Comments on Lotte in Weimar, chapters 1-3, by Nori
In chapters 1-3 seems mainly to set up the novel, in terms of content and style. The facts of the plot are simple. In 1816, the ~60 y old widow Frau Councilor Charlotte Kester, née Buff, known as Lotte, visits Weimar to visit Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the world-famous polymath. Lotte and Goethe had a dalliance ~40 y previously that was the basis for Goethe’s first literary success, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers/The sorrows of young Werther. All this is true, so the book is at one level historical.
Lotte, her daughter (another Lotte), and their maid arrive in Weimar and settle in in a series of somewhat humorous but apparently meaningless scenes. The writing combines what would be found in a light, romantic novel, with a condescending, usually humorous perspective. The name of the hotel factotum Mager is an example. In Germans mager means meager, poor, or lean. We are told that he is an educated man, but his subsequent behavior indicates that his degree of education is decidedly meager. Similarly, Lotte still likes to think of herself as the girl of long ago, but she is given a head tremor that underscores how ridiculous the thought is, despite that some tremor is common among older people.
Many of Lotte’s thoughts are described at length, and some are interesting. For example, she considers whether keeps one’s essential character as one ages or not, and she thinks about how writers appropriate the characteristics of people they meet in their writings and, when this becomes known, as in her case, how this affects the person’s once private life. So Lotte examines her life, even if she does not penetrate too deeply. Nevertheless, she easily distracted, for example by the intrusive guest at the hotel, who manages to convince Lotte to sit for a sketched portrait by telling anecdotes of famous people she has met, thereby amusing Lotte and making her late to see her daughter and sister.
The artist’s visit is interrupted by another, from Herr Dr Reimer, Goethe’s literary secretary. Reimer is an academic, but mainly carries on in a ridiculous way not much different from Mager.
One interesting point Riemer makes relates to his estimation of Goethe’s feelings for common folk, which Riemer describes as in part a sort of humanistic sympathy and in part a disdain for their simple natures. This mix reminds Lotte of the own fears 40 y before about the contradictory nature of Goethe’s genius.
In the course of this discussion, and IMO surprisingly given her apparent disdain for Riemer, Lotte reveals her true reason for coming, the hope to understand what happened between her and Goethe. As he puts it, how can someone “fall in love with a bride?” Riemer’s answer is that Goethe is a god, so not to be judged by mortals. Is Mann telling us that Goethe is something like Nietzsche’s Übermensch? I’m also reminded of the Abba lyric: “The gods may throw a dice/Their minds as cold as ice/And someone way down here/Loses someone dear.” Will Lotte get Goethe to explain himself?
One last point. These chapters showcase one of Mann’s favorite literary devices, namely, repetition of items or thoughts.
· *One example is the pink ribbon. Forty y ago, after Goethe had stolen a kiss, Lotte had to tell him to respect some limits as she was engaged to marry. Soon thereafter, as a birthday gift, she gave him a pink ribbon from the dress she wore (I think) on the day of the kiss. Remarkably, the idea to do this came from the fiancée!. Now, in the hotel, Lotte’s daughter looks at a similar dress that her mother had packed and wonders if it is not appropriate for a woman of 60 and suggests switching out the pink ribbons for another color. Lotte, of course, is not amused. What the daughter has not noticed is that the dress is missing one pink ribbon, which Lotte removed to have the dress match the one from long ago. Lotte alludes again to it at the end of Ch 3. Knowing Mann, one assumes that this ribbon will re-surface again.
· *The blue eyes of Lotte and the black of Werther’s Lotte is another example. I think it is mentioned 3-4 times in CH 1-3. At one point in CH 2 Lotte says “we, too, have to endure the inquisition, on top of all the harm he did to us, your dear, departed father and me, with his wicked mixture of truth and make-believe.” To which the daughter replies, “And blue and black eyes.”
· *It is interesting that that in German, “truth and make believe” is “Wahrheit und Dichtung” which is the title of Goethe’s autobiography and is usually translated as truth and poetry. I wonder that the translator did not keep the allusion.
I still have to comment on chapter 3. I am struggling with this chapter. Not much happens. It is mainly an endless monologue in which Dr Riemer cannot stop praising Goethe. What is the reason for this monument of pompous language? Riemer’s verbosity allows Mann to show off his verbal skills and to present an array of statements. E.g., “tolerance is a mixture of love and condescension” That speaks to me. The infamous Dutch tolerance is condescending; being based on arrogance and pragmatism.
Next Riemer sees the devil and God as the same.
I find it difficult to read Riemer's rambling monologue. I will try again. I am posting this now to let you where I am at. Before we go on to chapter 4, I want to understand the function of chapter 3. This feels like homework I do not understand.
I also found ch 3 too long, with a few interesting passages buried in nearly endless blather. Perhaps it was supposed to be entertaining, but it did not entertain me much. I am not sure why Mann chose to write it like that. Did he need filler to make it a novel? Are we missing something?
The long sentence that troubled you follows Riemer’s (R’s) recollection of something Goethe (G) said that shocked him. What G said was “Irony is the grain of salt without which nothing we eat would have any savour.” Why would this be shocking? Goethe’s era was a period of classicism and romanticism in art – everything was truth and beauty, with no irony. R speaks a bit, and then says, “What I have in mind here is the contradiction which they [=Goethe’s words] often contain, a nameless ambiguity, that seems to be a characteristic of nature and of absolute art and makes what he says less valid and less easy to retain.” My interpretation is that Riemer has no idea what G means much of the time, because the complexity of his ideas and the irony in G’s words. In my view that main thing here is that Mann is being sarcastic. R is barely coherent. He does not understand much of what G says so forgets it, and this is his cover story. He says soon after “Poor humanity can only retain and profit by the Moral”. In other words, one needs simple thoughts and lessons. I assume G speaks on a higher plain, with layered meanings, and R (and R thinks humanity) are capable of only the superficial. Mann seems to be saying that G is ahead of his time.
But I agree that the sentence that you quoted is a bear. Jan, in German it is: [The reason one forgets what he says]“muß da noch eine Ursache sein, die in den Äußerungen selber liegt, und hier habe ich den Widerspruch im Sinn, den sie oftmals in sich selber tragen, eine unnennbare Zweideutigkeit, die, wie es scheint, die Sache der Natur und der absoluten Kunst ist und ihre Haltbarkeit, ihre Behältlichkeit beeinträchtigt” After checking a couple of words and simplifying, I would translate this as “The reason must have a cause that lies in the statement itself, and here I mean the paradox that his statements often contain, an unidentifiable double meaning that apparently characterizes nature and pure art and that hinders its stability and of remembering it.” Put another way G says things that capture something subtle and complex about nature and art that is simultaneously true and beautiful and not, but we don’t quite get his meaning, so can’t remember it well. Note 1) ambiguous in German (Zweideutigkeit) means unclear or simply having two meanings, depending on context. 2) Haltbarkeit means stability or durability, which fits the context, or “can be maintained”, like a logical argument; I don’t know why the translator chose “less valid.” I think she made an error.
So, is this sentence’s incomprehensibility an example of what the sentence is trying to express, i.e., a sophisticated joke on Mann’s part, or is he simply being sarcastic about R’s pomposity and denseness?
I think the latter, which makes me wonder why G hired R and also whether I will understand G when he finally appears, or be stuck like R!
“Only too sore man feels his human need" is written a bit poetically. Is it a quote? The sentence in usual order is “man feels his human needs only too sorely” or “man feels his human needs very painfully”. But the paragraph is again R’s semi-gibberish.
You have to keep in mind that the whole chapter is lightly sarcastic. When Lotte first meets R, Mann writes “Herr Doctor, answered Charlotte, returning his bow, not without ceremonial deliberation, “the attentions of a man of your merits could never, I think, fail to be agreeable to the recipient. She felt, as she spoke, disturbed by the thought that she was in the dark as to the nature of these merits.” Lotte has humor and common sense, and she waits for R to demonstrate his merits before assuming he has any. I’m sure that she soon understands that he blathers.
The same occurs when R described the crowd outside the hotel window as not merely curious but expressing the “bond they feel to the nations’s highest interest.” Lotte immediately skewers him: “It seems to me,” retorted Charlotte, “you take from these people with one hand what you give with the other.” (p 43)
In the middle of all this, however, R has a moment of clarity – see p 43, “As for his tolerance …” R says G’s tolerance is a mixture of “Christian love” and indifference or disdain, and that the two somehow go together in a godlike way. (This is the same section I wrote about before. To repeat that: This mix reminds Lotte of her own fears 40 y before about the contradictory nature of Goethe’s genius. In the course of this discussion, and IMO surprisingly given her apparent disdain for Riemer, Lotte reveals her true reason for coming, the hope to understand what happened between her and Goethe. As he puts it, how can someone “fall in love with a bride?” Riemer’s answer is that Goethe is a god, so not to be judged by mortals. Is Mann telling us that Goethe is something like Nietzsche’s Übermensch? I’m also reminded of the Abba lyric: “The gods may throw a dice/Their minds as cold as ice/And someone way down here/Loses someone dear.” Will Lotte get Goethe to explain himself?)
After this all occurs to Lotte, she changes the subject and lets R ramble on about himself. I think Mann has intentionally made this long section nearly unreadable. There is light humor in R’s bumbling way, but it goes on too long to keep on amused (although I laughed when R suggest L is like his older sister – P 53). So why has Mann done it? Perhaps to contrast with how he portrays G later?
BTW – R mentions “Elective Affinities” at one point and later the “Apprenticeship.” These are two of G’s novels (on p 63 the first is mentioned again, in German [Wahlverwandschaften). Elective Affinities about peoples’ various relationships with others; G got the idea from early theories of chemical bonds!. The second is Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which along with Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, is considered an early classic in “coming of age” literature.
Are we ready for the next bit? How much? Ch 4 is pp 120-143, ch 5 is pp 144-213. Should we do one or both by Sun 24?