We can change a face, change a gender, change a race, change a voice; produce the true illusion of someone speaking words they never spoke; sell tickets for events at which dead people will sing and dance for our delectation. Why, it’s almost as if we were alive to see them do it. What can we not do? Tell Sophocles (“What a wonder is man”) the news. Maria Callas? Elvis Presley? Freddie Mercury? Vera Lynn? Vera Imago? Straight up? With a twist? Genetically enhanced? Coming right up. Nothing is real and—pace John Lennon—everything to get hung about.

We do have books, important books that would actually bring us close to important people, but now these hem-of-the-garment books have come upon hard times; they are discredited, almost exploded: John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, so mysteriously stuffed with the speech of men long dead, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which lives by its “Sir” and dies by its “Sir”), Coleridge’s Table Talk, Gustav Janouch’s spurious Conversations with Kafka, Hitler’s (God save us) Tischgespräche. (Meanwhile, in what’s derisorily known as the real world, we have politicians’ and diplomats’ memoirs, written supposedly—legendarily—between dinner and bath time; with an FBI-approved, legally satisfying memory of once-seen documents; with the benefit of shorthand or without. The first draft of history. Ahem. Ahem ahem.) Now that we’ve had it with uncomplicated greatness, just give us our supernatural machinery. What a poor, gaslighted, meme-riddled, spook-spooked species we are. We can no longer count to three, but by golly you should see our numerology. I don’t know what we should be more ashamed of: our stupid credulity or our oh-so-clever suspicion.

A strange time to publish—strange time to publish anything—a translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (or should that be Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann?), in six hundred static, major-key pages that can easily feel like twice as many. The big man, himself by now somewhat fallen on hard times, recorded by the little acolyte. The little acolyte, known for nothing else, just for talking to the big man, bringing him out, leading him on. Eckermann, see also Goethe. There is nothing particularly documentary or authentic-seeming or intimate about these conversations. There is a single moment when I felt close to the way Goethe might have spoken, when he says, or “says”: “And yet, how much do I really get done? If I’m very lucky, I can produce a page of writing, but normally it’s only as much as would fit under your hand—and even less if I’m in an unproductive mood.” That “as much as would fit under your hand” has a flash of immediacy, of practicality, of the power of that hand.

Elsewhere the Conversations sound like the eighteenth century in its sleeked, placid pomp, all balance and reason—in Randall Jarrell’s phrase on another subject, “statues talking like a book.” They were loosely reconstituted, not always promptly and not always plausibly. (The first two volumes appeared four years after Goethe’s death, an expanded version containing a third volume not until another twelve years after that.) Simpler, perhaps, to say they were piously reinvented. Allan Blunden’s is the first complete English translation since John Oxenford’s in the nineteenth century. The foundational text of a hero-cult that was taken up then, by Carlyle, by Emerson, and, a little shockingly, by Nietzsche, for whom these Conversations were “the best German book there is,” but that later lost its following, or became the wrong kind of cult. Something well starched. One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys, to say it with Larkin. Given the competition from Marilyn and Campbell’s Soup, one of the obscurer Warhols. Something put on your bucket list by your enemy.

I have never lost the shaken feeling I experienced when I read somewhere long ago that something was known of each of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s days on earth (1749–1832). Everyone who encountered him left a record of it; every encounter was a red-letter day for the other party; no day without an encounter, and no one kept shtum about it. Goethe was a celebrity for practically the whole of his long adult life, from the overnight successes and scandals of the drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and the short novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). The following year—young fellow in his mid-twenties: Where are we, Monaco? San Remo? Andorra?—he accepted an offer from the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, who effectively gave him his statelet to play with.

Goethe settled in Weimar, built roads, ran silver mines, fixed the university, established a theater, and, with one exception, barely left. That exception was in 1786, when he made a break for it and absconded to Italy for a couple of years. Crossing the Alps on his return, he got out of the carriage and promptly started tapping rocks again. (In addition to everything else, he had a lifelong interest in geology.) After two years of drupes and women and “the warm South” (Keats), he was back in the stone age. For the last forty-odd years of his life, he queened it in Weimar. He withdrew as much as he could—as behind a veil, ergo highly visible—from his political capacities, wrote, developed his theories on color, on plant growth, on aesthetics. He had a bone named after him. In a Romantic time, a time of orts and rebellions and tantalizing hints and broken fragments, he remained severely classical and dauntingly encyclopedic. A beavering establishment. Comfortable, industrious, reactionary, bemedaled, and yet unappeased, without the acclaim or status he thought he deserved. “My works will never have popular appeal,” he proclaimed, with just a little drip of self-pity.


He, who was once sought out by Napoleon, now had to make do with letters (and poems, egad) from Ludwig I of Bavaria. The onetime Sturm-und-Dranger and Schiller soulmate now dependably ruined the lives of the younger writers who came to kiss his ring—Lenz, Kleist, Grillparzer—described thus shatteringly by Joseph Roth: “It was like a Friday going out to see what a Sunday is like, and then going home, satisfied and sad that he was a Friday.” (Only Heine was robust enough to survive the experience.) He finished the second part of Faust. Other works turned out to have been completed already, or gratifyingly to fill unanticipated further volumes. “When a man is old, he should do more than when he was young.” Quotha. And he spoke to Eckermann. In his self-propulsion and self-sufficiency, his range of achievements, his architectonic sense of self, and his overwhelming sense of duty he seems formidable, frightening, even a little disgusting: a queasy-making amalgam of Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Bacon, Newton, D’Annunzio, and several more I can’t put a name to.

Johann Peter Eckermann was an unknown young man, or actually no longer young, but thirty and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, when in 1823 he literally walked into Goethe’s life, covering the 120 miles from Hanover to Weimar on foot. The opening twenty pages of his book, in which he describes his unlettered and dirt-poor background in Lower Saxony, have more presence and more pathos than anything thereafter. He was a late child of a second marriage; his father was a peddler and smallholder, his mother a weaver and seamstress; the family owned one cow. Somehow poetry, Goethe’s especially, got its hooks into him, and with a mixture of autodidacticism and almost a sort of GoFundMe approach, he set about getting himself an education. He wrote a poem and printed and distributed it at his own expense. Then he wrote an essay and sought Goethe’s help in publishing it; Goethe approved the essay, which duly appeared with his own publisher, Cotta, and he kept its author in Weimar. At moments, one senses Goethe angling for the fish Eckermann, who for a time still entertains thoughts of moving on, of an independent literary career, of marriage, even; at other times it’s the fish that seems anxious to be caught. Either way, here was someone who could be induced to put himself second. An amanuensis made in heaven.

After those prefatory twenty pages, Eckermann’s lens is greased, his eye—thereafter only for his master—grows misty. Ritchie Robertson in his excellent introduction describes him as being in “a kind of thralldom”; Rüdiger Safranski, author of a 2013 biography of Goethe, describes him as “obsequious and frail”*; Borges, in his Course on English Literature, as “a man of limited intelligence who greatly revered Goethe, who spoke with him ex cathedra.” Certainly, Eckermann is starstruck from beginning to end, from the first meeting—“We sat down on the sofa. The sight of him sitting so close made me feel both happy and flustered, and I could think of little or nothing to say”—to the final viewing, when a briefly emboldened Eckermann asks to see the body one last time and launches into the peculiar, fervent, frankly necrophiliac passage with which the original edition of the Conversations ended:

The body lay naked, wrapped in a white sheet, and large blocks of ice had been placed around it to keep it fresh for as long as possible. Friedrich opened up the sheet, and I marvelled at the divine splendour of those limbs. The chest was powerful, broad and arched; the arms and legs full and palpably muscular; the feet dainty and perfectly formed; and not a trace, anywhere on the body, of obesity or emaciation and wasting. A perfect human being lay before me in all his beauty…. I placed my hand upon his heart—a profound stillness lay over everything—and turned away, to let the tears I had held back flow freely.

The keynote of the entire book is probably that holding back. Goethe holds back Eckermann, stops him from leaving by giving him tasks; opening up intellectual prospects; taking him on coach rides; showing him letters, manuscripts, and drawings; giving him season tickets to the theater (he himself has long since ceased going; Eckermann seems to go every night; Goethe teases him about it); introducing him at social occasions. There seems always to be some unfinished business, a carrot. Effectively, Goethe is Scheherazade—only for Arabian Nights, read Weimar Years. Eckermann holds back by seeming to be on tiptoe and in whispers all the time, always respectful, dependably adulatory. He agrees with Goethe, and records Goethe agreeing with him: “You’re right”!


Goethe sets him to find his anonymous early reviews from a fifty-year-old periodical—it’s like one of those impossible tasks for a maiden in a Märchen: sifting sand from salt or flour from iron filings. When Eckermann receives an attractive offer to write on new German literature for an English magazine, Goethe counsels against it, and when he duly turns it down, Goethe says, “Thank heavens…that you are free again, and your time is your own,” when of course it was no such thing. He orders up an account from him of his controversial, prolix, and opaque thinking about color. Even when Eckermann in 1830 suggests the publication of their Conversations, Goethe sets his face against it, “which meant that I had to give up the idea of embarking successfully on a purely literary career.” In the one page of his biography that is all he gives to the book and the relationship, Safranski writes:

Eckermann devoted all his energy to Goethe, who took him into his confidence, spoiled him with recognition and praise, and paid him miserably. Eckermann had to give private lessons, live in poorly furnished rooms, and keep postponing his marriage because Goethe didn’t pay him enough to start a household.

Eckermann doesn’t have any of the warmth or the impertinence of Boswell, or the Scotsman’s idiomatic memory. Impossible to imagine him at the doctor’s side, suddenly distracted by the sight of a streetwalker, or convivial and unbuttoned: “We finished a couple of bottles of port, and sat till between one and two in the morning.” Eckermann is always receiving alms. It is a trickle-down book.

The Conversations is hard to read with the grain, because it’s so monotonous and so repetitive: Goethe “in very sprightly mood,” “in a very jolly mood,” “in fine form,” “in a very cheery and animated mood,” “in the best of spirits, as his very animated face indicated,” “in very good spirits,” “in very lively form,” “on particularly lively form,” “in very mellow and cheerful mood,” “very calm and cheerful, and in the most mellow of moods.” It yields little to summary or to accident. Occasional crises—the death of the Grand Duke, the death of Goethe’s son, the destruction by fire of the Weimar theater—are stoically gulped down. They seem to exercise Eckermann more than they do Goethe, whose impassiveness is one more occasion for wonderment. Variety—emotion—is not on offer. Goethe, too, one surmises, is holding something back.

If one has a tolerance for such a conjunction of servility and oppression, and is not disturbed by the vanity of a man complacently surrounded—much as Rodin appeared to Rilke—by the works of his mind and hands, then of course one may admire the extraordinary range of Goethe’s interests and ideas, from medicine and botany to the selection of new popes and the best way to train actors; the continual stress on nature and balance, on objectivity and fact; the constant curiosity—in his seventies and eighties—and preparedness to think anything through from first principles (“Beauty is a primary phenomenon,” he says). One can follow an early internationalist, an enthusiastic and devoted reader of English literature (Shakespeare always, but also his own contemporaries—and admirers!—Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott) but also of French, Italian, and (in translation anyway) Spanish and Chinese, so that he claimed the age of national literatures was past, and we were living already in a time—this was 1827; it will still be news to plenty of people now—of “world literature.”

A visionary who foresaw the settlement of the western US (“We can expect that in thirty or forty years’ time this young nation, which is constantly looking to the West, will have occupied and populated the large tracts of territory that lie beyond the Rocky Mountains”). Who predicted and longed for the construction of the Suez Canal (1869), the Panama Canal (1914), and the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal (1992). Who saw Germany, which then still existed in the form of dozens of small states, ultimately stitched together by its railway system, which at that stage hardly existed.

Little wonder, maybe, that Allan Blunden, whose translation is lively throughout, is carried away into occasional refreshing anachronisms: about how the ancients “came up with the goods”; about lives lived “in the full glare of publicity”; about what might be done “at the grassroots level”; and—looking at a French graphic version of his own Faust called Voyages et aventures du Docteur Festus—“This is wild stuff!… The whole thing fizzes with talent and wit!” Truly, the carbonated Warhol is not that far from the gushing Goethe.