Edgar Wibeau is a youngster who seemed to be raised perfectly despite being a product of an incomplete family: an excellent student and hard-working apprentice is set as an example to his fellow colleagues. Despite this, an event in the factory, where he stands up for himself for the first time, pushes him to change that happens to be crucial – and eternal.

left: "The New Sorrows of Young W." book cover, Pushkin Press; right: "Young W. and Charlie", Psychedelly
left: “The New Sorrows of Young W.” book cover, Pushkin Press; right: “Young W. and Charlie”, Psychedelly

Ulrich Plenzdorf was a notable German playwright and writer, who was raised in the shackles of communist East Germany. Having studied philosophy, but eventually graduating with a film degree, he released a number of works crucial for “reading the contemporary German”. In the group of his most recognisable works, however, “The New Sorrows of Young W.” remains on top. Drawn to the matters of isolation, the differences between the rebellious individual and how the society influences them or how one responds to a big ideology, in 1972, he sat down to create a social critique of GDR’s social system that made him famous on both sides of Berlin Wall.

Before the novella came to life, the play with the same name was shown – and the sensations that come with watching a dramatic work on stage definitely stays with the reworked piece. The book evolves around the messages which the protagonist sent to his friend; modern letters inspired by Goethe’s book and recorded on a few cassette tapes. The narration, based on his father’s conversations with his friends and colleagues in a profound urge of figuring out the events prior to his son’s death and the commentary of the ghostly presence of Edgar himself, lets the reader uncover the motivations behind the guy who suddenly changed, moved to Berlin from the small town of Mittenberg and started faking the life of a painter. Different angles create a captivating insight into Young W.’s life in Berlin and his process of growing up, stitching the fictional prose close enough to the feeling of reading non-fiction. Darkly realistic and a bit philosophical, it’s an experience of growing up packed into a story which could be one in million. What can prove this theory is the similarity to “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” by Christiane F., based on real-life events. Despite being set in a far more liberal West Berlin, we get the shared characteristics of the era which fluctuated over the Iron Curtain. The confessionary character of the narration also brings the books together – and even if Plenzdorf’s piece is more conservative and his character more sensible, the feeling of rebellion still connects both books. Nevertheless, his crafty storytelling clearly marks the fiction while using the boundaries set for a documentary.

The protagonist’s habits and beliefs are carefully crafted, merging into a mosaic of a downright weirdo. It needs to be said that he might be the most wicked combination of Goethe and Salinger, with a need to venture, discover, live and negate. Trying to play a misunderstood genius, he declines most of the second chances he gets while falling for a committed girl – and uses Werther’s lines to deliberately confuse people around, rightfully convinced that they won’t know their background or understand the meaning behind them. And he partly succeeds in the creating the image of himself – people think he’s a nutter, picking up his self-measurements and accepting them as their own. His narration is woven with relaxed speech and quotes, making him somewhat friendly despite the arrogance and overconfidence (which he doesn’t even bother to hide). The speeches of other characters don’t seem to say much about them, but there is plenty to read behind the lines: Dieter’s emotionlessness, Charlie’s uncertainty, Willi’s encouraging and caring personality. That contributes to revealing Edgar’s traits, too, in the longer run.

Although you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Plenzdorf ‘s inspirations are clear from the first glance – the title bears an obvious reference to Goethe’s classic “Sorrows of Young Werther”. We have to remember, however, that the main character doesn’t really understand Werther’s suicide and argues with his behaviour in a clearly modern fashion – if it wasn’t for the tragic event, he wouldn’t go for that solution himself. Despite being less of a hopeless romantic than his role model, he’s an equal product of his times as his predecessor. Here reveals the attention to detail that the writer’s style bears: Edgar’s outfit consists of fashionable jeans instead of Werther’s iconic yellow camisole, he grows long hair to oppose the values implied at home, he loves jazz and looks for all the hip places around the capital to listen to live music. Even if he admires “that High Old German” and tries to express himself with the similar style to puzzle people, he uses mostly slang to speak his mind and is able to judge and respond critically to the accusations or guesses surrounding his death. Furthermore, the author also shares a few themes with J. D. Salinger, whose creation is intensely admired by Edgar. Holden Caulfield certainly influences his behaviour and sets his personal standards; he even compares Werther to the main character of “Catcher in the Rye”, stating that “this is the real life”; he even suggests that Salinger and Goethe “should meet up and talk” to figure out the weaknesses of the miserable protagonist of Romantic period.

What’s interesting about the book are the political ideas behind. Dieter becomes a symbol of communism that contradicts itself, indicating the class system embedded in a society aiming at being classless; an avid follower of this political orientation with Marx, Engels and Lenin on his bookshelves represents also the “new bourgeois”. Edgar both agrees to and criticises the ideology as he mocks his love interest’s partner. Even if the book doesn’t get up to becoming a huge manifesto, it does evaluate the conformism, both in terms of accepting values that seem to be useful or harmless and despising the widespread opinion without a true understanding. That almost touches Stanisław Mrożek’s “Tango” and his ideas of youthful revolution – to rebel against the (lack of) values, a young person needs to hit them with their distorted mirror image. Moreover, the vibe which the story brings captures the similarities in social critique and storytelling means between the two dramatists.

With a piece of writing so intelligent and “indie” from a modern perspective, Plenzdorf cleverly combines viewpoints of multiple narrators and blurs the line between the fiction and reality with the documentary concept. Using a set of images – or rather “podcasts”, as the reader is lead through the plot guided by the theatrical feeling which is possibly a product of how the story was told earlier – one enters the world of the young guy who is desperate to escape class limitations and the safe boundaries of his life. Honest, bohemian in its purport, deliberately political and unapologetically youthful, it becomes a window to the soul of a rebel in a society that was forced to adapt to sameness due to circumstances – and if you think of it, that becomes a clever lesson for young adults nowadays, in the society that values originality less and less.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate whenever the opportunity arises. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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