THE SORRROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe • Read by Leighton Pugh
This is from UKEMI AUDIOBOOKS which produces an expanding selection of important works of the past superbly read – a wonderful way of absorbing those important books and writers you’ve never had the time or space to read. It took Goethe just six weeks to write The Sorrows of Young Werther but its impact throughout Europe following its publication in 1774 – from blue frockcoat and yellow waistcoat outfits, to copycat displays of sublime displays of exaggerated sensibilities and the whole sturm und drang Romantic movement – was sensational enough for it to deserve another 21st century life as a download. Especially as intelligently read as this is.
The novel is made up of Werther’s letters to his long-suffering but silent friend Wilhelm detailing his doomed-from-the-outset passion for the essence-of-goodness Lotte who is looking after all her younger siblings in what Werther sees as the Arcadian bliss of the countryside. From the start Werther knows she’s promised to the much older Albert whom she marries, but the very impossibility of ever winning her feeds his monster tear-filled passions and the outpouring of his exquisite suffering. Eventually he sees he must annihilate himself which he does with Albert’s pistols, taking twelve hours to die.
Werther (‘wert’ is German ‘worth’) is much concerned with worth. He questions the worth of living; the ‘the contemptible ambitions of rank’ of the worthless nobility; prizes the worth of Homer, Klopstock and Ossian ( although Werther reading Goethe’s translations of Ossian to Lotte really were an indulgence I could have done without!). There is a progression through the seasons with the flowers, trees and insects of early Summer and the burgeoning of Werther’s passion, through to the winter mists, storms and tragedies befalling rural locals as the inevitability of his suicide approaches.
There is so much torment and weeping and so on that the whole could become tiresome for a modern listener, but the narrator Leighton Pugh saves Werther was such a fate. It must have been a seriously difficult task (just as well it’s only 4½ hours!), but he creates Werther’s destructive anguish as not merely repetitive, but both pitiable and universally human, as well as illustrating the extreme but serious Romanticism which gripped its readers over 250 years ago and has spawned a Werther afterlife in literature and film.
So, yes, Werther is worth it!