Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why Fontane can be slow going - more ramblin'

When my old book club read Effi Briest – this was ages ago – several readers found the late 19th century Prussian setting and the German names and titles to be an obstacle.  Or perhaps more of a kind of friction, a thickening of the prose that was no longer present for these experienced readers of novels about Paris or London or St. Petersburg, which they had visited so often in fiction.

The friction was rough enough in Irretrievable that it slowed me down, though I had assumed I would be comfortable enough.  The setting is not even in Prussia, but mostly behind the scenes of the Danish court – the monarchical court, not the legal one – in Copenhagen, and occasionally in rural Schleswig, which at the time of the novel was Danish, but would be Prussian soon enough.  Note how I have snuck in another Scandinavian novel in German disguise.

There were times when I had to slow down quite a bit, either to puzzle out some mysterious reference or to file it away for later.  I mean, the functionings of the Danish court!  How helpful to have such easy access to good internet maps.

Fontane’s method contributes to the difficulty.  Characters are created from minute accumulations of detail, including pages of subdued scenes and trivial dialogue  – “social chatter” is what the editor of the NYRB Classics edition calls it (259).  Within every scene, there will be something in the chatter that is either deeply revealing about one or more characters, or will when mixed with something later becomes meaningful.  The effect is artful and subtle, but a cost of the method is that some of the chatter is merely that, deliberately shallow and sometimes even close to meaningless.

On top of this, as is common with novels of manners, there is little action of the melodramatic, plot-moving sort, but rather a great deal of ordinary motion, characters assembling for meals or taking walks.  Irretrievable is particularly slow, or daring, in this regard, with the first moment of action, the first point in which a reader can be clear what the novel is about, occurring on page 201 of 256.  In fact, two dramatic events occur at that same point, one genuinely melodramatic, a “damsel in distress” moment, as if Fontane wants to awaken the reader who has been lulled into a nap, or who did not notice that the first, character-driven dramatic event occurred in the white space between chapters.

As French as Fontane’s novels feel in some ways, and as concerned as they are with sex and adultery, Prussian standards of what could be directly expressed in print were much more Victorian than Parisian.  Given Fontane’s style, though, I doubt more permissive publishing would have changed much.

We are not so far, in Fontane, from basing an entire novel on a woman planning a party.  I do not think of Mrs. Dalloway as a novel where nothing happens; nor is that the case in Fontane novels, as the duel in Effi Briest or the climax of Schach von Wuthenow (1882) make clear enough.

Look at that title – English readers without a semester of German will have no idea how to pronounce it or what it is even supposed to mean.  It’s just a person's name.  The novella has been translated with the fake but less intimidating title of A Man of Honor.  Its story goes like this: romance, indiscretion, domestic stuff, domestic stuff, domestic stuff, OMG WHAT JUST HAPPENED HOW HORRIBLE, ironic ending.  That was from memory, so perhaps I did not count the instances of “domestic stuff” properly, and my whole point is that whatever delaying devices Fontane uses, I vividly remember where the story ends up.

I think Fontane is a terrific writer, but for some kinds of good readers he will be a real test of patience.  That’s what I took 600 words to say.

I really did think I was going to get to Samuel Beckett today.  How that was going to work – anyway, tomorrow, Mann, Grass, Beckett; more social chatter.


  1. A personal landmark, the first time at Wuthering Expectations or anywhere else that I have used the expression "OMG."

  2. And I look forward to your Beckett comments. BTW (and OMG) . . . for the oddest reason(s), when you were discussing Fontane's focus on meals (and walks), I thought of Joyce's story, "The Dead." However, I'm sure that thought is apropos of nothing. At any rate, again, like Didi and Gogo, I await.

  3. "The Dead" would be a good substitute for Mrs. Dalloway above. How long does it take for a reader to know what the story is about?

  4. There are times that I feel as though I have walked into the middle of a conversation -- and perhaps that has something to do with my evaporating mind (i.e., going senile is a bitch!) -- so I am confused about your question: "How long does it take for a reader to know what the story is about?" Please "spoon feed" the old geezer. I am confused.

  5. Up to a point very close to the end of "The Dead" the story appears to be nothing more than a description of a Christmas dinner. Even a patient reader may wonder what he is missing, what he is supposed to be looking for.

    So the answer to the (rhetorical) question is: It takes a long time for the reader to know what the story is about, in "The Dead" or Mrs. Dalloway, almost to the last page. Mrs. Dalloway is actually a better example for the point I am trying to make, though, because it does have one big dramatic event, while Joyce's story has none.

  6. Ah . . . Well, I read something interesting a few weeks ago about "The Dead." The protracted dinner scene and the richly detailed descriptions of the foods serve to draw the reader into the secular "communion" at the heart of the story, a gathering through which Gabriel (so aptly named) learns a thing or two about life and death. And I would argue that the "big dramatic event" occurs in the snow after the Epiphany dinner at the end. (Of course, attentive readers also learn the lesson. And for Joyce, the epiphany for the protagonist is almost always the "big dramatic event." That is an oversimplified and fractured representation of what I read and remember.)

    In Woolf's book, I think the "dramatic events" are numerous and diffused through the different characters, memories, and structure. Of course, I could be relying upon a flawed recollection of a book that I have not read again since the mid-90s. (And do not get me started on my flawed recollection problems. Fairly soon, I will be able to eliminate my personal library and rely upon only one book that I can read over and over again, thinking that it is a new book with each new reading. I wonder what that one book should be . . .)

  7. I mean big and dramatic, melodramatic. A character jumps out of a window: dramatic. A character thinks about the guy who killed himself: meaningful, beautiful, etc.; not dramatic. Plot points that belong in ALL CAPS. So no epiphanies, by definition.

  8. I guess I mixed this up with Irrungen, Wirrungen, which is the book I wanted to read. His writing is what we call "unaufgeregt". Which is the contrary of "agitated". There's hardly ever a rush in his books.

  9. That's perfect - because at the point in Unwiederbringlich where something finally happens, the novel becomes agitated. Suddenly there really is a rush. Then of course the book calms down again. Twenty pages of agitation, 250 of calm.

  10. I started Effie Briest, and I must confess it was just so weird that Effie is playing a game like hide and go seek in the yard with her friends one minute, and is engaged to her Mother's former beau the next. Weird. I've set it aside for now...

  11. Very perceptive. You are on to what the novel is about.