Halfway to Siberia

Ruth Franklin

  • Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich by Gordon A. Craig
    Oxford, 232 pp, £26.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 19 512837 0

‘In the middle of the 1870s,’ Theodor Fontane’s novel Delusions, Confusions begins, ‘just at the crossing of the Kurfürstendamm and the Kurfürstenstrasse, diagonally across from the “Zoological”, could still be found a large vegetable garden, stretching a distance away from the street.’ By the early 1880s, when Fontane began to write his ‘Berlin novels’, the city was living through a period of change not unlike the decade since Reunification – the vegetable garden probably didn’t survive for long. When Fontane first came to Berlin in 1833, to go to school, the city was a small provincial capital: by the mid-1880s, a decade after Unification, its population had risen to more than 1.3 million and it was the focus of a newly powerful state. The way of life to which Fontane’s generation had become accustomed was disappearing, and the future was auspicious but uncertain.

Fontane was always ambivalent about Berlin. He complained that the air and the stench of the Landwehrkanal were bad for his health, and he worried about the effects of the city on his mental state: ‘As a rule,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘I am firmly convinced that the big city makes people nimble, quick and agile, but it makes them shallow, and if one does not live in seclusion drains away one’s higher powers of production.’ Yet he also recognised that it was typical of Berliners to complain in this way: ‘The more berlinisch one is, the more one rails or jeers at Berlin.’

Gordon Craig’s Theodor Fontane: Literature and History in the Bismarck Reich is a collection of eight essays, each on a different aspect of Fontane’s work, which included journalism, ballads, poems, travel writing, military history, theatre criticism, novels and a vast number of letters. The book appeared in Germany in 1997 under the simple title Über Fontane. Every German student reads Effi Briest, the novel generally considered Fontane’s masterpiece, and a vast amount of his work – novels, letters, prose – remains in print. In the English-speaking world it is a different story.

Theodor Fontane was born in 1819 in Neuruppin, in the eastern province of Brandenburg. The son of an apothecary, he was apprenticed in his father’s trade, but had no real interest in it. He published his first short story, a maudlin tale called ‘Sibling Love’, at the age of 20, while working in a pharmacy. He continued in this job for several years until, during his military service, he met, among his fellow Guards officers, several members of the Berlin literary club Tunnel over the Spree. The group, which would eventually include the painter Adolf Menzel and the writer Theodor Storm, read Fontane’s earliest work, largely historical ballads in the manner of Scott.

Though his poems were popular, Fontane was unable to make a living that way, and turned to journalism, securing a job on a conservative newspaper. ‘Today I sold myself to the reaction for thirty pieces of silver a month and am once more a salaried Scriblifax (in verse and prose) in the Adler-Zeitung,’ he lamented to his friend Lepel. ‘These days one cannot survive as an honest man.’ But journalism did at least give Fontane the opportunity to travel. During the 1850s he lived in England for several years, first as a reporter and then as the Prussian Government’s ‘attaché for literary and cultural questions’. Fontane had long been interested in Scotland, and in 1860, shortly after his return to Berlin, he published a travel book, Jenseits des Tweed (‘Beyond the Tweed’).

In Scotland Fontane had come up with a project that would occupy him for much of the 1860s. ‘It is only when abroad that we discover what we possess at home,’ he wrote in his introduction to the first volume of Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg. ‘I have experienced that myself, and the first idea of the Wanderings came to me during my prowlings about in foreign parts. The idea became a wish, and the wish became a resolve.’ In the Wanderings, which Craig describes as ‘a new kind of travel writing’, Fontane combined accounts of the history of the area with descriptions of its geography, ecology and population – ‘what was special about a particular place and what gave it its specific energy and life’. First serialised in newspapers, the Wanderings occupy five long volumes of Fontane’s collected works.

Craig recounts his own travels through Brandenburg, interspersing quotations from Fontane with his own impressions of the same spots. During a 1990 trip he is unnerved by the extent of the Communist destruction: a prince’s residence has been turned into a diabetes clinic, and the streets, shops and restaurants are empty. But when he returns several years later, capitalism has spiffed things up a bit. In one passage Fontane had described the traffic on the River Spree:

It is Sunday . . . and work is at rest. But on weekdays the road that we are silently travelling is lively early and late, and everything that otherwise would go its way on corduroy road or highway travels up and down this watery thoroughfare. Even the rich herds of this locality stir up no dust but are driven onto boats and carried from stall to stall or meadow to meadow. The daily traffic moves along this endless river net and is only momentarily interrupted when a bride goes to church in a Kahn decorated with flowers and with music ahead of her, or when, silently and alone, and followed by ten or twenty Kähne of mourners, a dark-draped boat glides down the stream.

Craig is satisfied to find the scene much the same. ‘We encountered neither wedding nor funeral,’ he writes, ‘but I had no doubt that we might have, for nothing seemed to have changed since Fontane’s time, except for the fact that our Kahn held a dozen people besides our party of four and that – another sign perhaps of the growth of capitalist ingenuity in the Mark – on two occasions, as we passed under arching bridges, we were photographed by enterprising youths who then, using long poles, reached tickets down to us which we could use to claim the prints.’

At the same time as he was working on the Wanderings, Fontane wrote a series of war books that even he did not seem to find particularly compelling. He told his publisher that he wanted to write a book about the Austro-Prussian War, ‘first because it will enable me to bring the Schleswig Holstein book to a proper conclusion, second because I take joy in and have a certain talent for such works, and third because I shall derive a considerable pecuniary advantage from it.’ Craig, historian though he is, is hard put to find much of interest here.

Fontane’s self-reinventions were far from complete. In 1870, shortly after the publication of his third Wanderings volume, he became theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung, a post he held for twenty years. Craig’s chapter on Fontane’s theatre writing is probably the best in his book. He gives a generous overview of contemporary German theatre, and shows how Fontane’s criticism enhanced his novels. He had now begun to write fiction in earnest, publishing his first novel in 1878 at the age of 59. Before his death in 1898, he wrote 11 more.

Craig admits that it is Fontane’s theatre writing which interests him most, and he is right that many other studies of the writer have neglected it in favour of the novels. But he can’t hide the fact that Fontane’s real talent was as a novelist. Travel writing is, after all, travel writing, and though Craig may think well enough of it, Fontane’s historical books were the work of an especially perceptive and knowledgable amateur. The theatre reviews, too, are witty and thoughtful, but not extraordinary. (Lessing’s criticism, as Craig concedes, is a cut above Fontane’s.) Only the novels – foremost among them, Effi Briest – place him in the first rank of German writers.

Fontane’s first two novels dealt with Prussian history: Vor dem Sturm (‘Before the Storm’, 1878), set in 1812-13, and Schach von Wuthenow (1882), set in 1806. From Scott he had absorbed the belief that one shouldn’t write about a period much more than sixty years removed: ‘The novel should be a portrait of the age to which we belong, or at least a reflection of a life on whose borders we ourselves still stand or of which our parents have told us,’ he wrote in an article about Gustav Freytag. After Schach von Wuthenow he began to write about contemporary Prussia, and produced his finest work. At a time when German writers generally shunned social and political subjects, his fiction was deeply engaged with and deeply critical of Prussian society.

Fontane once remarked that ‘women’s stories are generally far more interesting’: in L’Adultera (‘The Adulteress’, 1882), a woman married to a man twice her age falls in love with a young businessman and runs away with him. Her husband initially repudiates her, but then forgives her and wants to take her back, which only confirms her desire not to be with him. In Delusions, Confusions (Irrungen, Wirrungen), published in 1888, a young aristocrat is forced by his family to break off his love affair with a lower-class woman. Both marry other people and manage to carry on with their lives, but circumstances periodically force them to reconsider the decisions they have made.

Though Fassbinder made a film of it in 1974, Effi Breist is little read outside Germany. That is a pity and a puzzle, since it should appeal to an English-speaking public addicted to Jane Austen and Henry James, with both of whom Fontane has many broad similarities. At 17, Effi is married off to the civil servant Baron Geert von Innstetten, whom her mother once loved but rejected in order to marry Effi’s father, a man of higher rank. Effi is pleased with the match, if not wildly enthusiastic. But Innstetten is posted to the seaside town of Kessin in Eastern Pomerania, which Effi thinks of as ‘halfway to Siberia’, and she feels lonely and isolated. Her emotional state is not helped by the fact that at night she hears a strange whispering coming from the room above her bedroom, and when she asks her husband about it, he tells her that ‘ghosts are a mark of distinction’ – something an upper-class family can be proud of, like a coat of arms.

Innstetten is dependable and kind, but Effi soon enough realises that he is not a man of passion, though they do have a child. Soon a new district commandant comes to Kessin, with a reputation as a Casanova. The new man, Major Crampas, and Effi take to going out riding together, and soon drift into an affair. She is conscience-stricken, and is much relieved when her husband is transferred to Berlin. Six years pass, and then one day, while Effi is away at a spa, Innstetten finds a bundle of old love letters from Crampas. A friend confirms him in his belief that, despite the length of time that has passed since the affair, the social code allows him no choice but to challenge Crampas to a duel. Crampas dies, and Innstetten throws Effi out of the house and forbids her to have any contact with her daughter. She lives in miserable conditions for a few years and then dies of a fever, shortly after being taken back in by her parents.

It is not the simple, even commonplace plot that makes Effi Briest extraordinary, but the novel’s subtlety and allusiveness. Fontane once wrote that writing poetry depended on ‘the skilful use of suggestion [and] omission’ – the same can be said of Effi Briest. Effi’s affair is only hinted at, so the reader doesn’t know for sure what has happened until Innstetten discovers the letters. We watch her being charmed by Crampas on their rides together, and once, when they are alone in a carriage, he passionately kisses her hand. Just before her departure for Berlin, Effi writes her lover a goodbye letter and delivers it by hand to a mysterious cottage in the woods; but although we know the letter’s contents, we are not told to whom it is addressed. This indirection is not prudery on Fontane’s part: he had been roundly criticised several years earlier for a scene in Delusions, Confusions in which the heroine and her lover unembarrassedly spend the night together at an inn. Rather, Fontane’s obliqueness seems intended to create distance between the reader and Effi; we can see her but never reach her.

Effi is a remarkably drawn character. When we first see her at 17, her most striking attribute is her immaturity. Her firm ideas about Innstetten’s appropriateness as a husband reinforce the impression of superficiality. To a friend’s inquiry she responds: ‘Of course he’s the right one . . . Anybody is the right one. Provided he is an aristocrat and has a position and good looks, naturally.’ Later she tells her mother:

I’m for share and share alike, and naturally for love and affection too. And if it can’t be love and affection, for love, as Papa says, is just stuff and nonsense (which I don’t actually believe), well then I’m for wealth and a grand house, a very grand house . . . Love comes first, but right after it come brilliance and honour, and then come diversions – yes, diversions, always something new, always something to make me laugh or cry. The one thing I can’t stand is boredom.

But as Effi struggles to make a life for herself far from her childhood home, and to overcome her fear of the ghost in the house, and then to deal with her guilt, her character becomes more complex and more sympathetic. The night before she is to leave for Berlin, thinking back on her affair, she worries about the fact that she feels guilty only about having lied to her husband and to others, and not about the affair itself: ‘If all women are like this, then it’s terrible, and if they’re not, and I hope they aren’t, then things don’t look good for me, then there’s something wrong in my soul.’

Of course Effi has to develop into a more sympathetic character if the ending is to have any impact. But the force of the ending does not derive merely from the melodramatic plot. It comes, rather, from the sheer pointlessness of it all. Innstetten does not want to challenge Crampas to the duel, given how many years have elapsed since the end of the affair, but he is convinced that society requires it of him. ‘We’re not just individuals, we’re part of a larger whole,’ he tells the friend in whom he has confided, ‘and we must constantly have regard for that larger whole, we’re dependent on it, beyond a doubt.’ When Effi learns about Innstetten’s discovery, she reflects that her affair was not remotely worth the sacrifices it required: ‘Honour, honour, honour . . . and then he went and shot the poor fellow whom I didn’t even love and whom I’d forgotten because I didn’t love him. It was just stupidity, and now it’s blood and murder.’ When Effi’s parents take her back after they find out she is ill, it is a relief that they, at least, treat their daughter in the way they know is right, though they also know that society will ostracise them for it.

By the time Craig gets to the novels, in the last two chapters of his book, he seems to have run out of steam. And his thesis about the importance of Fontane’s sense of history is showing signs of strain. He makes a convincing enough argument for the inclusion of the ponderous Vor dem Sturm among Fontane’s best works (though he overdoes it a bit by saying that it is ‘the only German novel that could be mentioned in the same breath as the undeniably greater achievement of Tolstoy in War and Peace’). But then he concludes that Fontane was still ‘feeling his way’, that Vor dem Sturm and Schach von Wuthenow were essentially warm-up exercises for the novels of society, the ones which earn Fontane the distinction of being the ‘greatest German novelist before Thomas Mann’. Again this seems an overstatement – what about Goethe? – and it’s puzzling that Craig should devote so little space to books he holds in such high esteem.

Although Craig’s study is amply footnoted, it lacks a bibliography, and dates of original publication are rarely given and difficult to find. German words are frequently misspelled, and a number of quotations and German terms left untranslated. Craig might also have mentioned Fontane’s somewhat complicated attitude towards Jews. Not every book by or about a German needs to address the ‘Jewish question’, but it seems odd to quote references in Fontane’s letters to ‘the Jewish rascal’ or ‘the Jew Neumann’ and not to comment on them.