Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.

[This page by Astrid Köhler]

Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.; The New Sorrows of Young W. (1972/73)

This text was first conceived as a film scenario in the late 1960s, fell foul of the censor, and first saw the light of day in 1972 as a play in Halle, before appearing to great acclaim as a piece of prose fiction. It was first published in the journal Sinn und Form in 1972, and then a revised version in book form in 1973. It was later made into a successful film in West Germany in 1976. It remains an outstanding modern German contribution to an international genre featuring disaffected youth, which stretches from Goethe’s original Die Leiden des jungen Werthers; The Sorrows of Young Werther to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Plenzdorf’s playful allusions to both of these and other texts are overlain with the idiolect of the youth of the late 1960s & early 1970s, to form a knowing and inexhaustible text that would attain the status both of cult book among the young and classic among intertextually aware readers.

Edgar Wibeau, aged seventeen, very much follows (unbeknown) in the footsteps of his predecessor Werther by rebelling against society and falling in love with a woman who is already engaged. The story is told from the vantage point of Edgar's death. The reconstruction of his life is partly based on tapes, which he has recorded for his friend Willy. He had left his mother and his apprenticeship in a factory in the small (and boring) town of Mittenberg, and run away to Berlin. There he lived in an old garden shed and joined, as an unskilled worker, a team of decorators. The idea of constructing a hydraulic spraygun was inspired by this work. He appeared to have succeeded, but his equipment for testing the spraygun had the wrong voltage, as he was well aware. He nevertheless proceeded with the test and was electrocuted. There are indications that he might have intended to take his own life, an issue that in the prose text is rejected by Edgar himself, who is commenting on the whole story ‘from his grave’.

Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. was, and is, an unusual piece of literature in several respects: its contagious light-heartedness, the almost excessive use of colloquial language, its depiction of sexual relationships, its extreme, and extremely playful intertextuality and its positive depiction of individualism made it a sensation at the time and in the context of its first publication, and ensure its continuous importance.

Further Reading

Ute Brandes and Ann Clark Fehn, ‘Werther’s Children: The Experience of the Second Generation in Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. and Volker Braun’s Unvollendete Geschichte’, The German Quarterly 56:4 (1983), 608-23

Russel E. Brown, ‘Who Wrote Werther? Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.’, Neophilologus 73 (1989), 637-39

Andy Hollis, 'Plenzdorf’s Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.: The Four Main Versions', in GDR-Monitor, Special Series no. 2, ed. by Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine (Dundee, 1983), pp. 59-70

Peter Hutchinson, ‘Plenzdorf, Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.’, in Peter Hutchinson & Michael Minden (eds.), Landmarks in the German Novel 2 (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 61-76

J. H. Reid, Introduction to The New Sorrows of Young W., Modern World Literature Series (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1979)

Gisela Shaw, ‘Escape and Acquiescence: Edgar Wibeau and his Followers in East German Fiction of the Seventies’, in GDR-Monitor, Special Series no. 3, ed. by Ian Wallace (Dundee, 1984), pp. 5-17

Dennis Tate, The East German Novel. Identity, Community, Continuity (Bath: Bath University Press, 1984)

Martin Watson, ‘What is "New" about Ulrich Plenzdorf’s Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.? The Changing Presentation of "Youth" in GDR Fiction from the Sixties to the Seventies’, in GDR-Monitor, Special Series no. 3, ed. by Ian Wallace (Dundee, 1984), pp. 35-52