I found this book in a used bookstore in Singapore and first heard of it from the great French film, Jules et Jim. But all you can ever find of Goethe in America, if you can find anything at all, is The Sorrows of Young Werther and (maybe) Faustus.
I can’t believe it’s not more widely read. It’s got a strong current of sexy running through it and it’s relatively short. In some ways, it reminds me of J.K. Huysmans’ The Cathedral, except it’s digressions are not so much philosophical-theological as philosophical-psychological and about gardens and landscape, rather than the great cathedral at Chartres.
Basically, there is a couple, previously married, but in love for years, who married each other after their first spouses died. They seem happy, but then some other feelings interfere, when the husband, Eduard, invites his friend, ‘The Captain’ (later, ‘The Major;’ and never given a proper name) to stay with him and Charlotte in their country house. Charlotte invites Ottile, her ward (semi-adopted to be a companion to her daughter from her first marriage).
Charlotte and the Captain fall in love over their shared love (though differing philosophies) of landscaping. He leaves so as not to break up the marriage.
Meanwhile, Eduard falls passionately in love with young Ottile.
Where it gets tricky for the modern reader is that Eduard is clearly showing signs of being an abusive type. Possessive and manipulative and childish. It’s actually kind of scary and you worry that he will actually be granted a divorce and marry the poor girl. The fact that he hardly seems to care or be discouraged by the fact that Charlotte gives birth to his son while he’s sulking in a country cottage far away is not a good sign.
I would love to keep this book, but it’s got some mold or mildew on it (Singapore is pretty tropical) and my throat gets itchy when I read it, which is too bad.