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.
No wonder then that Professor Craig set out on a few trips in Fontane’s footsteps when he found himself in Berlin, both before and after German reunification. He is amazed by the old-fashioned provincialism of East Germany on the one hand, and on the other he squirms with dismay at the aesthetic outrages perpetrated by the Communist regime: hideous housing developments jostling what is left of charming old town centers, and a nuclear power station on the mysterious lake of Stechlin!
The chapter on Fontane’s Wanderungen turns, delightfully and deliberately, into Professor Craig’s own Wanderungen. He describes Fontane’s visit to the monument for the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist. It stands on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee at the spot where Kleist and his mistress committed suicide. Fontane found himself in the company of a suburban Berlin family, and reported their reactions. “This little drama,” writes Professor Craig, “awakened the most lively expectations in me, and I asked myself in what company I would be allowed to play the part of the gentle ironist.” He finds no company, but concludes it would be very difficult now to commit suicide where Kleist did because of the presence of two large yacht clubs and a motorway. He plays the role of the gentle ironist to perfection.
Fontane’s first novel appeared in 1878, just before he turned sixty. It was set in 1812, and was followed by four more historical novels. The weirdest and most extraordinary is Schach von Wuthenow. Professor Craig thinks it is a failure. Set in Berlin court circles during the Napoleonic wars, it begins with Frau von Carayon’s regular weekly salon. She is a beautiful widow of thirty-seven with a grown-up daughter, Victoire, who would also be beautiful if smallpox had not spoiled her looks. Both women are clever, witty, charming, and good. The mother is a realist, the daughter a romantic idealist, but they get along in the most affectionate sisterly way. The mother has an admirer called Schach von Wuthenow—a handsome, overambitious, deeply conventional, deeply fastidious, and not very popular officer in the royal guards. General opinion has it that he won’t ever propose, because he would regard a pockmarked stepdaughter as a social disgrace. Victoire is in love with him without knowing it, and one night, when they are alone, and Schach has just heard Prince Louis Ferdinand sing her praises at a party, he seduces her. She gets pregnant and tells her mother.
There is no jealousy or blame in Frau von Carayon’s reaction—she is all love and pity for her daughter. But she insists that she marry Schach, although Victoire says she would prefer to sacrifice herself by retiring from society. Of course, her mother would also have to retire. But Frau von Carayon likes society, knows she likes it, and has no intention of doing any such thing. Schach behaves well and agrees to her plan for an immediate engagement: he expresses remorse for his behavior and love for Victoire, and even begins to feel them. Then caricature portraits of Schach caught between two women begin to circulate in society, and he is so mortified that he bolts to his dilapidated country estate and misses the day the banns are to be read. Frau von Carayon—after due warning to Schach—begs an audience of the king and asks him to intervene; which he does. The wedding takes place, and as soon as it is over, Schach shoots himself.
The work is more a novella than a novel, and so Professor Craig finds it meager compared to Fontane’s first, very long, historical novel, Before the Storm. He complains that Schach has too small a cast, no lower-class characters, no picture of society as a whole, no character development. Still he reads it as a picture of society in decay—the Frederician ethic gone to seed. He certainly can’t complain of lack of political-philosophical talk. Prussia, Lutheranism, the army, honor, loyalty, and the Napoleonic war are endlessly discussed by members of the Carayon circle whose only raison d’être in the story is to embody conflicting views. I find some of these discussions quite hard going, and Professor Craig says he does too (even though he has the advantage of knowing exactly who historical figures like Count Haugwitz are, and why certain officers hated him). Still, I think that from inside so much talk, a masterpiece is trying to get out: the bizarre, shocking tragedy of an ultimately pointless idée fixe. Its impact is like a physical blow—like Pushkin’s Queen of Spades. And both stories manage to lock the reader in intimacy with an unappealing hero.
Earlier in the year (1882) when Schach appeared, Fontane published his first contemporary (and very popular) novel, L’Adultera. Aristocrats have only walk-on parts in this one, unless you count the heroine, Melanie van der Straaten, a well-born girl married to a vulgar, good-humored, generous entrepreneur, who is a Jew and a good deal older than she. They have two daughters, and it’s a relaxed, friendly marriage. She’s fond of him; he’s proud of her. Then a young business connection of van der Straaten’s appears, also Jewish, and he and Melanie fall in love and elope. Van der Straaten forgives them, and so does Fontane. He lets them live happily ever after. Of course they are shunned by society, and Fontane doesn’t forgive society for that. Still, he seems to accept that there is nothing to be done about it. His own attitude to sexual transgression could be summed up as “live and let live,” or “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” He always forgives the women, though not always the men—certainly not in Effi Briest, which is often cited with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as a typical nineteenth-century novel of adultery. L’Adultera is both a psychological novel and a novel of society; and there is much talk (there always is, with Fontane) about the way society is changing—and also about other topical issues: politics, scandals, literature, and what’s on at the theater.
Fontane was now in his stride as a novelist, and his best works were written during the last ten years of his life. Professor Craig has surprisingly little to say about them in a short chapter. When these novels are not about adultery they are about class, and sometimes about both—they include tragedies of impossible love affairs across the class divide, sometimes ending in suicide, and comedies about failed or abandoned attempts to cross class barriers. Fontane seems to deplore the class system, but puts up with it with a resigned shrug. And so—ultimately—do his heroes and heroines. No one ever hurls him—or her—self against those barriers: they may make an attempt to squeeze through, but they know from the start that it won’t do any good. This lends an extra tinge of melancholy to the sad stories, and an extra dimension of absurdity to the comical ones.
Irrungen Wirrungen (1888) is typical of his more melancholy stories. A young officer from an impoverished family loves a working-class girl. He is neither very bright nor very forceful, and that is the case with most of Fontane’s young men; the brains and guts all go to the women. Old men, on the other hand, like Baron Stechlin and—a cruder version—Effi Briest’s father can be wise, benign, and serene. Still, Botho is no philanderer. He really loves Lene, not just for her hair (although it happens to be honey-colored), but for her intelligence, her understanding, and her decent, forthright character which sometimes explodes with a touch of typical Berlin aggression. He forgives that, and also an earlier affair she had. He knows that marrying her will mean resigning his commission and exiling himself from society, but he wants to do it and then emigrate with her.
Lene has no illusions: she knows their relationship can’t last. Botho’s mother has been begging him to marry a very pretty heiress, and just after the lovers spend a blissful night at a river inn, a letter arrives urging him to propose to Kaethe von Kessentin at once, because unless he makes sure of her dowry quickly, the family estate will have to be sold. Both lovers accept what they see as the inevitable, and Botho’s friends envy him his ravishing blond bride, always good-humored and full of laughter. The laughter gets to the reader: there is far too much of it. Kaethe is a noisy, mindless goose. Fontane, with wily delicacy, manages never to say, or even imply, that Botho finds her maddening and yearns for the intelligent, sympathetic Lene. But you sense his regret, the absence of hope from his life. As for Lene, she marries an older man, a decent, humorless dissenter. It’s the best she can do. Irrungen Wirrungen is also a novel of resignation.
Two years later Fontane returned to the same theme. In Stine, the young aristocrat is a chronic invalid with no prospects and barely a life. All the same, his family refuses his request to marry his selfless (but unsentimental) lover, the seamstress Stine. She has never expected marriage or to become a countess, and when he tells her what has happened, she leaves him, invoking the fourth commandment, though he believes it’s from pride. He takes an overdose. A censorious neighbor observes that Stine—never strong—looks as if she is dying of grief: and quite right too; women like her deserve what they get. Both Stine and Irrungen Wirrungen are genre paintings set in working-class Berlin, with Fontane’s usual vivid information-crammed background; gnarled old people exchange working-class wisdom and moronic idées reçues; feisty, attractive girls exchange street wisdom and sassy repartee.
The feisty girl in Frau Jenny Treibel is Corinna Schmidt, a witty professor’s witty daughter. The barrier she toys with crossing is a mixture of education and class. The Treibels are rich, arriviste Veneering look-alikes, but not quite as horrible. For Fontane, no Berliner can ever be completely horrible. They cultivate Corinna because she is an amusing extra woman for dinner parties. Their wimpish younger son falls in love with her, and she can’t resist getting engaged to him, really just to annoy his social-climbing mother. Her father is briefly alarmed, but in the end she marries an archaeologist cousin and goes off with him to help Schliemann dig up Troy. Frau Jenny Treibel is a favorite with Fontane readers, a purely comic comedy whose appeal comes from wicked nuances of social observation.
Die Poggenpuhls—the novel about the poor officer’s widow and her five grown-up children—is also pure comedy, but here, with the exception of the snobbish eldest daughter, all the characters are lovable. The plot is almost nonexistent: first the Poggenpuhls are desperately poor. Then an uncle dies and leaves them a little money: less than they expected, because it is all entailed to his wife’s family. So they end up just a little bit better off, and that’s it. The exceptional thing about this novel is that the class barrier is successfully crossed—but long before the story begins. Frau von Poggenpuhl is a pastor’s daughter, and the rich aunt is a country girl whose first marriage was to a Silesian magnate; both of them are admirable women, although Frau von Poggenpuhl tends to weepiness. Die Poggenpuhls is particularly high on the charm list, partly because the nonstop sibling Plauderei mixes teasing, affection, disapproval, and gleeful complicity in the most engaging way.
The year Fontane died, he produced what many think is his greatest novel, Der Stechlin. It is a story—if you call it a story—about an old country gentleman waiting for death. His officer son comes to stay; the old man stands in the local election, fails to be elected, has many rambling talks with the parson, the schoolmaster, the village constable, his own old servant, and—best of all—with little Agnes who is sent to help look after him after he has a heart attack. The child’s mother is a prostitute in Berlin, her grandmother the local witch, and as she listens to the conversations at the manor house,
They all seemed like fairy stories to her. She had heard so much in her life, and was probably destined to hear much, much more. So her expression never changed. She just dreamed along, and the fact that this was her nature was what attracted the old gentleman so. The eye with which she regarded humanity was different from other people’s.
Young Stechlin gets engaged to a nice suitable girl and misses his father’s death while on honeymoon in Italy. Nobody could, and nobody does, deny that this picture of life in the remote country on the Oder is full of atmos-phere and charm and exudes an irresistible goodness, but its more than 500 pages can seem a bit discursive.
Still, not bothering with a story must have been a deliberate decision, because in 1895—a year before Die Poggenpuhls and three before Der Stechlin—Fontane published his best seller Effi Briest. This has a conventional, dramatic, fallen-woman plot—a variation on Dumas fils’s La dame aux camélias, except that the heroine is not fallen from the start, but a country gentleman’s tomboy daughter, barely seventeen when her mother (her father is not enthusiastic) marries her off to a former admirer of her own. Geert von Innstetten is in his forties, a decent, even high-minded man, and very good-looking. A careerist civil servant and favorite of Bismarck’s, he lacks warmth and humor, and his attitude toward effervescent Effi is not so much avuncular as schoolmasterly. He carries her off to the Pomeranian seaside town where he is posted. Effi finds it lonely and spooky (a feeling encouraged by Innstetten to keep her in order), and the gentry unfriendly. The arrival of a baby daughter doesn’t make much difference. So she falls an easy prey to the local womanizer Major von Crampas. She doesn’t love him; she feels shame and fear (but no remorse, her honesty tells her); so when Innstetten achieves his ambition and gets posted to Berlin, she is relieved.
Six years pass, then Innstetten accidentally discovers her affair. After so long, he doesn’t really mind; he loves Effi because she is lovable and he doesn’t hate Crampas; but he feels his honor and his place in society demand a duel. His chosen second tries to dissuade him. A pivotal conversation follows, and eventually, reluctantly, the second agrees that “One isn’t just a single person, one belongs to a whole, and we must always consider the whole”—i.e., society and its demands. Crampas falls at the first shot, and as his last glance catches his killer’s eye, Innstetten begins to doubt he has done the right thing. Still, he banishes Effi, and her doting, heartbroken parents feel they have to reject her on the same principle that forced Innstetten to issue his challenge. They are all victims of what Professor Craig calls “the tyranny of honor.” So Effi lives alone in a small flat, with only her servant Roswitha for company. Roswitha is thick, but devoted and good; and a Catholic to boot. Fontane stresses this at a time when the Kulturkampf was raging and persuading many Protestants that all Catholics are evil.
After a few years, Effi obtains permission for a visit from her little daughter, now aged ten. The child barely speaks, and when Effi asks her whether she’ll come again, she replies: “Yes, if I’m allowed.” Shall they walk in the park together? “Yes, if I’m allowed.” “Or we could go to Schilling and eat ice cream, pineapple or vanilla—that used to be my favorite.” “Yes, if I’m allowed.” Effi breaks down, and from this moment her incipient consumption takes over—the fallen woman’s friend (or retribution). Her parents take her back, and there she dies. A month later they are breakfasting on the terrace overlooking her grave. Conventional, self-righteous, uptight Frau von Briest wonders whether they—meaning her husband—hadn’t been too permissive with Effi. Then she admits: “I must take some of the blame. Perhaps she was too young after all.” Old Briest replies with his habitual evasion: “Oh, Luise, don’t—that’ll take us too far.”
Evasion, Fontane seems to be saying, is no bad thing. One must have principles, but they needn’t always be carried to their merciless conclusion. He coined the expression—much quoted and first used for the look on the dying Crampas’s face—“Prinzipienreiterei“: riding one’s principles. People—like Instetten and Schach and Frau von Briest—act out their principles from the best of motives. He doesn’t condemn them. But they do harm, and it’s better to follow one’s heart than one’s principles. Of course it has to be a good heart, but Fontane doesn’t go in for dyed-in-the-wool villains; and anyway, he wouldn’t want to be read for lessons in morality. More than any other writer—even Turgenev and Chekhov—he seems to write from affection for human beings. Very occasionally that makes him keel over into soppiness, but his sense of reality and amusement soon fish him out. Does he remain just a little bit wet? He wouldn’t have minded. He saw the point of wetness.
June 25, 1998