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.

Nowhere is this foreshadowing construction tighter than in Unwiederbringlich, alternatively called Irretrievable or Beyond Recall in English.2 “Among the novellas his artistically most accomplished work is Irretrievable,” wrote the critic Erich Heller. It is certainly as good a place as any to start reading Fontane. Published initially between January and June of 1891 in the Deutsche Rundschau and in book form that same year, when Fontane was seventy-two, it fell in the middle of his string of marvelous social novels that included The Woman Taken in Adultery, Delusions, Confusions, Frau Jenny Treibel, The Poggenpuhl Family, and the exquisite Effi Briest, usually regarded as his masterpiece. Though Effi Briest is perfectly composed, I admit a slight personal preference for Irretrievable, because it is so sprightly and replete with amusing cameos and side streets. Fontane made good use of all his previous occupations—the balladeer, the travel writer, the historian, the drama critic—in this novel.


Irretrievable is the story of a marriage that has worn thin. The partners have been together for some twenty-three years, are raising two teenage children, and for the most part have enjoyed a happy marriage. Still, they have reached a point where they are no longer charmed but irritated by the limitations each sees in the other. A familiar enough situation in everyday life: less a question of anyone’s fault than of the erosion of romantic idealization in a long-term union. The wife, Countess Christine, regards her easygoing husband, Count Helmut Holk, as a weak, indecisive man without much character, who has no interest in deeper spiritual or existential challenges; he, in turn, finds her a moralistic, dour, self-righteous scold.

Various secondary characters discuss the merits of the case, weighing in on the married pair’s flaws. Fontane preferred to analyze character by putting insights into the mouths of bystanders. But though he liked to think his style was “objective” and didn’t intrude his own judgments, at key moments he let his narrator swiftly adjudicate the conflicting claims. For instance: “Holk, though a kind and excellent husband, was none the less a man of rather ordinary gifts and in any case markedly inferior to his wife, who was a far more talented woman.”

Christine is a highly responsible mother, driven by her sense of duty, constantly considering the best educational course for her two children. When the novel begins, she has just about decided to send them off to boarding school, where the teaching is on a higher level than the tutors they hire. She also broods about the family burial vault. A woman whose mind is preoccupied, she cannot shake her feelings of sadness at the death of their third, youngest, child. This ghost hovers over the narrative, as a preoccupation of Christine and a rebuke to her husband, who has seemed to put it too easily behind him.

He has relocated the family from his wife’s traditional estate to fulfill his dream of building a new castle by the sea, Holkenäs, a move that she initially resisted because it would mean leaving the burial ground of their child. In time she has come to appreciate their new home, but she worries that Holk will not care about the things that are bothering her: where to send their children to school and what to do about the family vault. He is happy to play at being a gentleman farmer, and since she has always made the child-rearing decisions, he sees no reason to keep up this charade that his opinion matters. “I am clever enough to know who is master here and who gives the orders.” Beyond that, he is immensely resistant to her moral and religious preoccupations. In fact, Christine can be something of a pill. She has no sense of humor, according to her husband (and the narrator concurs). But she sees clearly. “You’ve been unlucky in your choice, you need a wife who is better able to laugh.”

Humor is not only a favored technique in the novel but a subtheme: each character is defined by his relationship to it, like the courtier Pentz, who “saw everything from its funny side,” or the princess, who thinks that “to be able to laugh at your dear fellow beings was really the greatest enjoyment in your old age.” Despite Fontane’s own identification with a comic way of seeing, his scrupulous fairness and ability to grasp each character’s viewpoint allow us to sympathize with both marital partners. Yes, Christine says grimly, Holk has plenty of likable qualities, “almost too many, if you can ever have too many likable qualities,” but “he thinks only of the present and never of the future.”

Not much of a reader or a letter-writer, vain about his personal appearance, he is, being a Schleswig count, expected to serve occasionally as gentleman-in-waiting to the Danish princess. (The Germans and Danes had contested both provinces for centuries, and Schleswig was still a Danish protectorate in the period the novel is set, 1859.) The nobleman who was expected to perform that service has contracted measles; so Holk has been summoned to the court. Christine is afraid that her husband will be tempted by the looser morals of the Copenhageners, “the Parisians of the North.”

Justifiably so: no sooner does he arrive than he becomes enthralled by the beautiful, calculating daughter of his landlady, Brigitte Hansen, who dresses in “a remarkable mélange of frou-frou and Lady Macbeth.” But Brigitte is just a warm-up for his real infatuation with the princess’s lady-in-waiting, Ebba von Rosenberg. Ebba is an attractive, sharp, self-assured young woman who believes a girl must look out for herself, and is casting about for a rich match. A delicious scene occurs when Holk tries to impress her with his antiquarian’s genealogical knowledge of the noble families bearing her name. She cuts him off with the real facts of ancestry, that her grandfather Meyer-Rosenberg was “well known…as King Gustav III’s personal pet Jew.”

This explanation, instead of putting off Holk (who had previously sounded mildly anti-Semitic), makes her all the more fascinating: she is witty, mocking, independent, open to sexual adventure, and can “never remain serious for long”—everything his wife is not. Ebba, on the other hand, performs a merciless dissection of his character once he has left the room. “He stands there as solemn as a high priest and has no idea when to laugh…. Germans don’t make good courtiers.” It is telling that she keeps seeing in him the very trait, Germanic earnestness, he cannot abide in his wife. Later she will be even more scathing:

Because he looks like a man, he considers himself one. But he’s only a good-looking man, which usually means not a man at all….He’s confused and half-hearted and it is this half-heartedness that will cause his downfall.

Poor Holk is not only overmatched by the women in the novel, but behind his back or to his face they deliver the most withering judgments about him, which has the boomerang effect of making the reader feel sorry for the guy. The novel is indisputably a study of male weakness, but a sympathetic one. Fontane subtly refrains from explaining how the same woman who can judge Holk so harshly could also be interested in taking him as a lover, or be irritated whenever his attentions toward her flag in the slightest.

The atmosphere surrounding the Danish court in Copenhagen and the rural Frederiksborg castle revives echoes of medieval chivalry and feudal fealty. Fontane himself was, as we know, fascinated with history, but he was quick to make fun of the genealogical pretensions and archaeological pedantry of the princess’s entourage. She herself is all too aware how obsolete her role is:

We poor princesses have very little left in any case and we have almost been pushed out of the world of reality already, so that if we lose our place in ballads and fairy-tales as well, I hardly know where we shall be able to go.

Holk, who regards the aristocratic order as sacred (“he would, indeed, have been glad to reintroduce the most medieval practices”), would like to play the gallant knight who rescues damsels in distress. The irony is that he does save Ebba’s life, during a fire, but his recompense is not what he imagined.

Thinking he can find a little more happiness with another woman, Holk needs to exaggerate the case against his wife. Fontane shrewdly exhibits this mechanism of self-justification, via his protagonist’s internal monologues. But Holk is allowed at least some awareness through intermittent twinges of conscience. He senses he is being unfair to Christine. Where he truly hasn’t a clue is in his overvaluation of Ebba’s feelings for him: he mistakes a one-night stand on her part for undying love. And does Ebba ever set him straight:

You try to be a courtier and a man of the world and you are neither the one or the other…. I’m young and you’re no longer young and so it wasn’t for me to preach morality to you and, since I was bored, keep you anxiously on the path of virtue….

Cruel as her statement may be, there is rough justice operating here, since it exactly mirrors Holk’s insult to Christine: “You lack anything feminine, you’re bitter and morose.”

In one of the many aperçus that comment on the unfolding story, Ebba maintains: “Love-stories must never be left unfinished and when harsh reality has cut the thread before its time, then it must be spun out artificially. Every novel-reader expects that….” Ebba also remarks on the disappearance or weakening of true passion on men’s parts in her day; in a similar fashion, Holk accuses her of seducing him just to pass the time. We are in the first stages of that development Vivian Gornick would identify as “the end of the novel of love,” when it becomes harder to believe in the all-consuming, all-shattering power of romantic passion.

But if love has begun to lose ground as a narrative trope, pride and humiliation still retain their full vigor. So it is up to the humiliated Christine, the odd one out in the affair, to bring this love story to a finish. The brilliant confrontation scene between Holk and his wife, when he is leaving her, demonstrates Fontane’s mastery of dramatic dialogue. The novelist adeptly shows how a quarreling couple almost reconciles, but goes past the point of mutual sympathy out of excess of wounded pride. Christine rises to magnificent heights in her calling of the question and acceptance of the rupture, but had she been a little less noble, she might have coaxed her weak, halfhearted husband into salvaging the marriage.

The title, Irretrievable (or Beyond Recall, take your pick), says it all. Fontane was at pains to orchestrate a narrative chain of events that would appear neither overdetermined nor random, but achieve naturally an impression of inevitability. When it came to devising novel plots, he once confessed, he would rather rely on the trivial than the forced. Here, happenstance—measles, an out-of-town skating party, bad weather, a malfunctioning oven flue—all converge to produce the book’s climax. The Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima once said that he could only relax when he had brought his novels to the point of catastrophe. Fontane, for his part, was interested in reaching that turning point from which there is no going back, no possibility of making amends. For all his equanimity, he was enough of a pessimist/truth-teller to insist on the obduracy of the heart’s injuries and the irreversibility of some losses. What is “irretrievable” here is not only the Holks’ happy marriage—Christine, unable to live out the lie of being a contented wife, commits suicide—but a whole way of life: the once-functioning system of aristocratic values and ethical certainties, in a secular age entering modernity.

The paradox of this couple is that Holk is shallow, but there is something life-affirming in his breezy resilience, whereas Christine consistently embraces the good and the profound, but her virtue contains an element of inflexibility that leads, in the end, to self-destruction. Thus the superficial, pleasure-seeking, likable Holk and the serious, responsible, morose Christine become embodiments of the contest between Eros and Thanatos; and life’s scales, fairly or not, tilt toward the former.

A self-mocking comment made by the sixty-year-old, hard-working, bookish Fontane in a letter shows his belated understanding of the importance of good looks and insouciant gaiety:

Ah, how lucky are the lieutenants, the six-foot Junkers, and all the rest of the Don Juan clan!… The bookworm, be he ever so decent and clever, is really only pleasing to himself and a small handful of others. The world passes him by and beckons to life and beauty… [to] gay and handsome creatures to whom the hearts of their fellow men continue to turn.

Fortunately, there was enough bookworm and dedicated literary artist in him, enough Teutonic work-drive, along with enough mischievous playfulness, to allow for the accomplishment of a voluminous, light-footed, serious, deeply satisfying oeuvre, inflected throughout by that celebrated Fontane tone, which has been summarized by Erich Heller as “the tone of a voice that speaks affectionately, with gentle irony and the hushed knowledge of the vanity of all things.”

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    The latter title was used by Douglas Parmée, whose superbly fluent translation, first made in 1964, is being reprinted by New York Review Books under the title Irretrievable, with this essay, in somewhat different form, as the afterword.