Magazine article The Spectator

. . . or Sensing Impending Doom

Magazine article The Spectator

. . . or Sensing Impending Doom

Article excerpt

On Tangled Paths

by Theodor Fontane, translated from the German by Peter James Bowman

Angel Books, £9.95, pp. 192,

ISBN 9780946162772

No Way Back

by Theodor Fontane, translated from the German by Hugh Rorrison and helen Chambers

Angel Books, £11.75, pp. 256,

ISBN 9780946162765

'What am I? A completely ordinary person from the so-called higher reaches of society. And what can I do? I can train a horse, carve a capon, and play games of chance.'

So reflects Botho von Rienacke, the central character of Theodor Fontane's novel of 1888, Irrungen, Wirrungen (newly translated as On Tangled Paths). His bitter self-examination is a consequence of his predicament.

Like many a fellow officer, he has taken up with a working-class girl. He met her on a boating trip when he came to her rescue from an accident in the water. The grateful, unconstrained company of this pretty young female is a welcome contrast to all the calculated pairings-up in upper-class Berlin's marriage market. But, against his intentions, Botho has fallen deeply in love with Lene, and, to complicate matters, greatly admires her as well.

Such is the quality of Fontane's delicate art and constantly probing morality that by the time we reach his painful bout of introspection, halfway through the novel, we readers share the Baron's admiration. We have seen Lene's consistent (and sore-tried) unselfishness towards her foster mother and her prying neighbours. We have observed in her the sane coexistence of ardent feeling for her very likeable young man with an unflinching sense of reality. The latter makes her acknowledge the hard truth that claims of class with its firm codes, spoken and unspoken, cannot be lightly rejected, if indeed at all, in so relentlessly stratified a society as Prussia.

Botho in fact possesses both Lene's attributes himself, but in weaker, more malleable form. But maybe he is not so ordinary as he has thought. 'Each person is predisposed by nature towards certain things. And for me those things are simplicity, truth and naturalness. Lene has them all, that's been her fascination for me.' But is he unordinary enough to convert this fascination into the desideratum of deeper commitment?

Fontane (1819-1898) is generally agreed to be German language and culture' s most impressive contributor to the great European achievement that is the 19th-century novel, evolving through Scott, Balzac and Stendhal. Indissoluble from it is recognition of the continuous and usually unequal tension between the complexities of the individual and the complexities of society, together with the insistence that these are explored in terms of thoroughly understood habitat and period.

Fontane came to fiction late, when nearing 60, but after years of serious journalism and belles-lettres. A possible explanation for his sad neglect by the English-language world (Effi Briest, 1895, apart) is our uncertainty about where to position his work. An enthusiastic reader of Dickens and Thackeray, four years younger than Trollope, and a contemporary of George Eliot, he yet has more in common with those writers younger than he responding to the specific pressures of the 1880s and 1890s, notably Ibsen, Hardy and Zola. He treats sexual relationships frontally, his espousal of the progressive vies with his fear of unstoppable, unthinking progress.

Helen Chambers, in her perceptive afterword to No Way Back (1891), is surely right to cite as an influence Ibsen's Lady from the Sea (1888). …

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