I've been trying to wrap my head around Faust for nearly eight years. As of tonight - since I'm a socially lazy person - I'm reduced watching a German Peter Stein production on my laptop (ohne subtitles) while following along with my tattered bilingual Walter Kaufmann translation that got soaked seven years ago in a tragic dishwasher accident. My German is um....sehr schlecht. I'm even uncomfortable reading Werner Herzog's tweets without subtitles.
What I learned tonight is that I think I'm finally old enough to 'get' Faust. For years I'd begin to read that high-minded transcendental irony of yours, full of earnest intention to pay tribute to the great exemplar of Kultur und Biltung. Yet within minutes my mind would invariably wander to thoughts of which Seinfeld rerun is airing. What is different this time is that tonight I found Faust relatable. And that, dear JG, is more valuable to reading than a thousand well-turned phrases in succession (no matter what Nabokov tells us to the contrary, but Nabokov was a brilliant idiot, not unlike someone you know).
You see my dear Johann Wolfgang von, what's relatable about Faust is that the more learning he accumulates, the more he realizes how many boring idiots there are to read, and the more he feels like a boring idiot himself. This is ironic because no great writer (ok,...maybe Milton) acquired a more eminent reputation as a boring idiot than you. I daresay, your reputation is at least a little deserved (though others are in far better positions to corroborate this than I), but it also conceals on crucial thing about your writing. For all the heavy weather -- endless monologues, stylized language, philosophical musings etc. -- your version of Faust contains an inexhaustible supply of sex and violence. All that magic, all that lust and worlds forbidden to humans, all those 'epic' battles that pit virtue against vice... Goethe was a fantasy writer before George R. R. Martins and Orson Scott Card were gleams in their mothers' eyes. All that transcendental irony's a plus too..
After eight years of trying to read this damn thing (EIGHT YEARS!), I've finally begun to understand it. Behind all the fearsomeness is a very basic, primal story about the limits of human understanding....I think...after all I'm still only a third of the way through.
Man Booker International Prize judges
1 hour ago