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In the world of the global marketplace, Boyle maintains, we are all proletarians, 'down to the last yuppie among us.' We are--each and every one of us--consumers and producers, but globalized capitalism pressures us to disregard and forget our place as producers, encouraging us to be mere 'punctual consumers,' unattached to place, to time, to our bodies; solely 'there' as ciphers in the vast exchanges of capital. We thus become slaves to our forgetfulness, while wages, job security and opportunities, and our connectedness to our work and our control over it all diminish. Who said Marx is dead?
But Boyle is no knee-jerk marxist. He masterfully traces the course of modernity and its philosophical blindspots through the political and economic shifts of 19th and 20th century Europe, calling us to an awareness of the moral and religious underpinnings of our meaningful identity as we find it in literature and in daily life--as both producers and consumers. He unapologetically considers himself a 'Christian humanist,' and this perspective affords him a valuable and critical eye toward the dehumanizing effects of globalization, as well as the grounds for hope we may find therein.
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There can be no question that Boyle is well-familiar with Goethe's work, and the context of his long life. However, he communicates neither very well. A few bright moments poke through in the text, such as the fine description of the household in which Goethe grew up, but the reader generally finds himself at a loss when attempting to picture the type of life which Goethe lived. Esoteric religious concerns and theories about the effect of the German political situation on the souls of its people cloud what could have been a fascinating look at another time and place with distracting, and ultimately useless, complexities. Even worse is Boyle's approach to Goethe's work. One should have perhaps been warned by the author's decision to regiment "life" and "work" into alternate chapters that the work would be subjected to, and ultimately consumed by, a light but continual barrage of literary theory which, while it does not reach the absurd heights of which academia is often capable, manages to render the power of Goethe's poetry and fiction effectively lifeless. That is a formidable achievement indeed, and one which literary biographers, as a whole, should strive to avoid.
I am still waiting for a biography of Goethe worthy of him, a man whose literary relevance is unquestionable--Pushkin, Hugo and Shakespeare, perhaps, are the only others who can match him, and whoever writes the story of his life should attempt to show this truth, rather than obscure it unnecessarily, as Boyle has done.
Two stars, one for the minimum, and one for what it might have been.
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Books like this should be judged by the way they are edited -- the stature over the past 200 years of the author and of his works contained in the book are beyond dispute anymore. You can always say all the superlative words about, say, Shakespeare or James Joyce, but it will only show that you are just catching up with what the rest of the world knows already. Same here.
Usually, books like this, specially those published by supposedly respectable publishers, would be a bit more well organized. A well known critic would introduce the book at the level of an average reader, would tell you how the works that comprise the collection were selected, would tell you the merits and demerits of the available translations and why a particular translation was chosen for the collection, etc.
It would have maps and chronologies and a bit more background information so you will appreciate better the historical and geographical and cultural context of the author's works.
Aside from the chronology and a terribly irrelevant and unreadable and useless and boring exercise in conceited academic hoo-hah, otherwise known as the book's Introduction, you get none of those goodies and you must just fend for yourself while wading in 1,248 pages of 200 year-old literature.
The specialists -- those who are engaged in the cottage industry that surrounds a major writer -- will probably like this book, if indeed this book collects all of Goethe's books that matter in the English translation.
However for the dilettante like you and me who just knows that Goethe is supposed to be a good writer and specially those who are looking for a good English translation of any of his major work, this book is no help at all. You just don't know whether the translations are the best ones available in English.
Almost all the paraphernalia in the book are useless, and you will be like reading an unknown 200 year-old 1,248-page book of an unknown writer.
(P.S. but I did enjoy reading the Sorrows of Young Werther and the poems, for all they are worth.)
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