Lotte in Weimar, by Thomas Mann

Lotte cvr

In his 1939 novel Lotte in Weimar, Thomas Mann uses Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a case study to explore the effect charismatic individuals have on those around them.  Lotte was the heroine of Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, written when he was 24.  She was based on a real person, Charlotte Kestner, née Buff; she and Goethe had been two-thirds of a romantic triangle, the other third being Lotte’s fiancé, whom she later married.  Goethe rendered the events in fictional form in a novel of unrequited love that made his name, in the process making Lotte herself famous.

Mann’s novel imagines the events that occurred during her return to Weimar in 1816 for a three-week stay, after a gap of over 40 years.  Now a widow, this is ostensibly to visit family but in reality to see the man who has had such a profound impact on her life.  The reader of Lotte in Weimar is seeing her refracted through two layers: the real Lotte as seen by Goethe as seen by Mann.  Where Goethe filtered Lotte through his sensibility, Mann attempts to redress the balance, giving us an entry into Goethe’s inner life, but foregrounding Lotte as subject rather than object.

Lotte’s motivations for the visit are mixed.  She wishes to see how Goethe has changed over the decades since they knew each other, time in which his reputation has grown enormously, and what her feelings will be now about someone she cared deeply for as she ponders paths not taken; but also as a protest at the way in which she and her intimate dealings had been appropriated for his novel without her permission, seeking some form of acknowledgement that a wrong had been done.

Yet the meeting is endlessly postponed, eventually it seems permanently, as Lotte struggles to leave her room at the inn while a variety of visitors arrive, all keen to see the model for the character in the master’s book, one of them the sister of a young chap who is sure to make a name for himself, Arthur Schopenhauer (two years away from The World as Will and Representation), and Goethe’s son August.  Together the perspectives cohere to provide a portrait of the great man and his work, but they also indicate the unwanted weight of expectation laid on Lotte by interlocutors for whom the fictional character is more real than the real one.

There is little action until the final section of the novel.  The first part is taken up by dialogues between Lotte and her visitors, with Goethe, the reason for their fascination with Lotte, always hovering at the margins.  The second is Goethe’s internal monologue and conversation with his valet in which we see that mighty engine at work from the inside.  The meeting does finally occur, but it is formal, at a dinner given to a number of Goethe’s friends as well as Lotte and her daughter, and Goethe holds forth to the company in a self-regarding display of his genius.

Thus Lotte finds herself in a sycophantic circle of hangers-on and it looks like a snub to be treated as one of Goethe’s circle rather than his oldest friend.  Yet, while harbouring feelings of disdain towards them, she is always keen to emphasise the length of her association with him, which predates theirs.  She too is not immune from the effects of celebrity, and feels intimidated in the master’s presence.  As it happens he turns out to be a windbag and something of a self-absorbed bore even as Mann clearly admires him and his omnivorous spirit of enquiry combining thought and action in a rounded human being.

Only right at the end do the pair meet privately for a heartfelt conversation.  Goethe invites Lotte to use his carriage for a trip to the theatre where she is offered the use of his box, but he makes it clear he is not able to join her.  She enjoys the play, though finds it not without its weaknesses, and to her surprise, as she gets into the carriage for the return journey she finds Goethe sitting in the corner.  The conversation they have is so stylised it raises the possibility that she is dreaming.  She is able to have a frank discussion which he takes good-naturedly, and he makes the point in his defence that while he may be a candle around which moths flutter, there is loss involved in being a candle burning for others.

Lotte has her consolations.  She has left her youth behind and is beset by a shaking head, though she is still sharp, but she is forever frozen as a character in Goethe’s book.  She will die, but the character lives on forever.  Lotte cares about this legacy, fretting that while Goethe’s depiction is to her mind generally accurate, he gives the wrong eye colour.  She exults when talking to Goethe alone that it is she who is associated with his name, even above his wife.  When the carriage stops at her hotel Mager, the head waiter, opens the door cheerily: ‘… to help Werther’s Lotte out of Goethe’s carriage, that is an experience that – what shall I call it?  It ought to be put down.’  So Mann did, but for Mager, and posterity, she is forever Werther’s (i.e. Goethe’s) Lotte rather than the historical ‘Frau Councillor Charlotte Kestner, née Buff, from Hanover’, as she signed the hotel register.

It is obvious that there is more going on here than a recreation of provincial Weimar and Goethe’s intellectual dominance.  Werther is critical of the tyranny of his times in Goethe’s novel and this can be seen as a metaphor for Mann’s view of the tyranny in his.  Bearing in mind when it was published (in Sweden), it would be surprising if Mann did not draw parallels between Goethe and another certain charismatic German-speaker famous for his table talk.  Ironically, during the dinner, Goethe expounds on the Jews and, foreshadowing future events, he discusses a pogrom that had occurred in Eger in terms contemptuous of the town’s authorities, and he celebrates the remarkable contributions Jews have made to civilisation.  He also warns against the dangers of Prussian militarism.  Mann would surely have been an advocate of the European Union as a bulwark against the dangers of aggressive nationalism.

One reason for reading Lotte in Weimar was because I recently visited that beautiful city.  During the tour I went on, Goethe’s name naturally came up a number of times, and the guide showed his distaste for the great man, comparing him unfavourably with Schiller and emphasising the poor way he treated his wife and son.  One place we stopped at on our walk was an inn called The Elephant, which I photographed, having an interest in elephants.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mann has Lotte put up there in the novel.  On his many visits to Weimar Hitler always stayed there, a fact of which Mann was surely aware when making it Lotte’s temporary home.

We took the opportunity to visit Buchenwald one afternoon, surprisingly close to Weimer but a place as far away from Romantic and Enlightenment values as one can imagine.  Our Weimar guide said that the local authority tries to pretend that Buchenwald does not exist, and one can see why they would prefer to promote the likes of Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Wieland, a rather more positive expression of human values, and not the town’s less savoury past.  Through the lens of the barbarous times in which he lived one can see more clearly why Mann considered harking back to a more civilised Weimar so important.  There is much more going on in Lotte in Weimar than people making polite conversation.

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