Oky doky then!
I know it’s been a long time. Shout out to everyone who’s been patient with me and has kept reading, and also hello to all my new visitors/ followers it’s great to have you on board!
In my very long absence I’ve been amusing myself with a number of different things including university assignments and editing some of my old novels. I’ve also been working on a short story. But now that the holidays are here, I’ve got some more time to dedicate to my favourite hobby!
So, on with today’s blog entry.
Goethe’s Faust has to be one of the most well-known tragedies of the lot. I won’t lie, the idea of reviewing such a time-worn work has me questioning my sanity. But I’ll go ahead with it anyway, not just because it’s old and nobody gets tired of reviewing the classics, but because I ENJOYED IT. Mostly. I’m a nut for classic works like this and I can never pass them up. So here goes.
In some of my previous entries, I discussed the foreword and preface to Faust as if it were a bunch of academic texts that held no meaning outside of the work. True, their flavour is extremely academic. However, they are quite necessary for the interpretation of the work because without them I feel like I would have given up on page two, and added another tally to my list of unfinished books (which isn’t very long; its neighbours would have been Homer’s Iliad and Tolstoy’s War and Peace). That aside, I’m glad I read the forward and preface. Often, I’m told that it’s better to read these after you’ve read the book for the first time. Apparently it spoils any virgin interpretation you may have, however ill-begotten and frightfully strange it might be. I, however am of the opposite opinion. In other classic works such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, I have read the introduction before reading the piece and not only does it enhance my interpretation but it gives me a better sense of what the author may have intended to put across with the work.
On with the gritty part. My edition of Faust, it must be noted, was originally translated from its native German in 1870 and 1871. Which is an awfully long time ago (about 144 years to be precise). That said, there were going to be some inconsistencies with the translations. The translator himself points out that in some places the rhyming structure wasn’t transposable between languages, so he had to fill in the blanks. And even with my very basic knowledge of the German language (Mich? Sprechen sie Deutsch? Pfft!) I found that the old translation did not correspond with what I know. Not that this is of major concern, since my copy is translated.
The first few scenes of Faust immediately told me that I was in for a long trip, and I was right. Faust, the protagonist, very early on manages to ingest some kind of hallucinatory drug and for the rest of the work goes on a ‘trip’ into hell, and back again, for the sake of love and lust for life. Faust’s father was a chemist, and upon his death Faust was given ownership of the family home. Of course what does he do? Go right for the funny-looking green stuff on the shelf with all the other chemicals in his father’s laboratory. And he keeps taking it. There are unexplained inverted pentacles on the floor. Spirits chase him. He’s paid a visit by the Devil, who arrives in the guise of a stray black poodle. This is when the situation gets worse for him, and the Devil and his accompanying spirits convince Faust to make a deal. He and the Devil exchange servitude for five years either way, and Faust is granted whatever he pleases.
Coming from a psychological perspective, I immediately became quite concerned when I started to read this. But when I delved down further I found something interesting. Faust is suffering from clinical depression, which is why he decided to take the drug in the first place. The black poodle, and the way he interprets it when in the presence of a friend, set me off down this path. Further evidence came to light as the story continued. In part One, Faust seems determined to make a complete fool of himself when he falls in love with Margaret, a virginial, goody-two-shoes girl whose mother keeps her under lock and key lest errant young men such as Faust go getting her pregnant. Of course, with the aid of the Devil, Faust does manage to get Margaret knocked up. Her brother finds this out, and swears to kill the man who did the deed. This doesn’t quite work out in the brother’s favour; Faust in his clumsiness manages to kill Margaret’s brother and Margaret is then sent to jail for being an accessory to murder and for having premarital sex, as far as I can tell. After this happens, the Devil drags Faust off to some strange kind of Fairyland gathering, on Walpurgis night. They get drunk and do drugs, and are gone for an indeterminate amount of time. By the time they come back, Margaret is due for her execution. Upon hearing this, Faust immediately tries to rescue her. What he doesn’t know is that Margaret has been driven absolutely stark raving mad by her jail time and by the betrayal of Faust; so much so that when Faust arrives she doesn’t recognise him and then doesn’t believe him when he says he’s trying to help. He leaves her to her fate, wanders into the forest and sleeps for a bit.
This is where Part One cuts and Part Two begins, to the sound of fairies singing and casting a spell over Faust so that when he wakes he has somehow ended up inside the royal court of an un-named Emperor. It is here that he re-unites with the Devil, under whose service Faust presumably is. This is where things get really weird. Part Two is moreso about the Devil rather than Faust, and it comes through in the writing because everything explodes into complete insanity. Apparently the Emperor is having financial problems, so the Devil introduces them to the idea of paper money and promptly solves that problem. The Emperor is so impressed with this that he promptly demands that there be a party, in which the Devil provides the entertainment. This is such a bad idea on so many levels. Whilst they’re all partying with spirits and ghosts, and Helena of Troy makes an appearance and becomes besotted with Faust, their kingdom is attacked. The Emperor attempts to defend what is his, but they lose despite the best efforts of everyone involved. Faust and the Devil act as ‘wandering travellers’ (makes me wonder how the Emperor forgot who they were), and when the battle is lost the pair of them switch sides. But they don’t stick around, because during the battle Faust has lost Helena and the child they had (don’t ask me how a spirit can get with a corporeal dude and make babies, that’s beyond me). Faust is so distraught that he believes throwing himself off a cliff and into the depths of hell will retrieve his lost love, so that’s what he does and he ends up in Hell as a spirit. Of course, the Devil is pretty pleased with himself. But Faust is hardly happy. So with trumpets and much fuss, a bunch of angels appear from Heaven and manage to swipe Faust out from under the Devil’s nose. They take him to Heaven, and Faust doesn’t find Helena but he DOES find Margaret. His trip is apparently warranted because he is a ‘worthy soul’ and was being unjustly persecuted. The Devil ends up continuing to boil in Hell and his own anger at this newest dupe. And that’s where the story ends.
With that overview in mind, one might think that the story itself would make a relative amount of sense. Don’t kid yourself, this is the most confusing book I’ve ever read. It tops Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained in levels of oddness, and bluntly refuses to leave the reader’s mind at peace. Instead it plunges you into a world of complete chaos and jeers at you as you try to make some kind of sense of it. I guess it didn’t help much that when I was reading Faust it was usually one in the morning, but time aside the moments where I read it during the day still left me as foggy and confused as ever.
That said, it must be considered that Faust is first and foremost an epic poem based on a piecemeal legend of a magician (which you can look up and read more about on the CliffsNotes for Faust). It’s meant to be long and it’s meant to be inspiring. Although it may take a while to find the inspiring side of the work, it’s there. The whole piece taken as one is more of a pastiche of human life in the 19th century than anything else. In it, Goethe asks questions of the reader by putting Faust into various situations. These questions vary in nature and can be anything from ‘do you think this was right?’ to ‘does black magic exist?’. It’s up to the reader to determine what these questions are, and what their answers might be. We’re offered a tabula rasa to project ourselves onto, and encouraged to explore what we might find there. Perhaps the book’s confusing element was only a reflection of myself; I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
Faust is a work that focuses on theme more than anything else. Its levels of characterisation are there, however I feel that Goethe perhaps dedicated more time to the Devil rather than to Faust. It left Faust as a slightly hollow and under-emphasised character, which wasn’t particularly reflective of his role. Margaret’s character was rushed, as if it were a hasty addition to fill out the work. Helena’s was mostly there for show, which could have been reflective of her role in the work from Faust’s perspective. The writing of course left something to be desired, but here in the 21st century we’re far more used to a clipped and dramatic style over the exaggerated and elongated one that was favoured in the 19th century and earlier. Its also important to remember that this is a translation, and though it might not be a perfect example of English grammar it still retains its character and more importantly still does what a good piece of fiction ought to do, which is encourage the reader to think outside the box.
What did I take from Faust? That’s a good question and I’m still not sure if I’ve even figured that out myself. One thing I do know though is that spending some time reading the introductions pays off well. I can’t say I’ve discovered anything new about myself, but reading Faust in a time when my whole life is unfolding before me has certainly given me some tips about what not to do, who not to trust, and why you should never, ever, sell your soul to the metaphorical and literal Devil.
And with that, dear reader, I’ll leave you to ponder.
My next blog entry will be on Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE, which is so far proving to be a welcome step back into the 21st century. It’s also the size of a common house brick and a half. At this point I’m wishing myself luck.
Don’t stop reading!