A Man in Love

Written by David Dollenmayer (trans.) Martin Walser
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

In the summer of 1823, while on a promenade in Marienbad, Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe, then 73, literary, scientific, and cultural lion, confidant of kings, counts, and emperors, was besotted with clever, pretty, 19-year old Ulrike von Levetoz, whose widowed mother is not adverse to Goethe’s attentions. This well-documented affair is the spine of A Man in Love. Ulrike is no innocent, quite enjoying having the great Goethe at her feet with such lines as: “Seventy-three is the most beautiful number. I could kiss it.” While Goethe understands that “custom, morality, habit, propriety, and orderliness . . . tell me . . . I am impossible,” he persists nearly to the point of madness, stopping just short of the fate of his own romantic hero in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Martin Walser, one of Germany’s major post-World War II writers, takes us deep into the mind of a towering figure of Enlightenment and Romanticism as two powerful personalities trade witty repartee in sparkling surroundings. The outcome of this May-December dalliance is predictable once a wealthy, more age-appropriate jewelry merchant enters Ulrike’s sphere, and obsession is probably more engrossing to the obsessed and the object of obsession than to the observer, but there is a certain shiver in seeing the clay feet of one the West’s greatest minds. Walser captures a lost world in which Napoleon took time from his conquests to debate literary points, the fine art of conversation was carefully cultivated, and those in power were expected to take a deep, personal interest in the fate of artists . . . and their affairs.