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’).

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