Fontane and the Programmatic Realists: Contrasting Theories of the Novel

By Bowman, Peter James | The Modern Language Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Fontane and the Programmatic Realists: Contrasting Theories of the Novel


Bowman, Peter James, The Modern Language Review


Fontane's theory of the novel is more sophisticated and owes less to the ideas of the Programmatic Realists Julian Schmidt and Otto Ludwig than is generally thought. He rejects tendentiousness, undifferentiated speech, and schematic characterization, believing the novel should show a 'representation of interests' embodied in characters who blend individual and generic traits. And while Schmidt and Ludwig advocate transfiguration of subject-matter as a way of avoiding 'ugliness' and yielding morally prescriptive 'middle-class' fiction, for Fontane it is a way of shaping the social and cultural heterogeneity of reality, ugly and beautiful, without subordinating it to a single world-view.

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In late 1876 the publisher Wilhelm Hertz sent Fontane a copy of Heinrich Keiter's Versuch einer Theorie des Romans und der Erzahlkunst, which had appeared earlier that year, thinking he might like to review it. Fontane was not impressed:

Anbei erlaube ich mir, um 14 Tage verspatet, die 'Theorie des Romans' zuruckzusenden; der Herr Verf: erscheint mir zu klug, um nicht uberflussig zu sein. Was sollen solche Bucher? Walter Scotts oder Balzacs oder Daudets Ansichten uber die Kunst des Erzahlens wurden mich interessiren; die von Heinrich Keiter sind gleichgultig.

Three years later Hertz sent him another newly published book, Deutsche Poetik by Werner Hahn, and got a similar response. (1) The main reason for Fontane's frequently expressed irritation with professional interpreters of literature is their tendency to see creative works in terms of rules, categories, and patterns--'Dies Gesetz-Suchen und tiefe Notwendigkeiten-entdecken', as he calls it. (2) Related to this failing is their liking for unwieldy exegetical equipment, for example Otto Brahm in his monograph on Gottfried Keller, in which, according to Fontane, a systematic approach yields a lengthy analysis of everything except what is really important about Keller's fiction. (3) The conclusion Fontane draws from years of frustration with literary scholars is drastic: 'Das Urtheil eines feinfuhlenden Laien ist immer werthvoll, das Urtheil eines geschulten Aesthetikers absolut werthlos.'(4)

Fontane's own writings on novels and novelists are certainly free of the tendencies he criticizes, but he can seem to throw the baby of intellectual rigour out with the bathwater of methodological rigidity: he is notoriously inconsistent in his use of genre terms such as Roman and Novelle, (5) and dismisses the taxonomy of literary schools as a 'streitsuchende[r] Krimskrams von Klassizitat und Romantik, von Idealismus und Realismus'(6). This cavalier approach has detracted from his standing as a thinker about his own craft, and Heinz Eugen Greter, Hartmut Steinecke, and Claudia Liebrand have all echoed Thomas Mann's judgement that his theory falls far below the standard of his practice, while negative judgements of the quality of his critical writings have also been made by Sven-Aage Jorgensen, Walter Glogauer, Klaus R. Scherpe, and Walther Killy. (7) To be sure, Fontane's vast body of criticism contains feeble passages and lapses of judgement. It also appears rather desultory, partly in consequence of the many different forms it takes: essays, reviews, letters, diary entries, autobiographical works, private notes. And yet he is, I believe, a more sophisticated and consistent thinker than he seems. What follows falls into two parts: in the first I seek to demonstrate that something approaching a coherent theory of the novel can be distilled from Fontane's critical writings; and in the second I compare his ideas on this topic with the principles of the so-called Programmatic Realists to show that he owes far less to them than is usually supposed. (8)

In 1853 Fontane published 'Unsere lyrische und epische Poesie seit 1848', a survey of recent offerings by German writers. It is the most ambitious disquisition on literature he ever produced, though, like the rest of his criticism, it is often held in low regard.

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