The first time I read “Elective Affinities” was in college, when it appeared on the syllabus of a class that I swiftly dropped. The teacher pronounced “Goethe” with enthusiastic violence, making it sound like a noise someone would make when using the toilet. I read the book on my own time and strip-mined it for insights on marriage, fashion and virtue. (“Human beings reveal their character most clearly by what they find ridiculous.”)
It wasn’t until revisiting the book five years later that I saw what I had missed — and, contrarily, probably missed a lot of what I’d understood the first time. The novel is about an aristocratic married couple, Charlotte and Eduard, who fall in love with other people. They work through their rift by exchanging stiff philosophical dialogues about fate, domesticity, nature, freedom, transgression — you know, all the fun stuff. Aphorisms everywhere.
There’s a piece in The American Scholar in which Alberto Manguel describes Goethe as never merely narrating, but always injecting theories into his prose, with those theories permeating each section “like the smell of fried onions.” It remains the only novel I’ve read that feels like the work of a scientist (author) guiding lab rats (characters) through a maze (plot). It was published in 1809 to widespread bafflement.
Wind, Of Course, Goethe and Shame Our critic recommends old and new books.