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You've Got Mail... from Goethe!

'Die Leiden des jungen Werther' via Email


Goethe via Email
You may be familiar with e-books—digital versions of novels and other literary works. We wrote about the topic of e-books in German earlier in “German in Your Palm.” But now it's possible to receive daily installments of Goethe's epistolary novel (Briefroman, “letter novel”) Die Leiden des jungen Werthers / The Sorrows of Young Werther, delivered each day via email. (In Goethe's time “Werther” took an s-ending, today it's just plain “des Werther” - pron. VER-ter.)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) published his worldwide bestselling novel in 1774. Die Leiden des jungen Werther spread rapidly across German-speaking Europe and then around the world in many languages, including English. The Sorrows of Young Werther appeared in the United States in 1775. Goethe's Briefroman was written in the form of a series of letters (dated 1771) that the fictional “young Werther” sent to his friend Wilhelm. Through the letters we learn about the places Werther visits, as well as his pain and suffering connected with a love interest. Things end badly when Werther takes his own life over unrequited love. Goethe's book became a huge bestseller at the time. But it also had an unfortunate side effect: it is said to have inspired copycat suicides all around the globe in the 1770s.

Digital Goethe—in German and English
Fortunately, no one today would be inspired to take such a drastic step because of what we would now term a melodramatic “potboiler” (without the sex). But for students of German, the email versions of Werther offer a unique opportunity. Not only can you read Goethe in the original German, but you can read the English translation. By subscribing to both (it's free), even advanced beginners can read Goethe and learn German at the same time.

A Student Project
The digital Goethe project is the work of two German university students in Munich. Thilo von Pape and Gerhard Rolletscheck came up with the idea of sending out the letters from Goethe's novel via email. Subscribers can choose to receive daily or weekly installments, or even to have each letter delivered on the actual days in the novel. Von Pape has also created a Web site for the Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). His extensive Rilke site offers information about the poet, and you can read Rilke's poetry and letters. There's even a Rilke forum. (See links below.)

French - Französisch
Francophones will enjoy another email site for the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. Published eight years after Goethe's, this much more erotic Briefroman was a big scandal at the time. Like its German counterpart, Liaisons also ends with a suicide. Was the 18th century really that depressing?

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