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Essay

The Idiot, Goethe, and the Comet

By Helga Neumayer

I believe in stories. I am looking for stories.  And, yes. I can describe myself as a story lover. But, naturally, there are some stories I don’t want to know anything at all about. “Net so genau-au (Not too many details)” as Austrian artist Ostbahn-Kurti used to sing.

Stories have a life of their own. Suddenly, they come and bewitch you. It is useless to ignore them. You are surrounded by them. When you close your eyes, they come back in dreams.

Failing

Offended and frustrated, I left “my” German class. I had offered a proper elected lesson out of a textbook dated 2015 with exercises. The class did not participate.  They made fun of my lesson. They now wanted to learn something about love, etc. One of them complained noisily in front of the class:

“Teachings would be out-of-date!”

That hit!

There was some consolation in the trainers’ room.  My colleagues understand such situations. Anyhow, it affected me. 

I had some questions stashed away into my backpack:

“Do I do antiquated work?”

“What can I still expect from teaching classes?” 

“Is it worth the expenditure?”

Diversion

Anyway, I had to go to the public library.

I had to be surrounded by books. I needed to gaze on the soft hills of the Wiener Wald — the Vienna Forest. They calm me down.  For me, it has the same effect zapping through TV channels.

I can beam myself away, for example, among the bookshelves between I and K, let’s say, between a new Kaminer and an early Kaestner.  Then, I can glance at the DAF/DAZ shelf, at the textbooks for German as a foreign or second language.

Something new?

There was: The Complete Idiot. Simple speech. 

One guy does everything wrong. A drunkard.  Always talking about sex, something that he does not have.  No friendships to care about. Impolite. No luck in life.

Hefty language.  

I took the book. It helped.  For the next lesson, after a weekend of stomach ache and migraine, I had three different proposals for the class. In the so called “open-learning class,” participants are motivated to choose their own learning matter; they will choose what they like to learn at the moment. At the end, they are even allowed to play cards. Cards are in vogue — and, even at break times groups of card-players can be seen focussing on the game at hand.

Not this time. The participants concentrated mainly on the three stories of The Complete Idiot which I had offered them in copy form.  By themselves, they came to ask for expressions in detail, to be sure to understand everything properly.

Two close friends finished the three stories quickly and asked for the whole book, to retire with it in the leisure corner on the sofa. At the end of the lesson, they asked me where to buy the book.

A book!

With this experience, I gathered new courage. Finally, I was not at a very wrong spot.  Not old-fashioned. Not entirely in the wrong universe. 

The story could go on.

A few weeks passed.  The borders of The Complete Idiot — thus mine — could expand, furthermore, in the area of language.

The rail of love is a rail, which does not know limits.

Next time, I found Goethe’s Werther on the shelf.

 An audio book.

I cannot claim that in my younger years classical literature spoiled my love for literature, in general.  Those years just passed by. Consciously, I read one or another text as considered “advanced” only. For example, Goethe’s West-East Divan, after having inhaled Hafez.

It was pure joy.

Werther, however, fell into my hands for the first time now.  It was a simple version for the young people from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe whom I had to bring closer to the German language. So, we started with the beginning of the story when you can already adumbrate a passionate approach, but you already feel that the darling sweetheart is in other hands.

Listen two times.

Re-narrate once.

Read once. 

And then it was getting exciting.

How would the story proceed?

The feedback was gorgeous.

Stories over stories.

They embraced continents, generations, and fiction.

Exactly what turns out to be literature.

Prevailing tenor: love is surely no reason for suicide!

The quiet young man from the Ivory Coast in the back row got very emotional. He recounted about his brother, who left all his kin, because his love for the woman of his heart was refused by his family.  He emigrated to Germany and does not even answer the phone when a family member calls. 

A young Syrian woman believes that an arranged engagement with an unloved person can surely be cancelled, and everything will work out fine. And the young Ukrainian — the most radical of all — without further ado — navigates a comet out of the infinite nothing into the ballroom of the society of lovers, and extinguishes the whole raunchy bunch and brings the story to an early end.

And myself?

Well, me, I am now complying with the standard requirements of Marcel Reich-Ranicky,  a canonical literary critic, who in 2002, declared that every literate German speaker must have read Goethe’s “Werther”.  But quite possibly, my version, in simple speech, an audio book, would not have been acceptable to him …

(Translated from the German original to English by the author and Carol Yalcinkaya-Ferris)

Helga Neumayer (Austria) is an ethno-historian, author, editor, translator and multilingual radio activist. She edited a number of anthologies. For more than a decade she has been editing a renowned Austrian feminist magazine ‘Frauensolidarität‘.( Solidarity among Women) She is the co-founder of the radio editorial ‚Women on Air, a multiligual magazine that coveres issues on global power relations. She is a member of P.E.N. Austria and on editorial board of Words &Worlds. Helga Neumayer lives and works in Vienna.

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