Berlin-born Ulrich Plenzdorf's "The New Sorrows of Young W." was published in the early 1970s and managed the dual feat of becoming a commercial bestseller and a cult classic in East and West Germany. On the first page, we read the protagonist's obituary with mystification. By the time we get to the last page we realize that while we may have been in the company of a dead man, his antics, confessions and emotions have consistently pulsed with life.
Plenzdorf's hero is 17-year-old Edgar Wibeau, who, despite being a straight-A student and star apprentice, decides he has had enough of his stifling East German town and runs away to Berlin in pursuit of "zing." In the capital, he lives in a shack, finds work as a house painter, falls foul of a co-worker and meets a woman who breaks his heart.
As the title suggests, Plenzdorf's novel is in tune with Goethe's influential meisterwerk "The Sorrows of Young Werther." Edgar comes across a copy and, after using some of its pages as toilet paper, loses himself in it, identifying throughout with its character's frustrations. Plenzdorf's tale turns into a shrewd update of Goethe's: Lovelorn Werther becomes lovesick Wibeau; the unattainable Lotte is transformed into engaged kindergarten teacher Charlotte, or Charlie, and Werther's best friend Wilhelm, the recipient of his letters, is replaced by Willi, who hears from Edgar via taped messages.
Plenzdorf impresses with a collage-type structure and a medley of registers. The narrative is composed of tape transcripts featuring excerpts of "grandiose" Goethe, each one cherry-picked by Edgar to encapsulate his mood or predicament; dialogues between Edgar's father and the various people his errant son has mixed with since disappearing, and Edgar's wry, acerbic commentary from beyond the grave on what those he left behind are saying about him.
Despite that inevitable end point (Edgar's death) and the sorrows of the title, which cover teenage angst and unrequited love, "The New Sorrows of Young W." is blackly comic and slickly irreverent. Edgar mocks Werther's travails and informs us that his real bible is "The Catcher in the Rye." ("That Salinger guy is pretty cool.") His plight may resemble Werther's, but his cynicism, slang and premature world-weariness render him an East German Holden Caulfield. Romy Fursland rises to the challenge and ably translates his rough-edged vernacular.
Edgar's candid opinions on everything from music, art and film to jeans and love, together with his bragging (he is an "unrecognized genius") and his contradictory self-deprecation (he is, repeatedly, an "idiot") bring us close to him in life and in death. Pushkin Press deserves praise for giving English readers the chance to discover Plenzdorf's wonderful little novel — one that is tragic, yet full of "zing."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.