It is curious that, as translators W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer point out in the Introduction, outside Germany, Goethe remains highly respected yet never actually read by most literary people. Studying literature during and before my undergraduate years, I was introduced to Dante in translation, to Moliere and Racine in the original French and, of course, to Shakespeare. But Goethe was barely mentioned, certainly not studied. Perhaps it is down to the difficulty of the German language. I simply don't know. I did read The Sorrows of Young Werther on my own in my youth, but remember being unimpressed. The Germans, on the other hand, have had a love affair with Shakespeare that, at times, has almost eclipsed the devotion to him in his own country. In short, I felt obliged to read this travelogue in an attempt to become better acquainted with a writer whom Germans hold in such high esteem.
And what a treat it is! Whatever Goethe's motives in making a sojourn in Italy, much debated in the Introduction, it seems certainly well worth it for him as well as for the reader. Well-nigh every chapter is drenched with the Italian sunshine and carpe diem attitudes he finds in Italy (particularly Naples) which he seldom fails to contrast with what he refers to as the dark and gloomy northern climes. As he states, almost shouts, one wants to say, in a letter written from San Luca, "I shall leave everything as it stands because first impressions, even if they are not always correct, are valuable and precious to us. Oh, if only I could send my distant friends a breath of the more carefree existence here!"
There are some few and far between rather dull moments, as will occur in any travelogue recorded in this fashion, but, for the most part the sunlit waves and piazzas of 18th Century Italy are wafted to the reader through this - as far as I can discern - very able translation.
It is beyond the scope of this review to cover everything Goethe experiences in Italy and, more particularly, Rome, where he ends up spending most of his time studying painting, architecture, anatomy and, above all, becoming immersed in Italianate culture whilst continuing to write, enlivened by the liberation he feels. Goethe himself does a better job of summing it all up than I can:
"While living this year among strangers, I have observed that all really intelligent people recognize, some in a refined, some in a gross way, that the moment is everything and that the sole privilege of a reasonable being is to behave in such a manner, in so far as the choice lies within him, that his life contains the greatest possible sum of reasonable and happy moments."
What a lovely way of reflecting upon what a climate and people have taught one!
- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Penguin; 1 edition (1 January 1983)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140442332
- ISBN-13: 978-0140442335
- Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.1 x 2.4 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 386 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 131,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)