Should I spend more time explaining why the German Romantics – the German 19th century, really – has had such bad luck in the English-speaking literary world? Or wondering why, not explaining, since I don’t know the answer.
There’s something strange about the tone of a lot of Romantic German fiction, something I do not know how to describe well. Sometimes it’s a sort of gentleness or serenity, even amidst the strangest events. I’m thinking of Adalbert Stifter here, or Goethe’s Elective Affinities, or some of Hoffmann’s fantasias. They all take place in a version of the real world that has been shifted, so that everything is just a little off. We are used to this in fantasy and horror stories, but in realistic stories many readers don’t know what to do. That’s a guess.
A few German Romantics are really difficult to understand. The poets Novalis and Hölderlin, for example, or part 2 of Faust. Strangely, these really hard works are often as easy to find in English as more straightforward books by Storm or Keller or many others.
None of this explains the case of Fontane, who writes in a similar style to Flaubert and Turgenev. Effi Briest ought to be as well-known as Madame Bovary. Or how about Heinrich von Kleist, hard to take, but very much a modern writer.
I may be wrong. Penguin Classics keeps a number of these writers in print, which means that someone, somewhere is teaching them. Fontane, Hoffmann, Mörike, just recently a selection of Heine’s prose. Keeping up the good fight.
Compare the status (in America) of 19th century German literature with that of Russian literature. With some trepidation, I’m joining an internet reading challenge for Russian literature. Everyone want to use it as a goad to start or finish War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, that sort of thing. In a German challenge, the focus would be very different – some Goethe, sure, but more Mann, Musil, and Grass, not so much Green Henry or Wilhelm Meister.