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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.