Few will instinctively include Goethe in the literary canon of short, uncanny fiction. This is hardly surprising, as he had published in his 83 years little more than a half-dozen such examples. Far from lethargy or literary failure being the cause, Goethe was, in truth, the complete iconoclast, of which such pieces represent a mere offshoot of far larger interests. A short attention span might then be closer to the truth.
Best known for his two-part theatrical extravaganza, Faust, the plot of The German Refugees demonstrates this intellectual restlessness perfectly.
The French Revolution is in progress and a resident family of German nobles escape together back across the border. The men argue amongst themselves of its political rights and wrongs while – as we’ve seen is so often the case in European literature of this time – it takes a strong woman to calm such roused egos; in this instance the Baroness von C. of the party, who tries to reason with two, ultimately parting, combatants.
Also, the book’s form isn’t typically formal being not so much a short story collection as a piecemeal novella. Seven separate tales, all untitled, are related within the text by the calming, unbiased presence of the Priest. Often put upon by the others, he is, on each occasion, otherwise urged to take the family away, imaginatively, from their predicament. This he does via two ghost stories, two tales of thwarted love, two moral tales and, finally, a sensual, standalone fairy tale, which successfully unites each genre.
Such a framing device is hardly unusual in literature and was, perhaps, a more commercial option then, in the early, populist rise of the novel and a hoped for adaptation into a play. (Aged 45, Goethe was at the peak of his fame by this point having been a high-ranking official in
, having begun to tout Faust and, now, something of a Classics scholar in the Arts and Sciences). He may also have felt something of a social responsibility – taking into account his role as a public servant - in that it features several ‘happy’ endings. But, don’t be put off. They don’t feel anodyne or unduly fake in context. Weimar
To 21st century eyes, the whole feels only slightly retro in the exchange of wit and familial interplay - not unlike a Bergman film from the 1960s’ or 1970s’. Besides, any satirical allusions need not be made by the reader, as the stories remain, as they stand, self-explanatory. The straightforward, unpretentious language in Mike Mitchell’s translation also belies its original publication date of 1795, making the whole quite a speed of a read.
For those interested in mopping up the remainder of Goethe’s short fiction, I’d urge you to seek out Tales For Transformation, published in hardback by Peter Owen and in paperback by City Lights. I will also be returning to the Dedalus European Classics series later in the New Year.