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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The New Sorrows of Young W.

Ulrich Plenzdorf

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To purchase The New Sorrows of Young W.

Title: The New Sorrows of Young W.
Author: Ulrich Plenzdorf
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 139 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The New Sorrows of Young W. - US
The New Sorrows of Young W. - UK
The New Sorrows of Young W. - Canada
Les nouvelles souffrances du jeune W. - France
Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. - Deutschland
I nuovi dolori del giovane W. - Italia
Las nuevas cuitas del joven W. - España
  • German title: Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.
  • Translated by Romy Fursland
  • Previously translated by Kenneth P. Wilcox as The New Sufferings of Young W. (1979)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : East German classic that still holds up

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 25/11/2015 Jonathan McAloon

  From the Reviews:
  • "Romy Fursland’s English translation captures this register, though it can seem as though she’s taken Adam Thirlwell’s intrusive, cartoonish narrators as a model for how Edgar might sound in English (...). The result is a dissonant composite of slang (.....) Plenzdorf’s book was a bestseller, often described as the East German Catcher in the Rye (Edgar more than once mentions "that Salinger"); but its doomed, would-be genius of a narrator, with his self-contradictory statements, points more to a kinship with Plenzdorf’s Austrian contemporary Thomas Bernhard." - Jonathan McAloon, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of Ulrich Plenzdorf's The New Sorrows of Young W. could hardly echo Goethe's classic The Sorrows of Young Werther more strongly, and it is indeed through and through a modern (East) German counterpart to Goethe's indulgently tragic Sturm und Drang story. Narrated (for the most part) by Edgar Wibeau, the teen acknowledges only two favourite books -- Robinson Crusoe and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye -- but it is this "famous book" (whose title he never mentions) that is the guiding text -- for both the novel and for Edgar's life and fate.
       Edgar shows little respect for the masterwork, describing coming across it for the first time in a dark outhouse, tearing off the (identifying) cover and title page of the well-known Reclam paperback, and then the last ones, to use as toilet paper. His first attempt at reading it leads him to chuck it across the room after two pages -- but he picks it up again, and reads it straight through. He pretends it's nothing to do with him -- silly, unbelievable literature:

It just wasn't real, guys. Sheer bollocks. And the style. Hearts and souls and joy and tears all over the shop. I can't believe people ever actually talked like that -- even three hundred years ago. The whole thing was made up of all these letters from this loon Werther to his mate back home. It was probably meant to seem super-original or spontaneous or realistic or something. That bloke that wrote it should have a read of Salinger. That's real, guys !
       But Edgar doth protest too much, as teens are wont to do. Goethe's unnamed novel strikes a very deep chord, and while Edgar won't admit it -- defensive even about the fact that he keeps it close at hand, like some totem ("I'd got into the habit of always carrying it around in there -- even I wasn't sure why") -- he identifies closely with the protagonist and relies on the book like some a modern-day psalter, constantly referring to it, and quoting passages from it -- an effective technique for him (and Plenzdorf) in handling many of the situations he finds himself in, when his own words fail him. He does have to admit: "He came up with some pretty useful shit, did Old Werther".
       The New Sorrows of Young W. also resembles Goethe's tale in its outlines, the story of a young man beginning his adulthood and of a love-triangle, and it ends similarly tragically, even if Edgar's suicide is not as clear-cut as such as Werther's was. That a novel calling itself The New Sorrows of Young W. should end with the title-character's death is hardly surprising, but Plenzdorf leaves no doubt about that outcome from the start: the novel opens with a set of short newspaper notices and obituaries, announcing Edgar's Christmas Eve death. The novel proper then begins with unattributed dialogue -- clearly his parents in conversation, the father who had not seen his teenage son since he was five years old looking to learn the circumstances of Edgar's death. Only then does Edgar break into the narrative, the dead teen commenting on this and then later conversations, and giving his side of the story. Following his father as he speaks with others whose path Edgar crossed to learn about what happened to his son, Edgar's counter-commentary -- from beyond the grave -- dominates the story.
       Emulating Werther -- whose account was epistolary, consisting of letters sent to a friend -- Edgar also communicated with a buddy of his, Willi, with tape-recorded communications, and listening to these Edgar's father learns the basics of his son's final few months in Berlin. (Edgar also quotes at length from Goethe's Werther in his tape recordings -- baffling Willi, who suggests: "Sometimes I think -- it might be code ?" Of course, it is code: Edgar sees his life, and wants it seen, refracted through his fictional counterpart from two centuries ago; Plenzdorf's protagonist identifies completely with Goethe's protagonist.)
       Edgar is from the backwater of Mittenberg but itches for more. He's a good student, but teenage rebellion is bubbling inside him and when the opportunity comes he jumps. He makes no excuses, emphatic that:
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 !
       His summary there pretty much covers the plot, but between his father's talks with those that met Edgar in Berlin and Edgar's own account there's a lot of detail, background, and nuance to fill in.
       Among the most devastating and revealing encounters Edgar's father has is with Charlotte, the woman who taught at the kindergarten next to the abandoned house where Edgar was squatting (both school and house slated to be bulldozed in an ominous foreshadowing of how little hope there is here). Edgar goes to her building, looking for Mrs Schmidt -- and finds her:
     "How did you find me ?"
     "It wasn't easy ?"
     "I mean, how did you know about me ?"
     "From the tapes. Edgar sent some tapes back to Mittenberg, like letters."
     "I didn't know anything about that. So there's something about me on these tapes, is there ?"
     "Not much. Only that your name is Charlotte and that you're married. And that you have black eyes."
Don't stress, Charlie. I didn't tell them anything. Not a word.
     "What do you mean, Charlotte ? My name isn't Charlotte !"
     "I don't know. Why are you crying ? Please don't cry."
Come on, Charlie, don't cry. Leave it out. There's no need to cry about it. I got the name out of that stupid book.
       Of course he did. (A nice touch: he more familiarly often refers to her as 'Charlie', while in Goethe's novel the name is shortened to 'Lotte'.) Charlotte, Charlie, is as much projection as real love-object. There was something between them -- The New Sorrows of Young W. is, like Goethe's novel, very much a love story -- but, of course, it was ill-fated, impossible.
       The New Sorrows of Young W. is a novel of the '68 generation, but more obviously of almost every generation -- rebellious youth yearning for the new and exciting. Part of the reason it has stood up so well is because it is from the European '68-periphery, untouched by the more era-specific mass-engagement the roiled, for example, Paris and West Berlin. (Indeed, it's noteworthy how much Plenzdorf keeps the politics of the day and place -- and the divided city where most of the action takes place -- well in the background.) Edgar's rebelliousness is the universal and eternal one that teenagers always face, not a specific one -- his inner turmoil is nearly identical to what Werther faced, and what readers continue to face, generation after generation. (As to the time-specific bits, even his enthusiasm about blue jeans and his interest in music holds up fairly well.)
       It's Edgar all alone, against a society more or less stuck in place; tellingly -- and very East Germanly; a contemporary US counterpart would have him writing software code -- too, his rebellion also manifests itself in an attempt at technological/industrial invention and advancement: Edgar is a would-be artist (a terrible painter, everyone agrees) but that's experimental role-playing; but he is onto something in his attempt to build an innovative spray-paint machine. (It's a nice touch, too, that it's not his art that kills him, but technology.)
       The New Sorrows of Young W. is successful on many levels. It's formally inventive, with what must have seemed stunningly innovative in 1972 East Germany still impressing. (Plenzdorf also worked in film, and this story was also conceived of as screenplay and theater-text; those influences clearly show here.) Edgar's voice is a striking and engaging one, Plenzdorf nicely balancing youthful arrogance with youthful insecurity -- and the (counter-)use of Goethe's words -- the most classic of German -- is a brilliant touch. Indeed, the subversive use of Goethe -- Edgar literally wipes his ass with him (using the title page of the unnamed book when he first finds it) and constantly makes fun of this classic, yet he comes to practically inhabit the old story -- is a brilliant example of and commentary on the eternal interplay of the revolutionary and the reactionary. Impressively, too, the story is also a touching and convincing love story, the more mature Charlotte a fully realized character (indeed, more fully than Edgar consciously realizes -- well done by Plenzdorf).
       The New Sorrows of Young W. is not an easy novel to translate, beginning with the fact that Plenzdorf works in several different registers. Kenneth Wilcox's 1979 translation (which: "disappoints us on many counts", Sara Lennox found in the GDR Bulletin) is now superseded by Romy Fursland's new one, but her attempts to render Edgar's slangy teenage voice -- which itself veers all over the place -- don't always strike the right note (or period, with the vocabulary ranging from too-contemporary to out of date), and both American and British readers are likely to find (different) bits jarring. Still, the voice and story are strong enough that this remains a powerful and entertaining reading experience -- though not nearly as powerful as the German original (which, in addition, also benefits much more from Goethe reverberating so strongly in the text -- much as, for example, the use of Shakespeare might in an English-language work, as Goether's Werther is so thoroughly familiar to most of Plenzdorf's German readers).
       Goethe's novel endures because so much of it remains relatable; Plendorf's should as well, for the same reason. The New Sorrows of Young W. is very much an East German novel -- one of the handful of East German classics, in its treatment of a time and a generation -- but transcends its origins and locale just as well as Goethe's novel does.
       A very fine work -- and one all readers interested in modern German fiction should be familiar with.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 December 2015

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The New Sorrows of Young W.: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       East German author Ulrich Plenzdorf lived 1934 to 2007.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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