Theodor Fontane
Theodor Fontane; drawing by David Levine

The heroine of A Man of Honor, a short novel of Theodor Fontane, is a girl toward whom “it was impossible not to feel spontaneous warmth and friendliness.” The same is true of Fontane himself. He comes into the category—quite a small one—of instantly lovable writers, together with Montaigne, La Fontaine, Shakespeare, Turgenev, and Chekhov: not bad company to be in, though not many would claim that Fontane was as great an artist as the others. So why—outside Germany, and particularly North Germany—is he not more loved? Or, as Peter Gay asks in his foreword: “Who reads the novels of Theodor Fontane today, in English?” Who, for that matter, ever read them in English?

There are at least two obvious answers. The first is that Fontane does not translate easily. His specialty—and he became more and more skillful at it as he went along—is conversation. He uses it to establish his characters and, in particular, to bring out their charm. Many of them are loaded with charm; that, again, is a specialty of his. But people’s charm in conversation depends on the words they pick and the way they string them together, and it is difficult to render that from one language to another, especially if the first language is German and the second English. German is much more flexible in word order; changing that order can change the whole mood of a sentence. It is also particularly rich in verbs of motion with slightly comical overtones, and full of expletives (which may double as ordinary words in other contexts) like schon, ja, eben, doch that can be dropped into a phrase to alter the color, even the meaning.

Then there is the question of dialect. All Germans, however well educated, have some degree of regional accent. (Every German can play at being Professor Higgins.) The more educated a person is the less marked his accent will be, but an educated person may well use a stronger accent and more dialect words when speaking to his family or an old school friend than when speaking to a stranger. He may also do this with a member of a lower social class. In the nineteenth century, when Fontane was writing, class differences were, of course, much more marked. Every one of his novels contains set pieces of dialect conversation, and most typically they take place across the class barrier: between an officer and a cab driver, for instance, or beween a mistress and her maid. These conversations are meant to—and do, unlikely and condescending though it may appear to some presentday readers—bring out the rapport between the classes. Fontane wanted to stress this rapport, especially between the country gentry and the peasants, but also between the urban upper and middle classes and the working class. A German has no difficulty with all these nuances and transitions. But pity the poor translator. He may find himself considering such phrases as “t’were” and “t’was.”

And not only are the conversations hard to get right. Fontane’s own voice is often conversational. Written German notoriously tends toward pomposity and involution with many long abstract nouns and subordinate clauses. This was even more so in Fontane’s day. His own prose is much more relaxed and informal than the nineteenth-century norm (though there are still a great many subordinate clauses). But—like Thomas Mann, who sometimes wrote long passages and even whole books in a convoluted style that is ironic about the language itself—Fontane could send up literary German and its pretensions by imitating it. It is very difficult for a translation to catch this irony; and so there are bound to be stretches of Fontane—though fewer than with Mann—that sound heavy and dull whereas, in fact, they are funny.

The translator also has to contend with the author’s linguistic irony toward himself. It is obviously most marked in autobiographical writings like “The Eighteenth of March,” Fontane’s recollection of his experiences during the 1848 revolution in Berlin. This, the last item in the present volume, is translated by Krishna Winston, who is more sensitive to Fontane’s voice than the other two translators. Even in English “The Eighteenth of March” is very funny. But it’s funnier still in German.

What it needs is notes, and so do the two novels, both of which are packed with references to historical figures and events many of which cannot mean much today even to German readers. Fontane began his adult life following his father’s footsteps as a pharmacist in a shop. (In “The Eighteenth of March” he describes the daily rush of charity patients for cod liver oil, to pour not down their children’s throats but into their oil lamps.) After that he spent thirty years in journalism before settling down to writing novels. He never shook off the journalist’s habit of sprinkling his fiction with actualités, whether relevant to the story or not, and whether the story is historical or set in the present. What Anglo-Saxon reader of Frau Jenny Treibel can guess that “he” means Bismarck, and who has ever heard of Zacharias Werner, Iffland, or Count Haugwitz, whose names pepper the pages of A Man of Honor? The novel is set in Berlin in 1805-1806 when Iffland was a famous actor; Haugwitz was the minister who had signed the Treaty of Schönbrunn by which Prussia forsook her Allies and sided with Napoleon; and Werner was a romantic poet whose play about Martin Luther is premiered in the course of A Man of Honor, and causes a small scandal.


And here lies a second reason for Fontane’s lack of popularity. You could not call him a regional novelist, but in spite of years of residence in England and confirmed Anglophilia, some of his lesser novels have a touch of provincialism or parochialism about them. But even the ones that transcend such criticism are set in Prussia and deal with Prussians, and Prussia is not familiar novel country. True, Russia was not familiar when the great works of Russian fiction first began to appear in translation, and few non-Russian readers may care much about such things as the Bulgarian War of Independence which figures briefly in Anna Karenina and provides the background for Turgenev’s On the Eve, But Russian fiction was quickly accepted. Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov are greater writers than Fontane; but they also have the advantage of numbers on their side.

When they began to be translated a whole new literature opened up for the West. Fontane stands alone. Even Germans would agree that there are few German novelists before Thomas Mann whom one can read without adjusting oneself to what seems an archaic manner and an archaic sense of psychology. Fontane was the first modern German novelist of any great quality. He also had the bad luck to be Prussian; Prussia has never had a very appealing image and that may also help to account for his lack of popularity.

Fontane’s technically most perfect and most loved novel is Effi Briest, a smallscale German Anna Karenina about a warm-hearted, generous girl who marries a stick and then destroys her life through adultery. Effi’s affair is not a grand passion like Anna’s, but the brief, harmless lapse of an inexperienced eighteen-year-old. Like every other classical fictional adulteress of the nineteenth century (but unlike the heroine of Fontane’s L’Adultera, who is allowed to get away with it and has the author’s full approval), Effi has to suffer the penalty for breaking society’s laws. But whereas Tolstoy condemns Anna by allowing her personality to deteriorate, Fontane does not condemn Effi. She does wrong, but remains good, and lovable.

Fontane barely judges her judges: the husband who kills her lover in a duel, casts her off, and sequesters their child; and her parents who banish her until shame and loneliness have fatally undermined her health. They all act for the best as they see it, though Fontane regrets that they see it as they do. For him hearts count for more than principles, and tolerance is the most important virtue of all.

Effi Briest is an atmospheric, poetic work with haunting evocations of the Brandenburg countryside and the Baltic Coast. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film, atmospheric and poetic to match, has helped to make it known. Together with Irrungen Wirrungen (A Suitable Match), the most successful of Fontane’s several variations on the theme of love across social barriers, Effi Briest is the most accessible of his works. But Peter Demetz, the editor of the collection under review, has deliberately gone for a much more esoteric pair of novels—though using existing translations. Unfortunately both of them sound awkward and unnatural—not throughout but enough to make the reader feel he is missing something. And of course he is.

The historical novel A Man of Honor (1883) depends for its bizarre and disturbing effect on the contrast between the urban style and humane atmosphere of the narrative as a whole, and the shocking denouement. Private drama is interwoven with political events and with ideas (aired in sometimes rather trying debates between major and minor characters) about what Prussia is (in 1805), has been (under Frederick the Great), and might become.

The story is this: Schach von Wuthenow is an officer in a crack regiment, very popular at Court. He is excessively handsome, neurotically vain, and obsessed by the concept of honor. He has long been the friend and lover of Frau von Carayon, a beautiful and clever widow who with her daughter Victoire presides over Berlin’s most agreeable salon. Victoire has been disfigured by smallpox, and is ruefully resigned to spinsterhood. In fact she has great charm, enhanced, perhaps, by the pathos of her misfortune. One of her admirers describes it as a mixture of the witty and the elegiac. Besides, she has a special gift for plaudern—a verb which has no English equivalent. The French causer comes closest to it, but without carrying quite the same implication of gaiety and intimacy.


Victoire expects Schach to marry her mother, but when he begins to pay attentions to herself she is deeply stirred. One night he seduces her. She tells her mother what has happened. Her confession in no way impairs the tender, companionable relationship between mother and daughter—a good example of Fontane’s psychological truthfulness and daring in cutting through conventions, not only the social conventions of 1883 as well as 1805, but also the conventions of novel writing. Frau von Carayon becomes if anything more protective toward Victoire, and makes Schach promise to marry her. Schach, however, finds himself deeply disturbed. His pride would not allow him to marry a middle-aged widow, however elegant and admired; he finds the idea of marrying her plain daughter even more humiliating.

The deeper truth—sensed by Victoire—is that he finds the idea of marriage itself degrading, out of keeping with his image of himself as half medieval knight, half dashing court favorite. His sense of disgrace is increased when lampoons about him and his two loves begin to appear all over Berlin. In a state of utter moral confusion he retires to his estate in the country. Frau von Carayon is incensed and petitions the king on Victoire’s behalf. The king sends for Schach and makes him promise to marry the girl at once. Schach obeys, and immediately after the wedding shoots himself.

This strange story is told with great restraint and delicacy: taken out of its context it could be compared to La Princesse de Clèves. But it is embedded in a dense historical background whose outlines and implications can be hard to make out: through the Schönbrunn Treaty, Prussia herself has fallen into a state of dishonor—at least in conservative opinion. The old feudal values are being abandoned in favor of views that are more progressive, rational, and just, but also less chivalrous. Schach is for the old ways: he is shown in constant argument with Bülow, a former brother officer who has abandoned the army and its traditionalism to become a professional frondeur. Fontane himself, the reader feels, agrees with Bülow but is more attracted emotionally to Schach’s position.

This is very typical. Fontane could always see both points of view in any conflict, whether personal or political. Politically his natural feeling was for tradition: it appealed to him aesthetically and he felt the charm of virtues like chivalry and unquestioning loyalty to the army and the monarchy. But he could also see that the Prussian tradition was both questionable and fragile. Victoire adjusts to Schach’s death and prepares to be modestly happy with the child she bears him. One could infer (though there is no need to) a message: Prussia too ought to choose a decent future on a more modest scale than her glorious past under Frederick the Great. The future, of course, is Fontane’s present; not at all a time of voluntary self-restraint; on the contrary, Prussia was once more set on a course of expansion and doubtful glory.

Frau Jenny Treibel (1893) is set in that period. It is a social comedy depending as much as any work of Fontane’s on his gift for verbal mimicry. In his study Formen des Realismus: Theodor Fontane (Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 1964) Peter Demetz describes the novel as a German Pride and Prejudice in reverse. Whereas Elizabeth Bennet, a girl of comparatively humble circumstances, is first put off by Darcy’s grandeur and comes to love him only gradually as she recognizes his true qualities, Corinna Schmidt, the daughter of a grammar school master, starts the novel determined to marry rich Leopold Treibel. Corinna does in fact resemble Elizabeth: she is clever, witty, high-spirited, independent, and inclined to get carried away and go too far—though to my mind she is more endearing than the abrasive Elizabeth. It is after she has become engaged to Leopold and he turns out too weak to take her part against his ambitious mother that Corinna realizes he is a drip and won’t do; and she decides to marry her cousin, a penniless archaeologist who has loved her all along.

Jenny Treibel, Leopold’s mother, is a highly successful comic character, though not at all like Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She began life very low down the social scale. An exceptionally pretty doll of a girl, she caught the eye of the young academic living opposite her mother’s basement shop; this was Wilibald Schmidt, later to be Professor Schmidt and Corinna’s father. Jenny learned from Wilibald that there are higher values such as poetry and music, but she never let this knowledge deter her from throwing him over to marry a rich though uneducated timber merchant. At the time of the novel the Treibels are living in a grandiose new villa built by themselves in order to give lavish parties, but their guest list is still somewhat undistinguished.

The Treibels are vulgar and ambitious: he makes a ludicrously unsuccessful attempt to break into politics; she is an out-and-out materialist under a veneer of fashionable sentimentality. Her conversation is a comic delight, full of pretentious catch phrases and perpetually on the brink of malapropism. Fontane makes fun of these nouveaux riches, but not unkindly; he sees their vigor and vitality, that Treibel himself is good-natured, generous, and fundamentally unassuming. Unlike A Man of Honor and Effi Briest (or Pride and Prejudice, for that matter) this is not a very profound moral work, but an affectionate comedy of manners about the rising middle class.

The final piece has never been translated into English before. On the eighteenth of March 1848 Fontane was not quite thirty. He wrote his recollections when he was nearly eighty, and it is generally accepted that the old Fontane toned down the revolutionary zeal of the younger one. As he describes it, he set off toward the street fighting mainly in order to see what was going on, and joined in—like other bourgeois revolutionaries—in a spirit of, “Well, if the Austrians [who had risen earlier] want their freedom, we’ll have ours too.” People like himself, he says, would never have started a revolution, but once it got going their support was significant and decisive: “Except in the matter of courage there was no striking difference between those who ended up fighting for the cause and those who remained more or less amused spectators.”

The first thing to do, Fontane decided, was to announce the revolution by pealing church bells. He chose a church, but the door was locked (“Protestant churches are always locked”) and he couldn’t push it down. So he joined a group who were raiding an empty theatre. They dragged out the scenery and erected barricades, preparing to fight against a backdrop of forests and cliffs. They also found a quantity of old rifles which had been used in a comedy called Seven Girls in Uniform. Fontane went to buy gunpowder: the shopkeeper was so frightened that he gave it to him free. Having nothing to put it in, Fontane stuffed it into his yellow glove. Unfortunately the old rifles turned out to be useless.

Meanwhile Fontane felt sure his father in the provinces would enjoy the revolution. The mails were suspended, so he handed a letter to a train driver on the appropriate line and asked him to deliver it. Three days later old Fontane turned up, and father and son set off arm in arm to see the sights. They were lucky: a cavalcade came down Unter den Linden with the king at its head.

The King addressed the rapidly swelling crowd; it was the famous speech in which he announced his willingness to become the leader of all Germany….

When the procession was past, my father said, “There is something rather odd about it…riding about that way…I don’t quite know….”

Actually I shared his opinion. But at the same time I had been impressed, and so I said, “Yes, Papa, the old ways are really done for now….”

And with that they went off to find an open-air coffee house.

The king granted a constitution. Fontane was chosen to be a member of the convention that was to elect delegates for the constitutent assembly:

I no longer recall how long these sessions lasted; I do remember that all of it filled me daily with happiness: the beautiful hall, the splendid weather…, the intercourse with others, the idle talk…. Profoundly convinced of my own inadequacy and ignorance, I could still perceive clearly that, strange though it may sound, the ignorance of the others was, if possible, even greater than mine. Thus I was at once modest and arrogant.

Alas, seven months later the king marched the Guards battalions back into the city and withdrew the constitution. The event left Fontane convinced that “the will of the people was nothing, the power of the monarch everything. I held fast to this view for forty years.” At the end of the forty years a general published his memoirs and revealed that when the constitution was granted the high command had been convinced that it could only hold out a day or two longer against the revolutionaries. Fontane was not at all ashamed to bury his long-held opinion and adopt its direct opposite: “Providing that it is a powerful and generally shared sentiment that finds expression in the rebellion, the outcome must always be the victory of the revolution.” The examples he cites are strange; they include the victory of Arminius over the Romans in AD 9 and the Swiss defeat of the Austrians at Sempach in 1386.

This sounds as though he could not conceive of a popular movement without patriotism at its core. It also makes one wonder whether Peter Gay has not got carried away when he asks the reader “to think of him, in some measure, as a German Tocqueville.” Fontane is much more like a German Turgenev or Chekhov hearing the sound of the axe in the cherry orchard, sad for the past, perhaps, but not angry with the future.

There is no point in judging him as a historian. As a journalist he wobbled from the extreme left to the extreme right and back into the middle—as far as his employers were concerned, that is: he needed money. He was patriotic in the sense that he loved his country and its people, and he was never doctrinaire. The 1848 excerpt ends with him taking a post as pharmacist in a hospital run by Protestant deaconesses. He was somewhat apprehensive about the high moral tone that would be expected there. “But curiously enough it has always turned out that I have spent my pleasantest times among bigots, orthodox observers, and pietists, as well as among aristocrats of the most Junker-like persuasion. Or at any rate, no unpleasant times.” There is a message of a sort there, but an unassertive one.

This Issue

October 7, 1982