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The Charms of Theodore Fontane

Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich

by Gordon A. Craig
Uber Fontane, Munich: C.H. Beck, 294 pp., DM38.00 (to be published in English by Oxford University Press in 1999)


Two elderly gentlemen look out benignly from the dust jacket of the German edition of Gordon A. Craig’s critical biography of Fontane. Both wear bow ties, moustaches, and mutton-chop whiskers. One is Theodor Fontane, the German writer who lived from 1819 to 1889. The other is Craig himself, Emeritus Professor of History at Stanford University. They could be brothers, and I think the impression is intentional. A sense of affectionate affinity with his subject emanates from Professor Craig’s book and explains its peculiar charm. Charm, incidentally, was Fontane’s outstanding characteristic, both as a man and as a writer. It wasn’t glittery charm—though he could be very funny and even witty in a Wildean way—but charm springing from a laid-back sweetness and goodness.

Apart from the novel Effi Briest, which became better known through Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s beautiful film, Fontane’s work is not much read outside German-speaking countries. His fans compare him to Turgenev and Trollope, and Professor Craig says it surprises him that he himself did not discover Fontane until he was twenty-four, in 1938. He announces that being a historian, he will emphasize Fontane’s historical achievements. Amateur historians (like Fontane), he says, are often the best; most academic historians are bores. This is a cheering thought, but all the same, I doubt whether his chapters on Fontane as a war correspondent and military historian, on Fontane’s attitude toward Bismarck, and even on the history in his historical novels will persuade many newcomers to read the original texts; not at all because Professor Craig suffers from what he sees as the professional historian’s déformation professionnelle, but because it is Fontane’s “novels of society” that are his ticket into world literature. They are what Germans read: especially if they are Prussians, because Fontane was a Prussian to the core, as were most members of the group he belonged to, i.e., the descendants of Huguenot refugees from France, known in Berlin as “the colony.” But you don’t have to be Prussian to admire Fontane and we can hope that Professor Craig’s book when it is published in English next year will help attract the attention Fontane should rightly have.

In The Hitler of History, John Lukacs cites George Orwell’s distinction between patriotism and nationalism: “Patriotism…is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; patriotism is rooted in the land, in a particular country, while nationalism is applied to the myth of a people…; patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist. Populism is folkish; patriotism is not…. One can be a patriot and, at least culturally, cosmopolitan.” In those terms, Fontane is the perfect example of a patriotic writer. Everything he wrote was, in a sense, an explication of Prussianism, but he hated insularity. Toward the end of his life he told a friend: “In spite of their colossal faults, the Junkers and country parsons of the Mark Brandenburg are my ideal, my secret love.” He didn’t mention the Berlin working classes, whose famous streetwise humor and wit and whose decency and tolerance are embodied in many of his heroes—and especially in his heroines. Yet it’s clear he loves them too.

Among the Junkers’ “colossal faults,” he counted their over-the-top ideas of honor, and a certain pinched quality, a parsimony both material and intellectual, a lack of wider horizons, a noncosmopolitanism. These blemishes are exhibited in Fontane’s last novel, Der Stechlin (1898), by the hero’s elderly sister, a Stiftsdame with a closed mind and censorious tongue whose disapproving visits he dreads. (A Stiftsdame is a member of a Protestant community of well-born spinsters. There are several of these ladies around in Fontane’s novels, both nice and nasty. He was charmed by them and by their kitchen gardens.)

What he particularly loved about the Junkers—country gentry, mostly poor, because Prussian soil isn’t up to much—was their Leutseligkeit: the way they gossiped and philosophized with their social inferiors in a relaxed and affectionate way. He also liked the (newly) educated middle classes because of their passion for learning and culture, which sometimes led to an overerudite vocabulary heavily laced with quotations. Fontane mocked it, but gently.

The people he didn’t like were careerists (there’s a specimen, if only on the sidelines, in every novel); and the parvenus, Dickens’s Veneerings, who began to take over society in the Gründerjahre, the years after 1874 when the industrial revolution exploded in Germany. Professor Craig points out that this change in European society—occurring earlier in England than in Germany—is a topic Fontane shares with Dickens and Trollope.

He was brilliant at mimicking the speech patterns of all these groups, and the older he got, the more he floated his novels along on pure conversation, with very little narration and plot. His characters emerge from their talk like ectoplasm—their nature, their fate, their status, their milieu, their hopes and ambitions—and Fontane listens with affectionate irony. It is impossible to describe just how delightful (as well as telling) he makes their Plauderei. Plauderei was one of his favorite words, he said. There is no English equivalent, so the French causerie will have to do. (Another appealing selling point of Fontane’s is the impressionist look of his novels. Boat trips to riverside inns are a standard ingredient; in the country, girls in striped dresses loll on swings under the lime trees; in Berlin, French windows open onto balconies shaded by striped awnings.)


Fontane was born the son of a pharmacist in Neuruppin, a little town not many miles northwest of Berlin. He too trained as a pharmacist, and after a few years in the provinces found a job in the capital. There he joined a progressive literary club and began to write in his spare time: short stories, journalism, and verse—mostly ballads à la Walter Scott, whom he adored. Slightly absurd though they are, school-children still learn them by heart. After a few years Fontane gave up pharmacy and had a hard time making ends meet as a freelance writer for Berlin daily papers—particularly hard because by now he had acquired a rather demanding wife. Children too had begun to arrive, not all of them legitimate. “So,” he wrote in 1851, “today I sold myself for 30 pieces of silver to the reactionaries [i.e. the conservative Adler-Zeitung], and am once again a salaried scribbler (in verse and prose)…. One just can’t survive as a decent human being.” The following year the paper sent him to London for five months as its correspondent. He was there again from 1855 to 1859, this time as a press secretary to the embassy, and with his wife and children. His anglophilia was fond, and his passion for all things Scottish even more so.

In 1870 he resigned from the Kreuzzeitung and joined the liberal Vossische Zeitung as drama critic. Professor Craig’s chapter on this phase of his life is engrossing. It describes the change that took place in the European theater in the last decades of the century—from high drama to naturalism. It is lavish with quotations, and they show not only Fontane’s enthusiasm for the nouvelle vague, but also how droll and satirical he could be about things he didn’t like.

The young Fontane was a democrat. He wrote a comical and endearing account of how, during the 1848 revolution, when he was twenty-four years old, he went to the station in Berlin and gave the guard on the train to Neuruppin a message for his father, urging him to hurry to the capital and join in the excitement. The old man arrived, and they went marching about with the crowds and enjoyed themselves hugely. In middle age, Fontane became more conservative. His conservatism sprang from piety toward existing things and tradition, and also from his affection for the aristocracy. But toward the end of his life he began to veer to the left again, disgusted by the “absolutism, militarism, and ‘Spiessbürgertum”’ (another untranslatable word: my dictionary says “philistinism,” but that leaves out the petit-bourgeois element) of the Bismarck era. Not that he was always hostile to Bismarck: on the contrary, he admired him and wrote a fulsome poem about him of which he was later ashamed.

But whether he approved or disapproved of him, Bismarck was always on his mind: “Almost everything I have written over seventy years,” he said, “is haunted by that ‘sulphur yellow fellow.”’ In one of his last poems, much quoted, he retracts his old man’s indifference to life. The poem is called: “Ja, das möcht ich noch erleben” (Yes, I wouldn’t like to miss that), and begins with the quatrain:

Eigentlich ist mir alles gleich,
Der eine wird arm, der andre wird reich,
Aber mit Bismarck—was wird das noch geben?
Das mit Bismarck möcht ich noch erleben.
(Actually, everything’s much the same to me.
One person gets poorer, another gets richer.
But Bismarck—what will he get up to?
No, I wouldn’t like to miss the Bismarck business.)

The only other thing he says he wouldn’t like to miss is his grandson’s first day of school, due in a fortnight’s time: and he plans to paste blotting paper into the little boy’s notebooks for him. Some of Fontane’s non-ballad poems exhibit all his casual, vernacular appeal, others are as sentimental as only Victorian verse can be.

During the Schleswig-Holstein war in 1864, he went to the front as a reporter for the ultraconservative Kreuz-zeitung; the following year he published a book about the war. He also set out to cover the Franco-Prussian war, but was captured a week after arriving at the front. The French thought they had caught a spy, and he spent two months in internment before being returned to Berlin. He wrote three war histories altogether, and even Professor Craig doesn’t completely disagree with Herbert Roch that these works are “heavy tomes without any real weight,” and that no one would believe they were written by a poet.

But between 1862 and 1882 Fontane published the four volumes of his Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg, a collection of travel sketches from the Mark Brandenburg, and they are loved almost as much in Germany (for obvious reasons again especially in Prussia) as the later novels. They contain dreamy evocations of woods and lakes, and precise architectural descriptions—Fontane had an eye for buildings and furniture. His running inventory, in the novel Die Poggenpuhls, of the furniture, pictures, utensils, clothes, and economy menus (soup made from old bits of toast flavored with nutmeg and served under a French name) with which an impoverished military family tries to maintain an air of gentility, is as inventive, funny, and compassionate as anything in Dickens.

But the Wanderungen are more history than description—anecdotal history from obscure villages, crumbling manor houses, bony red-brick Cistercian abbeys, and dim little towns. There is an account of the French actress Rachel giving a badly organized but successful outdoor recital for the court on a pretty landscaped island in the Havel; and the most fascinating version I have ever read of the horrible Katte affair, when King Frederick William I forced his son (the future Frederick the Great) to watch the execution of his best friend, Hans Hermann von Katte. Katte had masterminded the young crown prince’s escape to Holland to get away from his tyrannical father. After a gut-wrenching description of the execution, Fontane unexpectedly declares that Frederick William was right to punish Katte; and that Katte was short, ugly, pock-marked, and an unpleasant careerist. This judgment must be a shock to Germans who are used to seeing Katte as a romantic hero of stage and fiction—not to speak of films. Wanderungen also has lots of ghost stories and tales of derring-do by very local heroes. Always on the side of the loser, Fontane is sympathetic to the heathen Wends making heroic last stands against the Teutonic Knights and early Prussian rulers. Wanderungen is still a delightful guide to take on a visit to Germany beyond the Elbe.

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