Book Of A Lifetime

by Andrew Crumey

Published in the Independent, April 2008

Asked at school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "astronaut". In the late 1960s it didn't seem totally impossible, even for a working-class Scottish kid. But I moved on to more outlandish ambitions, telling my secondary English teacher I was going to be a novelist. Don't bother, he said, there are already far too many of those.

Wise advice, and no doubt a few people would say I should have heeded it, but we all need a dream, and that's what Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is about. It was my teacher who got me on to it, indirectly. In fact he got me into classical music, and I was spellbound by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's rendition of some mournful songs by Schubert whose words, I discovered, came from Goethe's novel - one of the most influential literary works of the early nineteenth century.

Everybody has heard of Goethe, but the English have always had a tricky relationship with him. A.S. Byatt puts it perfectly in her introduction to Goethe's novella The Man Of Fifty: "Little of his major work resembles the forms and values we are comfortable with in our own literatures." That's exactly why I like him.

The hero of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship dreams of a life in the theatre - as exotic to him as space travel might seem to us - and when an actress breaks his heart, he sets off with a touring company, encountering strange characters along the way, such as Mignon, an androgynous child of uncertain origin, and a gloomy harp-playing minstrel whose songs Schubert set so beautifully. Goethe's writing is simple, elegant and uncluttered; the naturalism lures us into a story that gets odder by the page.

Coincidences mount; there's a book-within-the-book - a pietist memoir - that seems a complete digression; then we find ourselves back with Wilhelm, arriving at a mysterious castle where he meets members of a secret order, the Society of the Tower, who are setting up branches worldwide and turn out to have been conducting events all along. Everything connects: Wilhelm's life is a scroll in their library.

We can see what A.S. Byatt meant: this is strange stuff, and one writer hugely influenced by it, surely, was Franz Kafka. So were Walter Scott, James Hogg and Thomas Carlyle - Goethe's sense of the uncanny found a receptive audience in nineteenth-century Scotland. Certainly, as a teenager, I found Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship a remarkable book, and when I re-read it recently (after working it into the plot of my own novel), I enjoyed it even more. Goethe was a scientist as well as a writer, and while Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is billed as the classic coming-of-age tale, or Bildungsroman, it's really far more than that: a story of education and disillusionment, a novel of ideas ranging across literature, philosophy and politics, a masterpiece that resists all pigeonholing. Not the kind of writing we may feel totally comfortable with - but a kind that can stay with you for a lifetime.