Theodor Fontane was a Prussian of French descent who could see his world – it classes and follies – from just a little bit outside of it. He pulled advanced French fictional techniques (in shorthand, Flaubert) into German, almost alone as far as I can tell. He was a journalist who did not turn to fiction until he was almost sixty. He nevertheless had a twenty-year career as a fiction writer, long enough to have identifiable stages.
The esthetically unappealing but useful German Library series includes two novels in Short Novels and Other Writings (1981), one early, one late, so to speak, Schach von Wuthenow (1883, tr. E. M. Valk) and Jenny Treibel (1892, tr. Krishna Winston). Both novels are full fine insights into the characters, beautiful little touches, descriptive and psychological, and a great sense of how the people live and act within the constraints – tight constraints – of their world.
Boy, are they dense with information. A tough sell, I fear. I have seen plenty of good readers have trouble with Effi Briest (1895), and these are both denser. Fontane does much of his work with small talk, pages of it, so they are both denser yet often in a given moment quite trivial, especially when I have only a light acquaintance with foreign policy problems of Napoleonic Berlin, which is how Schach begins. “’We may be equal to dealing with the Poles perhaps, but the Hanoverians are a fastidious breed’” (p. 4), etc. etc. etc. The stories of real interest in both novels are marriage stories, love affairs.
Or look at the long, very German passage in Jenny Treibel in which a young woman and her beloved housekeeper discuss the astringent properties of pears. Papa prefers the peel, core, stem, and all – this is with cooked pears:
“He can pick it up like a macaroni and hold it up and eat it all up from the bottom… He really is a peculiar man…”
“Yes, that he is!” (282, ellipses in original)
A full page on pears, before the conversation turns to the woman’s impending – or now maybe not – marriage, all of this while she is grating stale rolls for a bread pudding.
Or look at the title of Schach von Wuthenow. The translator changes it to A Man of Honor, which is fits the story, at least. Cavalry Captain von Schach’s ancestral estate is in Wuthenow. The chapter where, in emotional turmoil, he revisits his old now and messes about in a boat is a lovely thing. But for the reader without German, that title is too much of a mouthful.
I’m trying to get the negatives out of the way in this post. In Jenny Treibel, so little happens – a series of parties – that the idea of plot moves towards abstraction. A Man of Honor is, for Fontane, almost a thriller, so much happens, even a sex scene. See if you can spot it:
Oh, these were the words her heart had been yearning for, whereas it had sought to don the armor of defiance.
And now she was listening to them in a daze of silent and blissful abandon.
The clock in the room struck nine and was answered by the church clock outside. Victoire, who had been keeping count of the strikes, smoother back her hair and stepped up to the window and looked out into the street. (64)
It is deliberately missable, even given the constraints on what can be described in a novel of the time, given later events in the story meant to have readers paging backwards – “Wait, when did that happen – oh.”
The terrible prose of the first line should be assigned to Victoire, not the narrator; unused to sexual attention, she has to resort to clichés she has picked it up from a book. That kind of subtlety is artful, but a hard sell.