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The Best German Novelist of His Time

Ulli Lommel as Major Crampas and Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film Effi Briest

The novels of Theodor Fontane (1819–1898) are so sparkling, tender, sympathetic, delicately ironic, and psychologically astute that it is a wonder they are not better known by American readers. Considered the most important German novelist between Goethe and Mann, or even, as Gordon A. Craig, who wrote a fine book about him, claimed, “clearly the greatest German novelist before Thomas Mann,”1 Fontane can be made to fit snugly into the school of nineteenth-century European realism that includes Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola. But he came after most of them, in part because he was such a late bloomer (his first novel was published as he turned sixty), and in part because of Germany’s own delay in becoming a nation-state. Having been unified by Bismarck only in 1871, Germany may have needed more time for its social scene to acquire sufficient texture to attract a novelist of Fontane’s sensibility.

He has been called the first European German novelist: he did turn German fiction away from its folkloric, mythological, timeless elements and toward the novel of society, with its manners, traditions, hierarchies, and historic tensions. None of this would matter except to German literature scholars, were it not that he is an uncommonly interesting writer whose novels continue to be so pleasurable to read.

What makes them delightful, for one, is their worldly, tolerant understanding of human frailty: the author’s refusal to condemn, preach morality, or be shocked by his characters’ errors, side by side with his rigorous honesty about their self-deceptions and his ability to see both sides of every question. Thomas Mann’s penetrating essay “The Old Fontane” seizes on precisely this mature perspective, liberated by advanced age, to explain his predecessor’s appeal:

Does it not seem as though he had to grow old, very old, in order to fulfil himself completely? Just as there are youths born to be youths only, fulfilling themselves in early life and not maturing, certainly not growing old; so it would seem that there are other temperaments whose only appropriate age is old; who are, so to speak, classic old men, ordained to show humanity the ideal qualities of that last stage of life: benignity, kindness, justice, humour, and shrewd wisdom—in short a recrudescence on a higher plane of childhood’s artless unrestraint. Fontane’s was such a temperament.

In a sense, Fontane belongs more with those wonderful, lesser-known ironists of the late nineteenth century, such as Eça de Queiroz, Pérez Galdós, Machado de Assis, and Bolesław Prus, who championed the provincial novel of manners, with a skeptical perspective that came from knowing that one is not at the center of the universe. There is also in Fontane a Montaigne-like equipoise, a sunny melancholy, an investment in domestic family life that steadfastly avoids the demonic and apocalyptic—in a word, he may seem too bourgeois, too sanguine, to readers brought up on modernist discordances. The wisdom of experience he embodies in every sentence is perhaps not so highly valued anymore; and the very fact that he speaks to us from an elderly perch may turn off some younger readers. Fontane may not have anticipated the destructive forces unleashed in the twentieth century or our own, but he was certainly aware of tragedy and erotic discontent. Violent and sexual acts occur in his books, though usually offstage. He is the kind of artist who rejoices in working small, away from melodrama, and whose full worth you grasp much better the more you steep yourself in his works. Searching for a comparable artistry, I think of Éric Rohmer, who kept creating exquisitely wry filmic investigations of vanity, folly, temptation, and moral quandary.


Theodor Fontane was born in 1819 in Neuruppin, near Berlin. His easygoing pharmacist father liked to gamble and failed at business (perhaps the two were related) and his sterner mother, losing patience, divorced him. The family barely scraped by; Fontane, unable to afford university, followed his father into the apothecary trade. He also joined a literary circle, called the Tunnel above the Spree, where he gained a reputation as a skillful writer of poetic ballads. At thirty he made the decision to give up pharmacy and commit himself to living by his pen, one way or another. At the same time he married his fiancée Emilie, after a prolonged engagement. For the next few decades Fontane supported himself and his growing family, sometimes just barely, with a succession of journalistic and government press officer jobs.

Fontane had had the good fortune to be asked by a friend to accompany him on a two-week trip to England, which sparked in him a lifelong enthusiasm for the English. He was to live and work in England for a number of years (1855–1859) and to travel in Scotland, experiences that led to his writing several travel books. There is no doubt that his experiences abroad gave him a more expansive and cosmopolitan viewpoint. He also traveled in the less frequented parts of Germany and wrote a multivolume Journeys Through the Mark of Brandenburg, which is still highly regarded. Despite his affection for Germany, he was well aware of the typical Prussian’s smug provinciality. In one of his novels, he has a character say acerbically:

I was abroad for a long time, and one learns about oneself when abroad. Anyone who comes back is surprised by nothing as much as by the naive belief, which he finds here on every side, that in the land of Prussia everything is the best. The big, the small, the whole and the single. The best, I say, and, above all, the most honorable.

Fontane became increasingly attached to Berlin (where many of his novels take place), but saw it for what it was at the time, a garrison town, not yet a world metropolis.

The German characters in his novels are always a bit insecure and defensive about their cultural sophistication—always looking to foreigners to provide excitement and sophistication. The Poles, the French, the Jews, the English, the Danes, are each pressed into service to administer the necessary savoir-vivre to these uptight Teutons.

If travel gave him one enlarging corrective, history provided another. Before embarking on fiction, Fontane wrote a series of military histories: The War Against France, The Schleswig-Holstein War, The German War of 1866. He had a passion for history, and according to Craig, his scholarship and historiographic approach stand up well. In both the nonfiction books and the novels, Fontane can be seen as writing, unofficially and cumulatively, the history of Germany as an emerging state. It is still possible to find more “things,” more sheer detail about German nineteenth-century life, in his books than anywhere else.

Having participated marginally in the uprising of 1848 on the side of the progressives, he drifted into a moderate liberalism. Essentially apolitical, he was doubtful of reformism, saying: “Among my small virtues I count the fact that I do not wish to change the human race.” In view of his own humble beginnings and precarious financial struggles to support his family, why did he come to write so often about aristocrats? When his own wife called him on that, he lamely justified the practice by saying that poets naturally hung around aristocratic milieus. The truth is that he found much to admire in the old Junker virtues of honor and rectitude; and he was repelled by the bourgeoisie’s sanctimonious greed. But he could also be highly critical, documenting in his novels the decline of aristocratic values. Like Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard, he portrayed the aristocracy on its last legs, from a new-minted bourgeois’s sympathetic but detached viewpoint.

In 1871, he was appointed drama critic of the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung, which gave him a secure living and ample writing time for the first time in his life. His career as a novelist took off at about the same time. In his reviews, Fontane championed the innovative realism of Ibsen and Hauptmann. The post must have also refined his feeling for dialogue, which would be central in all of his fiction. Fontane has been characterized as a novelist of causerie, or social chatter: he believed character and conflict could best be demonstrated by the way people spoke. Talk can be a means of both self-concealment and self-exposure. In Fontane, conversation establishes the distance between the social being and the inner being. Sometimes it also has the function of revealing the way mediocre people waste their lives in petty blather.

It is extraordinary how flowing, various, witty, and literate (or the opposite, satirically inane) the talk in Fontane’s books can be. The trick is that people appear to be speaking insignificant small-talk, and suddenly out of this twaddle comes a startling insight, shrewd analysis, or confrontation. In Irretrievable, an old courtier tells the protagonist that his main responsibility as a gentleman-in-waiting is

lots of talk. Talking a lot is a pleasure anyway and at times the true diplomatic wisdom, for it prevents things from being ascertained precisely and even better, one thing nullifies another.

There usually comes a point, however, when talk can no longer obfuscate, and the gloves come off, revealing the feelings underneath.

Fontane’s fiction career began with a couple of history novels. His first, Before the Storm (1878), showed the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on the gentry and ordinary folk. It is a long, patient, slow-moving work in which Fontane was still feeling his way, some characters treated sentimentally while others already display psychological complexity. What is clear from the first is that Fontane was following his quirky instincts and writing to suit himself, rather than genre formulas. Already one could detect a shying away from heavy plotting, and a preference for a story to crystallize from conversation and the details of everyday life. He once defined his stylistic ambition:

It was my proud intention to describe the seemingly most insignificant things with the most detailed precision and thus to raise them to a certain artistic level, indeed to make them interesting by means of the kind of simplicity and transparency that appears to be easy but is most difficult to achieve.

His final novel, published in 1898, the year he died, the exquisitely nuanced if becalmed The Stechlin—a tender portrait of an old aristocrat who embodied the admirable, live-and-let-live nobility, the last of a dying breed—had so pared-down a plot that, by his own admission, “At the end an old man dies and two young people get married—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages.”

Curiously, only his first and last novels were lengthy; the others had a bracing brevity. Fontane was a master constructor of novellas and short novels. Given his inclination to work with as little plot as possible and his avoidance of what he called the “Jack the Ripper” sensationalism of some naturalist novelists, the shorter fiction forms allowed him scope to develop one situation at leisure, and to bring it to a point of crisis. Focusing on the domestic and familial, he will introduce matters that seem at first casually digressive; only in a second reading does one grasp how economically each new topic anticipates a major theme while moving the story along.

  1. 1

    Gordon A. Craig, Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 199. 

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