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.

neither rises to tragedy nor stoops to bathos. Ultimately an uncle dies, and a gift from his widow brightens the family's prospects; but it will still be necessary for one if not more of the children to marry into a rich Jewish family. This option is presented not as scandalous or treacherous but as pragmatic. Each party to the bargain will provide something the other wants -- aristocratic cachet in return for financial stability.

CRAIG is always in command of biographical details and historical setting, as when he places the unsettling Fontane in the context of a readership that preferred its literature anodyne.

The educated middle class of the Bismarck and Wilhelmine years was excessively preoccupied with its own social status and prestige.... Increasingly more conservative as the period advanced, this [class] expected from the authors of its novels and dramas entertainment or moral elevation. It did not want to be told by them that there were things in the world that ought to be put right and that its duty was to correct them, and it had the power to make its disapproval felt. It took a determined writer to disregard this.

As a literary critic, however, Craig is less persuasive. Consider his discussion of Fontane's Schach von Wuthenow (usually referred to in English as ), a historical novel set in the Prussia of 1806, just before its disastrous defeat by Napoleon at Jena. The eponymous Schach is a gleaming product of the military caste -- courageous, upright, obedient -- but also afflicted with its signature faults, among them inflexibility and arrogance. He dallies with the pockmarked daughter of a female friend and tries to avoid the consequences when the affair becomes known, but he obeys a virtual order from the King to marry her. Fulfilling this duty causes him agony, because in the meantime he has been subjected to the one insult for which the code of honor has no provision: ridicule from an anonymous enemy, who has been circulating scurrilous caricatures of the affair. Schach's inability to negotiate this crisis with finesse has a dire outcome.

Craig devotes several paragraphs to chastising the novel for what it lacks: a fully developed tragic hero, "epic sweep," "the richness and variety of Vor dem Sturm." Even if he is right on these points (and I'm prepared to argue that Schach has the same number of dimensions as Oedipus), he fails to mention the novel's compensating virtues: its swift, inexorable pace, its artfully posed dilemma, its many brilliant scenes (including the King's cameo appearance), its deft identification of the hero with the system that has trained him -- indeed, with Prussia itself. One character observes,

"Our country is no more than a military base and supply center. In and by itself it is without any resources to speak of. As long as we win, things go tolerably well, but waging war is only open to countries that can afford to suffer defeat. We can't."

A similar inability to endure defeat ruins the protagonist of this taut shocker.

In Fontane shows the Prussian obsession with honor being stretched to inhuman proportions. Not until six years after the fact does Effi's husband, Baron von Innstetten, learn that she cheated on him with Crampas, a fellow aristocrat, at the remote northern outpost from which the baron had frequently been called away by his duties as provincial governor. Common sense suggests that by the time of the discovery an unspoken statute of limitations is in effect, but the baron blurts the story to a friend. That very disclosure, he then argues with maddening logic, obliges him to fight a duel with Crampas. Innstetten explains,

"From that moment onwards, there was someone else who knew something of my misfortune and, what is more important, of the stain on my honor.... And, because there is such a person, I can't go back."

Similar ligatures bind Effi's parents after the scandal gets out. There is perhaps no crueler letter in literature than the one informing Effi that her parents won't receive her anymore. Her mother writes,

"There can be no refuge for you in our house, because that would mean cutting ourselves off from everyone we know and this we are emphatically not inclined to do.... we want to make our position plain and show the whole world that we condemn -- I'm afraid I must use this word -- your actions -- the actions of our only daughter, the daughter whom we loved so dearly...."

Prussian to the core, and epitomizing concern with individual integrity under the onslaughts of an oppressive social regimen, is the best introduction to Fontane's work.

As noted above, few others are available in English. Currently in print from Penguin are two paperbacks, Effi Briest and a volume containing both and The Poggenpuhl Family; from Dufour, in both cloth and paperback and Effi Briest in paperback; from Continuum's German Library two volumes in hardcover and paperback, one containing and The Poggenpuhl Family and another containing and If Gordon Craig's useful introduction to Fontane's life and works leads to an expansion of this list, he will have performed a distinct service for lovers of sophisticated European fiction.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of He is at work on a novel.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; The Dickens of Berlin - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 134-136.