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Authors: Theodor Fontane


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THEODOR FONTANE (1819–1898), novelist, critic, poet, and travel writer, was one of the most celebrated nineteenth-century German men of letters. He was born into a French Huguenot family in the Prussian town of Neuruppin, where his father owned a small pharmacy. His father's gambling debts forced the family to move repeatedly, and eventually his temperamentally mismatched parents separated. Though Fontane showed early interest in history and literature—jotting down stories into school notebooks—he could not afford to attend university; instead he apprenticed as a pharmacist and eventually settled in Berlin. There he joined the influential literary society
Tunnel über der Spree
, which included among its members Theodor Storm and Gottfried Keller, and turned to writing. In 1850 Fontane's first published books, two volumes of ballads, appeared; they would prove to be his most successful books during his lifetime. He spent the next four decades working as a critic, journalist, and war correspondent while producing some fifty works of history, travel narrative, and fiction. His early novels, the first of which was published in 1878, when Fontane was nearly sixty, concerned recent historical events. It was not until the late 1880s that he turned to his great novels of modern society, remarkable for their psychological insight:
Trials and Tribulations
Jenny Treibel
(1892), and
Effi Briest
(1895). During his last years, Fontane returned to writing poetry, and, while recovering from a severe illness, wrote an autobiographical novel that would prove to be a late commercial success. He is buried in the French section of the Friedhof II cemetery in Berlin.

DOUGLAS PARMÉE (1914–2008) was a lecturer in modern languages at Cambridge and a Lifetime Fellow of Queens' College. He translated many works of classic and contemporary literature from French, Italian, and German, receiving the the Scott Moncrieff Prize for French translation in 1976. NYRB Classics publishes his translations of
The Child
by Jules Vallès,
by Guy de Maupassant, and
Nature Stories
by Jules Renard.

PHILLIP LOPATE is the author of the essay collections
Against Joie de Vivre
Being with Children
Portrait of My Body
, and
Totally, Tenderly, Tragically
; and of the novels
The Rug Merchant
Confessions of a Summer



Translated from the German and with an introduction by



New York


It is paradoxical
that the German novelist with the greatest claim to a European reputation, excepting perhaps Goethe, was, through both parents, of French origin, as was his wife. At the same time, no novelist was ever more solidly anchored in his homeland than Fontane; yet, although his series of “Journeys through the Mark of Brandenburg” offers a charmingly discursive tribute to its historical interest and scenic beauty, Fontane was no rustic provincial bound narrowly to his native heath. Most of his life was spent in Berlin, the bustling capital of the new Reich created by Bismarck, and some of his best novels are accurate studies of specifically Berlin milieux, ranging from the lower-middle class of a Lene (in
Irrungen Wirrungen
) to the Prussian nobility. Indeed, Fontane saw it as one of the most important tasks of the novelist to examine the individual in society.
Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable)
is particularly interesting as being a novel in which the interest centres perhaps more on individuals than on society, even though, as in many of Fontane's novels, it is plain that these individuals have qualities which give them value as types, human or social, while retaining specifically personal qualities.

Theodor Fontane was born in Neuruppin near Berlin in 1819 and after private schooling finished his studies at a Berlin technical school where he learnt his father's trade of apothecary and for some years exercised it in various parts of Germany, including Leipzig and Dresden as well as Berlin. However, he early started frequenting literary circles and in 1844 he became a member of the well-known Berlin literary club
The Tunnel over the Spree
, where he read his first literary productions, which were ballads.

In 1849 he gave up dispensing and took to journalism, an excellent school of worldly experience and unsentimental tolerance for any novelist. In 1850 he married and lived, for a time, rather miserably, from his pen. After short earlier visits to England he was from 1855 to 1859 a foreign correspondent in London; among the fruits of these stays were his travel books
Ein Sommer in London
(1854) and
Aus England
(1860). He also spent some time in Scotland, on which he wrote a further travel book; and Scottish ballads had already attracted his attention, as well as the works of Walter Scott. In 1860 he at last obtained regular employment on the staff of the conservative
, which gave him leisure to pursue his own literary activity. In 1864, 1866, and 1870 he wrote books on the three wars waged by Prussia against Denmark, Austria, and France respectively. The step to the historical novel was a short one and in 1878 there appeared
Vor dem Sturm
, set in Germany at the end of the Napoleonic domination. From now onwards Fontane's life is the story of his works, especially as in 1870 he at last found congenial appointment as dramatic critic to a Liberal newspaper
Die Vossische Zeitung
, which provided at least a reasonable income for himself and his family. After a further historical novel he moved over to the contemporary scene in
(1880)—the theme of adultery or of extra-marital love was a constant in most of his works, nor indeed was there a better theme to combine Fontane's chief concern: the study of individuals as free moral beings in relation to society, a conflict in which, even although the conventions of society usually triumph, the defeated individual gains a greater sympathy. In 1887, when Fontane was already sixty-six, appeared his first masterpiece,
Irrungen Wirrungen
, the story of an affair between a young lower-middle-class Berlin girl and a rich young officer; a potential tragedy which Fontane resolves with gentle understanding and typical lack of sentimentality when the two protagonists go their own ways, to appropriate and not unhappy marriages within their respective classes. Later novels included in 1891,
, the subject of the present translation; then in 1892,
Frau Jenny Treibel
, where with an increasingly accurate depiction of milieu Fontane studies the attempts of a schoolmaster's daughter to marry into the new wealthy industrial class and her final realization that marriage within her own sphere is, if not better, at least an acceptable
pis aller
. In 1894 came
Effi Briest
, an ironical study of the conventions which demand that a wronged husband must seek “satisfaction” even when the adultery took place many years ago and this satisfaction will lead to the destruction of a not unhappy marriage as well as to divulging an affair that could easily have remained secret. Fontane's last great novel
Der Stechlin
was published in 1898, the year of his death at the age of seventy-eight.

Fontane may be described, roughly, as a realist. At an elementary level, this means that he took great pains to ensure factual accuracy in details, especially of milieu. In
, for example, Fredericksborg was a Renaissance castle actually destroyed by fire in 1859, the Hermitage park existed and so did Vincent's Restaurant in Kongens Nytor in Copenhagen; Wortsaae and Thomsen were real antiquarians and Melby and Marstrand well-known Danish painters; Tersling, Bülow, du Plat, General Schleppegrell, and others were real soldiers; there was a famous Dutch doctor called Boerhave (p.
); Fritz Reuter and Klaus Groth were contemporary poets and Lucile Grahn a well-known ballerina; the communities and schools of Gnadenfrel, Gnadenberg, and Bunzlau existed; and so on.

All this lends a great air of verisimilitude, but as Fontane himself wrote: “It is not the purpose of the novel to describe things which happen or at least can happen every day; the modern novel's purpose seems to me to depict a life, a society, a
which is the undistorted image of the life we lead.” Thus the novelist's work overflows into life and we must have the feeling, when reading, that we are continuing our real life; at the same time, the life imagined by the novel must have “the intensity, clarity, lucid arrangement, roundness and resulting heightened intensity of feeling achieved by the transfiguration which is the task of art.” Realism is not mere accumulation of naturalistic details but the careful composition of a story by which the heightening of effect can give a more general validity to normality.

Thus, one of Fontane's most striking devices to achieve apparent objectivity—the lack of intrusion of an omniscient author—conceals deeper purposes. Again in Fontane's own words: “the author's intrusion is almost always wrong and at least superfluous. But it is difficult to ascertain where such intrusion begins, for the author must, as such, do and say a lot … ;but he must only refrain from judging, preaching, being clever and wise.” Hence, in
, the wide use of dialogue, conversation, and letters; we learn about Holk and Christine and Ebba largely through their speech and actions or through the speech and actions of others, and although motives are sometimes not untransparent, there remains an uncertainty, an ambiguity, a mystery about the core of their being—if core there be; for this, too, is left undetermined—which gives them the living and fascinating quality of real human beings. It is hardly necessary to point out the great opportunities of delicate irony offered by this method of allowing characters to reveal and indeed betray, if not to condemn, themselves out of their own mouth. If any analysis occurs, it is often sincere and splendidly muddled self-analysis that, even in moments of tension, is not without its humorous side. Fontane himself writes of the need to show things in a humorous light or at least to give them an interesting grotesque shape; again, examples are not lacking in

Fontane is well aware how little people frequently know about themselves and about others; and by letting his characters thus think and act for themselves, he is able to unfold his story in such a way that it takes place before our eyes. Thus he ensures that, as in life, the fate that overtakes his characters is never inexorable, at least not until it has taken place. At the end we may look back and see how everything, including chance, has had its role to play in any character's lot, but while reading, we are left guessing, from one event to the next, how the apparently casual adventure will develop.
Ars est celare artem
, and the great art of Fontane is always to leave scope for interpretation and imagination.

Similarly, when a fate is finally decided, there is no question of its being a last judgement. Fontane is too wise, tolerant, and, above all, too skilful an artist to condemn. His purpose is not to embody a message but to tell a story. If he has any message, it is that all messages are contradictory and thus it is false to think that anything or anybody can be wholly right or wholly wrong. Indeed, in
, it might well seem that the only thing that is plainly and whole-heartedly disgraceful is just the lack of a sense of humour which prevents self-awareness, an ironical view of oneself, although even here one or two of the minor characters, e.g. Schwarzkopf, pompous though he is, seem exceptions to such a rule. Ultimately, we can only feel that Fontane has achieved his object of creating a work of art that retains the exasperating yet fascinating ambiguities of life.

BOOK: Irretrievable
6.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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