but adding dragons to the mix adds a special layer of fun. I love that this novel has more depth and a few additional side plots that the retelling skipped. Mark Robarts character was particularly good, since in “Tooth and Claw” he becomes a straightforward villain. After Doctor Thorne I think this is my favorite of the series so far.

Originally posted at Avid Reader's Musings

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales & Short Stories, Volume 4

Original Publication Date: 1854-1859
Genre: Classic Fairy Tales and Short Stories
Topics: Fairy Tales, Folk Tales
Review by : Becca Lostinbooks

I have always enjoyed fairy tales and folk tales, and Andersen is arguably the quintessential fairy tale writer.  I had not heard any of the tales on this volume I found on Librivox, so I downloaded it immediately.  From stories about maidens to stories about visits to interesting old men in towers, the stories are mostly delightful.

My favorite stories on this volume were A Leaf from Heaven, Jack the Dullard: A Story Told Anew, and Ole the Tower-Keeper (of which I imagined the GoT wall- ha.)  During each of these I found myself stopping whatever it was I was doing - whether cleaning or drawing - and I became very immersed in the story.

It helps all of my favorite stories also had good narrators.  There were over a dozen different narrators on this volume.  They ranged from really amazing (Jennifer Dorr nailed the sarcasm in Jack the Dullard) to the completely incomprehensible (the narrator's accent on the story, The Money Box, was so thick I wasn't entirely sure at times it was all in English).

So that is the downside of multiple narrators, but the upside is that I got to experience so many to learn whom I liked.  I went and looked up some of the better narrators, like Jennifer Dorr, Zachery Brewster-Geist, and Erin Lottes to see what else they had recorded for Librivox, while I also learned which narrators to avoid.  It is a good way to try out a lot of narrators in one go.

The Marsh King's Daughter, Source: Wikisource

Overall, the collection was great and I recommend listening to it if you enjoy Hans Christian Andersen's stories.

Download Fairy Tales and Short Stories, Volume 4 by Hans Christian Andersen at |Librivox|

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton -- An Alternative View

Original Publication
Genre: American, twentieth century, classic
Topics: Early American farming, relationships, family, love/hate

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk who writes the book blog Just One More Page.

“Oh, as to that, I guess it’s always Ethan done the caring."

This re-read of Ethan Frome was, to be honest, a perfect read – one of those titles that you pick up and everything about the story blows you away. As mentioned, this was a re-read, and this was a   completely different experience than before. I even immediately started to read it again after I had finished the first time as I wanted to see all the foreshadowing that I’d missed the first time around.  (I would compare it to the re-read experience of The Great Gatsby in terms of how different this time around was.)

Checking on-line, it seems that Ethan Frome can be rather polarizing for reviews, the majority of whom (depending on the site you visit) tending to be pretty negative about it which is a big shame. I do think that age (and life experience) can play a determining role in how you perceive this story, and I would argue that this book is one to read when you’re slightly older (as opposed to high school or junior high school).

I happen to love the writing of Wharton as she is an expert at describing people and locations and at how she pulls phrases together. As I think a lot of people have already read Ethan Frome, I’m going to jump straight into some thoughts that I put together during my own read.

Quite early in the story, Wharton describes the farm house where Ethan has spent his life and she mentions that the “L” part of the house (joining the stable etc. with the main house) had been demolished earlier. The “L” part is called the “center of New England farm life”, “itself the chief sources the sources of warmth and nourishment” and the “actual hearth-stone of the New England farm”, and yet in recent years, Ethan had knocked this integral piece of farming life down. Why, if it was so important to people in that region? Wharton doesn’t actually specify why (or at least I didn’t spot it), which led me to speculating why it was mentioned.

The “L” part of the house is linked with warmth and safety. Perhaps after his mother died, the demolishing reflects how his feeling of safety was eroded once he was alone in his family. The missing “L” not only represented a missing link between his house and his stables (protection for the inhabitants during the harsh winters as they went from hearth to work), but also is an image of the hole in his life (perhaps his heart?) after his mother dies. His old comfortable way of life has ended, and this space represents the gap he feels between his old life and his new, his home and the outside, which suddenly seems unstable and fraught with difficulty now that his mother (his anchor) has gone. (I don’t know – just making this bit up but seems to fit.)
Another reason why it’s referred to as an “L” (aside from its architectural significance) could be that the “L” also refers to “Love” – a comfortable and safe feeling that is forever gone now his parent has died.
There are numerous references and imagery associated with the dichotomy of interior/exterior, inside/outside, insider/outsider relationship. Ethan’s sticky relationship with Zeena: he spends time working (and feeling most comfortable) outside the house in the fields, whilst she (Zeena) spends her time indoors being “sick” and waiting for him to return to pounce on him with demands and questions.
The threshold (i.e. the crossover point between inside/outside) plays a large role as several sentinel events occur over it: the time that Zeena locks Ethan and Maddie outside when they return late from the church dance, for example, and how both Ethan and Maddie can only be authentic with each other when they are outside the confines of the home, out in the fields or walking along lanes. (There’s also this idea of domesticity vs. agriculture/nature and the natural order of things.) This imagery continues when Zeena leaves to visit the out-of-town doctor (so she leaves interior to exterior) which allows Ethan and Maddie to enter the formally hostile interior of the house as it’s now safe.
The threshold (interior/exterior) also plays a role when Ethan and Maddie return from a snowy walk, and enter the house where Zeena is (as always) grumpy. It’s a drafty old house, with the cold continually coming in through the ill-fitting windows and doors (sneaking inside, in a way) and when the couple cross the threshold (to interior) after their walk (exterior), Ethan accidentally brings in some snow that rapidly melts in the dining room and gets scolded by Zeena for making a mess.  It could be argued that nature/exterior (the snow) is overcome by domesticity/interior (heat in the house) in this situation. (Another case of the interplay between interior and exterior, and the reversal of what is usually a haven (inside the house) vs. outside.)
And this balance continues when you consider that most of Ethan’s thoughts are reported (his interior mind) as he keeps the harsh exterior of Zeena in the dark about his real attitude to her and to the marriage.
Another clever image using this dual imagery, this relationship of freedom vs. confinement (interior/exterior) is when Wharton describes the evening when Ethan turns up to escort Maddie home after a church dance. Again, it’s outside (Ethan watching through the windows) whilst Maddie is inside in the warm, and even the church window shadows are described as “bars” on the snow (referring to prison bars) that provide a barrier between Ethan and happiness, between him being included vs him excluded, as an insider vs. outsider…
So, lots to think about here, and I’m so glad that I reread this gem of a novel (or novella). Highly recommended that you undertake another read if you were forced to study this in school.

Download Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins

Original Publication Date: 1908
Genre: 20th century English literature
Topics: Marriage, spinster, domestic, boarding house

Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk at Just One More Page

Published in 1918 by his own publishing company, Herbert Jenkins’s novel, Patricia Brent, Spinster, was a pretty fast read once it got going. It’s a plot that’s been well used before: an unmarried young woman (about early 20’s) lives in a boarding house with the usual cast of misanthropes and narrow-minded “paying guests” having to eat a rotating menu that never changes (similar to how many of their own lives play out, it seems). Small talk and gossip rule the day, and so young Patricia Brent decides that she can’t take the monotony anymore and invents a fiancé for herself.

As the story continues, Brent leaves the boarding house for dinner with her “fiancé” at a well-known restaurant in London without having the faintest idea of how this will turn out in the end. Fortune smiles on her, and she meets a young army officer who, serendipitously, is also dining alone and willing to play along with her plan. Days and weeks go by and the fake fiancé really ends up falling in love with her, except she decides that she can’t have someone actually fall in love with her and rejects him, despite all his intentions otherwise.
His family become involved, his sister comes up with a strategy to make Patricia become more attracted to her brother (the fiancé) and so it goes. It was an ok read, but Patricia was pretty unreasonable in how she acts with the friendly fake fiancé and rejects him for little reason apart from he likes her (which wasn’t in the plan).
It’s a caper novel, which worked for the most part, although at times, I rolled my eyes at the female protagonist’s immature behavior. However, this was written back in 1918 and it’s pretty true to the times for some people (regardless of gender), I would think. Author Jenkins also owned the publishing company who first started to publish all the P. G. Wodehouse spoofs so I don’t think this volume was intended to be deep and meaningful.
It was not a bad read, by any means, but it was somewhat more superficial than I had thought it was going to be. It was a bit uncomfortable to read at times as it was SO mean towards innocent people at times.

Download Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

book cover Original Publication Date1774

  Genre: epistolary novel, loose autobiography

Topics: unrequired love, commitment, social acceptance and the lack of it, suicide, nature, nurture, sense of existence

 Review by : Bridget/Anachronist@portable pieces of thoughts 


The Sorrows of Young Werther (German, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, originally published as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers)  is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm with the addition of editorial notes (those notes try to balance the inveitable drawbacks of first-person narrative).

Werther, a sensitive young man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of untained nature. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming sweet-natured young girl, a daughter of a local town dignitary . Soon he finds out that Lotte is engaged to a likable but unimaginative local official, Albert, currently absent. Werther’s ecstatic love soon tortures both himself and Lotte as it begins to conflict with the norms of polite society. Is Lotte too naive to understand that in Werther she has acquired an ardent admirer, not a friend? Is she aware of his easily-inflamed fascination, or the violent depths of his stifled emotions? Is she oblivious or heartless to his passionate despair once her fiance has returned? Just how long can she juggle two lovers, or even control her own dainty heart–which Goethe chastely and tantalizingly hides from us?

 Werther’s pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther’s recitationof a portion of “Ossian’. Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else Werther decides to take his own life.

After composing a farewell letter, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretext of going “on a journey”. Lotte receives the request with great emotion but sends the pistols. Werther shoots himself in the head, but dies only 12 hours afterwards. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.

  My impressions:

 This book not only details Werther’s doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, it also contains the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion. The opening scenes of the story with their description of landscapes exude the highest philosophical ideals of the time and offers an excellent insight into the workings of the Romantic mind.

 The whole story was based on true events. Goethe himself met a very lovely girl called Charlotte Buff, at a ball in Wetzlar, where he arrived looking for a job after finishing his studies. During the summer of 1772 a close friendship developed between Charlotte, Goethe and Christian Kestner (her fiancé). Charlotte was eventually obliged to tell Goethe plainly that he must not expect her to return his feelings. At seven o’clock on the morning of September 11th Goethe quit the town without warning. Away with friends in Koblencz, Goethe heard of the suicide of his former acquaintance at Wetzlar, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. In September 1771 Jerusalem had taken a job in Wetzlar as secretary to von Hoefler, an ambassador. He was of an artistic disposition, and had been cold-shouldered by Wetzlar’s high society. Goethe returned to the town to find out the details of Jerusalem’s death. He asked Kestner for a written account, on which he was to base the final pages of his novel. Goethe later described the writing of the work as the business of four weeks, during which time he proceeded with the unconscious certainty of a sleepwalker, and specifically spoke of it as a “confesion”.

 Accordingly Goethe seems to have put a lot of himself into this novel. To love and to have lost someone to death is one thing. To love and to have the beloved betray your love is quite something else. But to love and to know that you can never consummate it, to distance yourself from the very thing you draw life from is unbearable for Werther.

The story itself is simple enough, but the varying degrees of Werther’s pain explore the depths of human depression. Goethe’s insights into human emotion are right on the mark, and he expresses them in haunting and moving language. He shows us the problems inherent in loving and idealizing something a bit too much. The novel is also a sensitive exploration of the psychopathology of a gifted but ill-adjusted young man (no, emos haven’t been invented yesterday). The letter form expresses well one-sided and lonely communication, also interposing an ironic distance between the reader and Werther, which makes this book a work of exhilarating style and insight.

It used to be a very important and influencial novel to a quite modern degree. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature; he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The book also started the phenomenon known as the "Werther-Fieber" ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel. It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. Towards the end of Goethe's life a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any fashionable young man's tour of EuropeI bet any rock star or contemporary celebrity would be so proud of such an effect.

 The primary problems I had with the work were the repetitiveness of Werther’s self-pitying missives and a certain incredulity connected to his state of mind. In the final analysis, a persistent feeling that Werther was a silly and unjustified stalker in his fixation and self-indulgent in wallowing, dulled significantly the impact of his fate. I couldn’t sympathize with Werther falling for a woman who clearly stated that she was already involved with another man. I kept waiting for him to finally shoot himself, and when he did my feeling was, “thank god, no more self-pitying”.

 I think I also struggled against Goethe’s ideal of female perfection – a woman whose biggest asset is the fact that she can act like a mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, sounding all the time really average and dull. To tell you the truth this paragon of feminie virtue appears more sensual and maternal than truly sexual but those were the times and paragons (sigh). Finally the language was a bit too flowery for modern standards.

 Final verdict: 

Highly recommendable. A cornerstone of Romantic literature that inspired many poets, it should be a key text for anyone studying the genre. Short and sweet – perfect for a summer read, but not to those who have recently gone through a rather painful break-up.

 Download The Sorrows of Young Werther by J.W. von Goethe at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|