Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann

Review by David Starkey

That Penguin Classics is publishing a new translation (by Allan Blunden) of a book packed with quotes by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who died in 1832, is not particularly notable. After all, Goethe remains one of the towering figures in German literature. What’s more surprising is that the book is being sent to reviewers, like the present one, who have nothing at all to do with German literature. It’s a risky gambit—what if the book is panned as boring and irrelevant?—but in this case the strategy has paid off. Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe is witty and wise, perfect for dipping into, even when specific references may require a visit to the book’s extensive “List of Persons Mentioned.”

It’s difficult to find a passage in Conversations where Goethe does not dispense bon mots like a suburban homeowner handing out candy on Halloween. On Tuesday, March 22, 1831, to take a date more or less chosen at random, Goethe meditates on native originality versus influence in the arts: “We are born with certain abilities, no doubt, but we owe our development to a thousand different influences out there in the wider world, from which we take what we can and what suits us best…. The main thing is to have a soul that loves truth and embraces it wherever it is found.”

Four years later, on another Tuesday—March 22, 1831—Goethe’s after-dinner conversation with Eckermann is still bubbling over with ideas. Lamenting a group of young German painters who “don’t think much of Raphael, and regard Titian as merely a good colourist,” Goethe remarks: “we are right in the middle of [an age of barbarism]; for what else is barbarism, if not a refusal to acknowledge excellence?” Later that evening, Goethe lambastes those who believe they only need piety and genius to call themselves artists: “you don’t need to learn anything to be pious—and genius is something we all get from our mothers. One need only say something that flatters men’s conceit and indolence to be sure of a great following among the ranks of the mediocre.”

If these comments, complete with semicolons, sound slightly less than credible as real speech, Eckermann himself acknowledges that they are the gist of Goethe’s remarks: “I…took care not to write down my impressions as soon as I received them; rather, I waited for days and weeks so that the trivial should vanish and only the significant should remain. Indeed, the better parts were written down only after a year or so, and some passages even later.” As Ritchie Robertson points out in his introduction, “Since Eckermann did not aim at photographic accuracy, we must accept a large measure of artistic stylization.” Indeed, Eckermann seems to have been proud of putting his own spin on Goethe’s words.

As Robertson also notes, Eckermann’s book is quite unlike Boswell’s Life of Johnson, another instance of an acolyte recording the sayings of a great man, insofar as Boswell shows Johnson warts and all, while Eckermann’s portrait of Goethe is basically idolatrous. Goethe almost never gets angry, and his sayings are almost always sage and pithy.

Even in death, Goethe remained a powerful figure to Eckermann “Lying flat on his back, he seemed to be at rest, as if sleeping; the expression on his noble countenance was one of profound peace and assurance. The mighty brow seemed still to harbour thoughts.” Unfortunately, the book, which was initially published in 1836 and only gradually became popular, concludes with a third part, a kind of long appendix, published in 1847. Here, Eckermann borrows from the diary of a French writer who also visited Goethe, and revisits his own earlier memories of their tête-à-têtes. This section doesn’t have the same force and grace as the first two parts, although Goethe still manages to deliver his fair share of maxims.

The book’s cover is a Warhol rendering of a portrait of Goethe—pink and red, accented with yellow and green. It’s a mischievous bit of marketing, but it works. Nietzsche’s remark that the Conversations is “the best German book there is,” may be hyperbole, but Blunden’s translation is certainly worth a read, even nearly two hundred years after the original edition first appeared.