A cult German modern classic

The New Sorrows of Young W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf

Translated by Romy Fursland

I won this book from Lizzy’s Tenth Blogiversary  giveaway back in February – thank you! I chose it from those she offered purely because of the cassette tape on the front which I was hoping would set it in the 1970s/80s – and it was. Published in Germany in 1972, it turns out that this novella is considered a modern cult classic there, and it is one of Lizzy’s favourite German books.  So far so good, however I was worried a little by the title, which alludes to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, about which I know absolutely nothing. Would I need that to enjoy this little book?  Let me tell you a little about it…

Teenaged rebel Edgar Wibeau (that’s Wibeau, not Wibau as his teacher used to insist), drops out of his apprenticeship and leaves home to live in an abandoned summerhouse in East Berlin. The summerhouse is due to be demolished, but Edgar reckons he’ll be safe there for a while. He has nothing other than a folder of pictures he has painted, a tape recorder and a found copy of Goethe’s text – which he ends up having to use as toilet paper! Next door is a kindergarten – and it is there that Edgar falls in love with Charlotte, the assistant, who is a few years older than him – of course she’s taken, but he does try! Edgar does keep in touch with his friend Willi though, sending cryptic messages on cassettes to him. Edgar gets a job as a decorator and that’s where he gets an idea to build a device that’ll make his fortune, or so he hopes…

Nothing will come of it though. For right from the very first page we know that Edgar is dead.  He electrocuted himself ‘tinkering with machinery’ as one of the obituaries that preface the novella says. The story itself starts with an interview with his father – and Edgar – through his spirit then joins in to comment, and then tells his own story.

For the record: Edgar Wibeau chucked in his apprenticeship and ran away from home because he’d been wanting to do it for a long time. He scraped by as a house painter in Berlin, had some fun, had Charlotte and nearly came up with a great invention, because he wanted to!

The fact that I went over the Jordan in the process is a real bummer. But if it makes anyone feel any better, I didn’t notice much. Three hundred and eighty volts are no joke, guys. It was very quick. And anyway, we don’t really do regrets this side of the Jordan. We here all know what’s in store for us. That we stop existing when you stop thinking about us. My chances are probably pretty slim in that department. I was too young.

There’s a running joke in this black comedy about Edgar’s lack of ability to paint. He thinks his own paintings are awful, others prevaricate – so I think we can agree they’re not good. Then he goes and gets a job as a house painter – and he gets paint everywhere, yet they keep him on, thanks to foreman Zaremba.

I honestly had no idea whether Edgar’s story reflects Goethe’s Werther, but I can guess that Plenzdorf refers that work throughout. In fact, reading a synopsis of Goethe’s work elsewhere, I find it is in part an epistolary story =>cassettes, and the love interest is also called Charlotte who is likewise promised to another. There is doubtless much more.

The literary allusions that did come through for me though were from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye – which Edgar mentions several times, seeing paralells between Holden Caulfield and himself. Indeed one of the quotes on the rear cover from Die Zeit calls this book “A Catcher in the GDR-Rye”.

For these literary connections above, I can see why it is studied in Germany – along with it’s structure:  Edgar’s beyond-the-grave narration, the reportage from those who knew him, and the tapes he sends Willi – these all make it an interesting read.

As for the translation, given that it is a novel of the early 1970s, I was delighted to see that Romy Fursland used the good old-fashioned “Bollocks!” – an authentic swear-word of the period.

This short novel grew on me as I read it – I had a chuckle with Edgar, but its cult classic status was a little lost on me. (8/10)

Source: Won! – Thank you.

Ulrich Plenzdorf, The New Sorrows of Young W. (Pushkin Press, 2015), paperback original, 160 pages.

4 thoughts on “A cult German modern classic

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I knew I’d enjoy it at the first ‘Bollocks!’ but it was a slightly bizarre blend of styles/tropes.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I certainly missed a lot of the references and jokes – but it was very enjoyable in a slightly strange way.

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