The Dickens of Berlin



Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich


THE German novelist Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) had the good fortune to practice fiction at a time when Germany was a newborn empire, fresh from victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarckian Prussia had indeed been the driving force in the amalgamation of numerous German-speaking states into an imperial power, with the Prussian King as Emperor and the booming city of Berlin as his capital. But the Prussian ethos -- with its militarism and authoritarianism, its web of aristocratic connections and lingering remnants of feudalism, its fierce code of honor and passion for order -- made an awkward fit with the rumbustious materialism of the rising Berlin bourgeoisie. This strain is one of Fontane's recurrent themes. In his novel the title character is summed up by an academic friend as "the perfect bourgeoise type ... she has a heart only for what has weight, for everything that counts and bears interest."

Fontane turned out novels at an enviable clip, averaging almost a book a year for the last two decades of his life. By the end of this run he had become the finest German novelist of his era, an exemplar for the young Thomas Mann and a keen observer of city life whose composite portrait of Berlin ranks with Dickens's portrait of London, Balzac's of Paris, and Dostoevski's of St. Petersburg.

The historian Gordon Craig's critical study of Fontane is of a piece with the typical Fontane novel: brief, piquant, urbane, chatty. Author and subject also share an affection for Scotland -- which Fontane got to know as a traveler and about which he wrote a book, and where Craig was born (he emigrated to the United States in 1925). Despite these affinities, Craig admits in his introduction to having "neither heard [Fontane's] name nor read a page of his work until 1938, when I was twenty-five years old." It took even longer for readers without German to make the novelist's acquaintance: the first of his major works to appear in English, Unwiederbringlich (Beyond Recall), did so in 1964. Even now only roughly a third of his eighteen novels and novellas are in print in English, and only Effi Briest is well known, largely because Rainer Fassbinder made a film of it, in 1974.

Fontane came late to fiction, finishing his first novel, Vor dem Sturm (), when he was approaching sixty. He was no literary novice, however; he had been working as a journalist for nearly thirty years and had written, among other books, three volumes of military history, which Craig explicates at length and praises -- though it's probably safe to assume that neither they nor Fontane's travel books on Prussia's Brandenburg province will appear in English anytime soon.

Being of French descent on both sides of the family, Fontane could view his fellow citizens with some detachment. His forebears were Huguenots who fled to a welcoming Prussia after Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes, in 1685. Although the Fontanes had long since assimilated, the family pronounced its surname in modified French style, without sounding the e, and, according to Theodor's son, gave it the full nasal treatment "on Sundays and holidays." Most of Fontane's stories exhibit an offhand fluidity that seems more Gallic than Teutonic, with the end products resembling lithe figurines standing between Goethe's marbled statues and Mann's granite monuments. Fontane's background may have contributed to his ability to see multiple sides of the topics that engage his characters -- notably the strengths and weaknesses of the Prussian temperament. In Frau Jenny Treibel the Treibels, who have made their fortune in a most chauvinistic way (they own a factory that manufactures the dye known as Prussian blue), encourage their sons to marry Hamburg girls in part because the family could use a dose of that city's cosmopolitan outlook.

Fontane's capacity to sympathize with each of his creations was abetted by a gift for dialogue. The high points of a Fontane novel tend to be the conversations, which frequently go on for pages and may vary in elevation according to the social class to which the characters belong. This latter feature can perplex translators -- I have my doubts, for instance, about William L. Zeibel's allotment of an American southern accent to a Viennese matron in his version of Irrungen, Wirrungen (Delusions, Confusions) as a way of setting off her speech from Berliner Deutsch. And occasionally the talk bogs down in obscure references to German folkways or history which require frequent flipping back to the editor's endnotes for orientation. Where Fontane was not careful (as in much of the novel ), his reader can feel as frustrated as an outsider at a family reunion. But these lapses are rare; Fontane's dialogue usually illuminates character, advances plot, and fills in background, all at once.

In Die Poggenpuhls (), an examination of a proud old clan that is barely scraping by, Fontane relied on dialogue to capture that quicksilver quality charm. The Poggenpuhls consist of a widowed mother, three unmarried daughters, and two young soldier sons, one a model of rectitude and the other, Leo, a high-living scapegrace who, naturally, is everybody's favorite. Not content to have the females report on Leo's winsomeness when he is out of earshot, Fontane let him transmit it directly, with speech. Here he is, home on leave, tucking into a special meal of duck.

His sister Sophie asks, "Which bit would you like?"

"Drumstick, please," [he replies.] "I think asking for the drumstick is always the best policy. First of all it makes a good impression because it sounds modest, and secondly the top joint tends to come along with it. And then the question of the actual quantity is not to be taken lightly either."

It's hard to resist a fellow who lays bare his scheming nature so ingenuously.

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