Elective Affinities was written when Goethe was sixty and long established as Germany's literary giant. This is a new edition of his penetrating study of marriage and passion, bringing together four people in an inexorable manner. The novel asks whether we have free will or not and confronts its characters with the monstrous consequences of repressing what little "real life" they have in themselves, a life so far removed from their natural states that it appears to them as something terrible and destructive.
When André Gide was asked to name the greatest French poet, he reportedly answered, "Victor Hugo, alas." In like spirit, the greatest German novel before the 20th century is probably Goethe's Elective Affinities, alas.
Alas, mainly because there is so little competition. Truth be told, German prose literature really excels in short stories and novellas. The 19th century alone boasts such masterpieces as Ludwig Tieck's "The Elves," the Grimm fairy tales, E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Golden Pot" and "The Sandman," Heinrich von Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas" and "The Marquise of O," and Theodor Storm's "The Rider on the White Horse." Quite probably the constraint of brevity, and perhaps the influence of folktale, tamps down the German fondness for metaphysical speculation and general wordiness. What's more, all these wonderful stories verge or cross over into the mysterious and uncanny. Anyone who likes modern-day fantasy or Kafkesque parable should try them.