An old man dies and two young people get married,—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages. Of complications and solutions, of conflicts of the heart and conflicts in general, of excitement and surprises there is virtually nothing. . . . Naturally I don’t claim that this is the best way of writing a contemporary novel but it is the one that is called for.
Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about. In “Cécile,” an 1887 novel about a good woman trying in vain to bury a bad past, a group of tourists in the Harz mountains are taken around a medieval castle; unnerved by a visitor’s embarrassment that there’s not much to look at, the tour guide “rapidly resumed his lecture in the hope of compensating by narrative skill for the lack of visible items of interest.”
Compensating by narrative skill for the lack of visible interest is an excellent way to sum up both the strangeness and the beauty of Fontane’s fiction. The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin—the revelation of Cécile’s sexually compromised early life arrives agonizingly late in the novel, and the dénouement, as often in Fontane, is swift, efficient, and a little surprising. In “Jenny Treibel” (1892), a wry social comedy with darker political overtones, a young woman makes a play for the son of the self-absorbed title character, one of the nouveaux-riches bourgeois—a class much loathed by Fontane—who dominated German society after Bismarck unified the nation. After the girl has done a good deal of scheming, her plan simply fizzles out. (Fontane loves to create plots in which the characters’ own plots never quite work; for all the Poggenpuhls’ agonized machinations, what saves them in the end is a fortuitous event.)
And in the 1895 novel “Effi Briest,” considered by many to be Fontane’s masterpiece, the suffocating dreariness of the young heroine’s provincial existence is brilliantly conveyed precisely because the author isn’t afraid to be dreary himself; by the time you’ve got through a few dozen pages in the Baltic town of Kessin, accompanied by Effi’s excruciatingly correct, “frosty as a snowman” husband, you’ll feel like breaking down in tears, too. Fontane’s taste for withholding action, or at least delaying it improbably, is evident in the novel’s most famous feature, a structural gambit of daring subtlety: the frustrated heroine’s brief affair with a womanizing officer is never actually described—and is only discovered many years later, when Effi and her husband have settled comfortably into their marriage. (His pursuit of revenge is thus rendered all the more appalling—an effective vehicle for condemning ludicrous codes of masculine “honor.”)
When “excitement and surprises” do occur in a Fontane novel, it’s usually when the book is nearly over. The death, or suicide, or marriage, or resignation in the face of overwhelming social or familial pressure is a culminating little bump in the otherwise long, smooth, and highly scenic road. (He features more suicides than any other German writer of his century; even these are characteristically quiet.)
At first glance, it’s hard to reconcile the sparseness of Fontane’s plots, the way he prefers to linger over what he calls “the circumstantial,” with the extravagant emotions his work has provoked in so many critics and writers over the years. (Thomas Mann: “No writer of the past or the present awakens in me the sympathy and gratitude, the unconditional and instinctive delight, the immediate amusement and warmth and satisfaction that I feel in every verse, in every line of one of his letters, in every snatch of his dialogue.”) The key lies in his understated narrative style, in his paradoxically powerful “discretion,” as some critics have called it: a gift for obliquity, for knowing what to leave out, and above all for letting the reader “overhear” the speech of his characters, rather than paraphrasing it for us—the last being a particularly effective alternative to the psychologizing observations of an omniscient narrator. It is this skill at delineating character through dialogue—one early scholar of Fontane’s work calls a scene in “Effi Briest” “the greatest conversation scene in the German novel”—which creates the sense of intimacy that his novels have, the sense that you’re in there with his characters: the attractive but somehow desperate wives, yearning for recognition in a society dominated by masculine and military codes; the minor nobles, hardworking seamstresses, and disdained intellectuals trying to keep their dignity in a world destabilized by the materialism and the militarism of Bismarck’s Second Reich.
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