Saturday, August 1, 2015

Well meaning but clumsy - a quote from but not a description of Fontane's L'Adultera

My shorthand for Theodor Fontane is that he brought the techniques of Flaubert into German literature, which spent most of the 19th century in its own aesthetic world.  I do not actually know that Fontane even read Flaubert.  He certainly could have reached the same point on his own path, his decades as a journalist and travel writer leading him, when he decided to turn to fiction at a fairly late age (59 when he published his first novel), to a Flaubert-like style: lots of incidental minutiae, limited third person point of views with lots of shifts among characters, scenes of dialogue that are more like chatter (another kind of minutiae).  Attention to detail but at a distance.  His novels are in the genre I call, after Trollope, “The Way We Live Now,” but with a style radically different than the voluble Trollope’s.

He was if anything more radical than Flaubert, spending more time on the surface of his story, allowing less time in the thoughts of his character.  Flaubert was more of a telepath.  Fontane just sees his characters, and hears what they say, thus the details and the chatter, Fontane’s artful, or trivial, means to reveal who his characters really are.

I keep nattering to excess about Flaubert not just because of style, but because Fontane’s best known novel, in English, at least, is an adultery novel, although one that has little resemblance to Madame Bovary.  Much closer is Fontane’s 1882 novella L’Adultera, the title translated, perhaps unnecessarily, by Gabrielle Annan as The Woman Taken in Adultery.  The Italian title is the name of a Tintoretto painting, the acquisition of which by the good-hearted but insecure Commercial Councillor van der Straaten prefigures the events of the novel.  Poor van der Straaten – his great fault is that at this worst, he is annoying, not solely but especially to his young, elegant wife.  His anxiety about being annoying is especially annoying.  For example, giving his wife the gift of a painting about an adulteress as an expression of his fear of adultery.  I believe we now use the term “passive aggressive.”

A big difference from Flaubert and Madame Bovary: despite his authorial distance – because of it, he might insist – he creates great sympathy for all of his major characters.  L’Adultera is a novel of surprising warmth and forgiveness. How can I not be sympathetic to a man who fears his family excursion to the countryside will be ruined:

“… out in front all the time with a harmonica.”

“For heaven’s sake,” cried van der Straaten, “A squeezebox?”

“No sir.  More like a mouth organ.”

“Thank God…”  (Ch. 8, p. 47)

Maybe this ploy for the sympathy of the reader is too blatant, since we all loather the squeezebox, but Fontane does create other, perhaps more substantial reasons to sympathize with van der Straaten and to not laugh but wince when he plays the fool too much.

The wife receives a similarly gentle, clear-eyed treatment.  The reconciliation at the novel’s end is a lovely moment, even if it still a bit passive-aggressive (“’Always the same.  Well meaning but clumsy.” Ch. 22, 129), and involves a specific kind of Prussian Christmas gift that requires a footnote.  I sometimes come across dismay that 19th century novels about adultery always end in a certain way.  No, not always.


  1. I have Effi Briest somewhere so will dip into Fontane sometime soon. This one sounds interesting, too, even more so in conjunction with Effi?

  2. Yes, a terrific companion to Effi Briest.