So now I will ignore everything I wrote yesterday and assume that we all actively enjoy fiction set in times and places when and where we not understand every detail; that we even prefer fiction full of things we – I – did not know, by itself one reason to read Theodor Fontane.
The title character of Schach von Wuthenow (1883) is a cavalry officer, a perfect gentleman, a Prussian ideal. He is courting a woman older than himself, a great beauty, or perhaps her daughter, who lost her beauty to smallpox, although people still remember the effect she made at her debut. The confusion of the situation causes trouble. Prussia is small enough at this point, 1806 – this is real historical fiction – that the romantic problems of a cavalry officer are of interest to the King, who is a minor character.
Schach is one of those stories where everyone gets what they want, but in a horribly ironic way, like a perverse genie has given them a wish. As Fontane novels go, it gets quite exciting near the end. A nasty shocker.
Here the cavalry officers watch a sunset:
Each of the guests was moved by the beauty of the scene. But the most beautiful sight was the numerous swans which, as everybody was looking up to the evening sky, were approaching in a long single file from the direction of Charlottenburg Park. Other swans had already taken up a forward position. It was obvious that the entire flotilla must have been attracted by something to have come so close to the villa, for as soon as they were level with it, they wheeled around military fashion to form an extension of the front line of those which, still and motionless with bills buried in their feathers, were riding at anchor, as it were. Only the reeds were gently swaying behind their backs. A long time went by in this way. (p. 57)
Jenny Treibel (1892) is a dissection of Berlin class differences. Tiny class differences. The title character is a grocer’s daughter who almost married a professor but instead jumped to a merchant of higher distinction. Can she possibly allow her weak-spined son to marry that professor’s daughter? “’One might be able to get into a ducal family, but not into a bourgeois family,’” the professor says (289).
Terms as crude as upper or middle class are wholly inadequate. Even geography matters – the Berlin merchant outranks the Hamburg merchant, who are such snobs because their business is international, so that the Hamburger “really believes seriously that we can’t distinguish between sole and turbot here, and is always using the English for lobster, and treats curry powder and soy sauce as the utmost secrets…” (241). That is the title character, who can be awfully funny, not always intentionally.
The first half of the novel covers one day – a dinner party and another social gathering. The next quarter is occupied with another party, a picnic, a good place for the marriage proposal that spurs such plot as the novel has. The last chapter is a party scene, too, at a wedding. Fontane is like Proust, here. Most human activity worth documenting takes place at parties, or just before, or just after.
More Jenny Treibel – she is a married woman with adult children, and has just told the professor that although her life is wonderful of course she should have married him:
Schmidt nodded in agreement and then uttered a simple “Oh, Jenny…” with a tone in which he sought to express all the pain of a misspent life. Which he did succeed in doing. He listened to the sound of it and quietly congratulated himself that he had played his little part so well. Jenny, despite all her cleverness, was still vain enough to believe in the “oh” of her former admirer. (239)
Little insights, little ironies, little beauties. And some bigger ones, too, but much of the art of Fontane is in moments like this one.