Two centuries ago, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was, with the possible exception of Lord Byron, the most famous writer of his time. His 1774 short novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther ”— about a poetical young man whose unrequited passion for a married woman ends in suicide — had swept across Europe, elevating its youthful author into a cultural celebrity. Napoleon, no less, claimed to have read it seven times. Yet Goethe was even more accomplished as a poet. Just think of his chilling ballad “Der Erlkönig” (The Erl-King), the limpidly beautiful “Heidenröslein,” (Heather Rose) or “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) — all of which provided the texts for some of Schubert’s most beautiful lieder. Not least, Goethe’s verse drama “Faust” — in which a Renaissance magus sells his soul to the devil — stands high among the world’s classics.

"Goethe: Life as a Work of Art," by Rüdiger Safranski and David Dollenmayer (Liveright)

Needless to say, all this sounds very impressive, but is Goethe still read outside of an ever-diminishing number of college courses in German literature? I suspect he isn’t, which is why I hoped Rüdiger Safranski’s “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art” might re-introduce this great writer to American readers. Alas, the book, though excellent in its way, won’t do that. Safranski — the author of biographies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche , and a philosopher himself — focuses on Goethe’s evolution as a thinker and artist at the expense of narrative excitement and anecdote. Given how little of the German’s work most Americans have read, we don’t really need analysis so much as enthusiastic cheerleading.

In the past W.H. Auden — who himself aspired to be “a minor Atlantic Goethe” — championed this “last universal genius” in several characteristically brilliant essays. More recently, the scholar-critic Edward Mendelson declared that Goethe’s capacious imagination can be likened to that of Dante and Shakespeare. At least James Joyce would agree with this judgment, since he links the trio together as Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper in “Finnegans Wake.” Nonetheless, when you finish Safranski’s pages on, say, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” you will certainly understand this novel better if you’ve already read it, but if you haven’t, you probably won’t be eagerly rushing out to find a copy (ideally in the translation by my one-time teacher Eric Blackall ). I don’t know if much can be done for Goethe’s poetry, which tends to sound flat and rather bland in English, though translator David Dollenmayer does his best.

Is this ambitious book, then, a failure? Not at all. Neophytes will certainly be bored, yet Goethe aficionados will learn a lot. As his subtitle indicates, Safranski argues that Goethe approached his life as a work of art, requiring that any experience further his personal growth and development. You didn’t think he kept chasing women just for the fun of it, did you? Other important experiences included pietism, a fascination with alchemy, Shakespeare’s plays, helping govern the small duchy of Weimar, studying nature, exploring the science of color, travel in Italy, philosophical and political discussions with contemporaries (including Herder and Schiller), working in the theater and, of course, wide reading and constant writing.

For this polymath, art was never limited to copying reality, but could instead function as a thought experiment, a form of self-realization. As Safranski stresses, to Goethe “art creates a new nature: an artificial, incomparable, original, and surprising nature. It has no need to measure itself against what already exists, but should be judged according to its own inner truth. Thus Goethe opposes the principle of imitation of nature with the principle of creative expression.”

In a characteristically insightful discussion of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” Safranski points out that “it is not the pain of love but rather Lebensekel — revulsion at or weariness of living — that is at the center of the novel.” This taedium vitae, he explains, grows out of Werther’s reading: The soulful proto-Romantic mediates the world through books rather than taking part directly in life. Among others, Don Quixote and Madame Bovary famously suffered from this same malady, but it’s only a myth that “Werther” itself inspired an epidemic of copy-cat suicides.

While the young Goethe was handsome, charismatic, sentimental and callous, the older Sage of Weimar all too often resembles a statue of himself: Even Safranski speaks of his being “encased in political frost.” Yet Goethe’s actual work — whatever the author’s age — tends to be more thrilling than it is given credit for. Take the stirring lines — borrowed from his play “Egmont”— with which he closes his autobiography, “Truth and Poetry ”: “As if lashed by invisible spirits, the solar horses of time bolt off with our fate’s flimsy wagon, and there is nothing left for us but to calmly and bravely keep hold of the reins and steer the wheels clear of a stone on the right, a precipice on the left. Where are we going? Who knows? We hardly know whence we’ve come.”

Let me end with a recommendation. If you’ve never read Goethe, try his novel “Elective Affinities.” This is an elegant book, with something of the stylized formality of a baroque opera or one of Watteau’s paintings of a fête galante. In it a middle-aged couple, Eduard and Charlotte, invite their friend the Captain and Charlotte’s young niece Ottilie to visit them on their estate. In due course, Charlotte and the Captain are drawn to each other, even as Eduard and Ottilie fall deeply in love. Because they are all good and kindly people, each tries to do the right thing — with ultimately tragic results. To me, “Elective Affinities” ranks with Theodor Fontane’s “Effi Briest” as the finest German novel of the 19th century. There are admirable translations by R.J. Hollingdale and David Constantine, though my favorite is that by Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan .

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday for Style.

GOETHE
Life as a Work of Art

By Rudiger Safranski

Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Liveright. 651 pp. $35