Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"He can pick it up like a macaroni" - some novels of Theodor Fontane that are harder sells

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 home 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 up from a book.  That kind of subtlety is artful, but a hard sell.


  1. I'm one of those readers (good or not, I dunno) defeated by Effi Briest.(I even found the Fassbinder tedious, and I adore him.) But you make these sound so appealing! Sounds like I should give Fontane another go. As to being alone in using Flaubert's idiom in German--what about Keller or Storm? These are real guesses, not disguised statements, since I have never read either.

  2. Fontane (b. 1819), Keller (1819), and Storm (1817) share one great trait with Flaubert (1821). They all wanted to write prose that did what poetry was supposed to do. But Keller and Storm were more purely rooted in the Germanic poetic tradition, by which I mostly mean Goethe. See the passage from Green Henry in this ancient blog post. Now that's reading. My sense is that Fontane was more cosmopolitan.

    What wonderful writers these are, all of them. Fontane is in some ways the most approachable to English-language readers, just because his books look more like the French fiction we are used to reading. In other ways, though, there are obstacles.

  3. That's reading indeed!

    Seems to me that the "it's the x [insert nationality here] Madame Bovary" narrative has been more harmful than good. Most of these writers are probably a hell of a lot warmer than Flaubert, for one thing.

    Anyway, Keller, I really should get on that too. My sense is that no one reads him anymore, not even in the original. For example, even when living in Switzerland I never heard anyone talk about him, though Gotthelf did come up every once in a while--that regionalism stuff, people like it.

  4. Yes, for some reason for many people saying a book is like Flaubert or is like Madame Bovary means that it has an adultery plot. Or worse, that a mythical superstition called "realism" is involved somehow. Style, I always mean style.

    Green Henry is awesome, but it is one strange book. A shame to hear you did not come across him in Switzerland. Sebald readers still read Keller.

  5. Nicely put!

    Sebald loved Keller, I know, but I suspect Sebald is more read in English than in German. Did you ever read Romeo & Juliet in the Village?

  6. Yes, A Village Romeo and Juliet is lovely, and completely accessible. I read a couple of Keller pieces that were very very very Swiss, and thus more of a struggle.

  7. 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.

    Ha, this is exactly how War and Peace begins! "Eh bien, mon prince, Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte," etc. etc. etc. I had to do some serious immersion in Napoleonic-era politics to understand what was going on.

    I'll have to give Fontane a try; I love Fassbinder's Effi Briest (but then I love pretty much everything Fassbinder did -- I stole away from work to attend the more obscure items in a retrospective MOMA was doing back in the '90s).

  8. I haven't seen the Fassbinder film, but as an adaptation it sounds fascinating - almost every word from Fontane, but not necessarily from Effi Briest, for example. Fontane himself was a collagist, taking lines and whole passages from newspapers to create his characters' small talk.