Theodor Fontane

One of the more noteworthy recent reissues in the wonderful New York Review Books Classics series is Theodor Fontane’s 1891 novel, Irretrievable. Fontane is considered by many of those familiar with his work as “clearly the greatest German novelist before Thomas Mann,” in the words of Gordon A. Craig, yet there are few of the truly major European writers of the nineteenth century–aside perhaps of Benito Pérez Galdós–who have suffered greater neglect among English-reading audiences.

Theodor FontaneIn part he suffers a common fate with other German novelists. His works, as much as those of his contemporaries such as Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Storm, have a tendency to pop up in English translations, usually from academic presses, and then vanish out of print just as quickly.

The loss is ours. German writers get a bum rap, a reputation for ponderousness than is only partly deserved–and wholly undeserved in Fontane’s case. “There is also in Fontane,” writes Phillip Lopate in his Afterword to Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich), “a Montaigne-like equipoise, a sunny melancholy, an investment in domestic family life that steadfastly avoids the demonic and apocalyptic….” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Fontane came to fiction very late: his first novel was published when he was sixty years old. Throughout his work, you find a sense of perspective, humor, and tolerance very few writers possess before middle age.

The other thing most English readers encountering Fontane’s work for the first time note is how modern his themes are. The problems of marriage–particularly from the wife’s perspective–are one of his most frequent topics, as are its most common responses: divorce, adultery, and simple unhappiness. Take, for example, Lopate’s setting on the story in Irretrievable:

Irretrievable is the story of a marriage that has worn thin. The partners have been together for some twenty-three years, are raising two teenage children, and for the most part have enjoyed a happy marriage. Still, they have reached a point where they no longer are
charmed but are irritated by the limitations each sees in the other.

His women are fully-drawn individuals capable of living outside their husbands’ shadows, and his men–like most of us still–are more often well-intentioned but clueless than autocratic and evil. In fact, Lopate suggests the lack of a radical sense of evil might be one of the reasons Fontane’s work has had a hard time winning popular and critical readers in English.

Fortunately, though, there’s never been a better time to discover Fontane in English. In large part this is thanks to Antony Wood, whose small press, Angel Classics has reissued four of his novels–including an alternate translation of Unwiederbringlich, No Way Back, translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.

In addition to No Way Back/Irretrievable, Fontane books currently available in English translation include On Tangled Paths, translated by by Peter James Bowman. The tale of a romance between a cavalry officer and a seamstress. The officer intends for the relationship to be something of a place-holder until a wealthier and more socially acceptable wife can be found, but then the situation gets more complicated when they end up falling in love.

This novel is also available in not one but two alternate translations: Trials and Tribulations, translated by Katharine Royce, from Mondial Books, and in a volume from Continuum’s fine “The German Library” series, Delusions, Confusions, paired with another novella, “The Poggenpuhl Family.” Finally, there is Cecile, translated by Stanley Radcliffe, also from Angel Classics–also a story of adultery–in this case, initiated by the woman.

However, at least as many other English translations of Fontane’s works have disappeared within a few years of appearing in print:

Effi Briest

This is easily Fontane’s best-known work, often compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for its depiction of adultery. Thomas Mann once wrote that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them. Although Angel Classics’ website shows their edition, also translated by Rorrison and Chambers, as being in print, Amazon shows that both theirs (issued as a Penguin Classic in the US in 2001) and the 1976 Douglas Parmee translation (also a Penguin Classic) as out of print.

Before the Storm, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

This was Fontane’s first major work, about the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on the Prussian gentry and peasants. It was issued as an Oxford World Classic in paperback in 1985, but used copies now go for $25 and up. It’s compared by some to War and Peace, but aside from sharing a historical period, the two books have little in common. Although both novels portray wars from the viewpoints of the people they crash over like tsunamis, there is very little drama and quite a lot of conversation in Fontane’s book. It does cause one to wonder, though, what Fontane might have produced if he’d tackled this subject when he was twenty or thirty years younger.

Under the Pear Tree

Although a minor work, Under the Pear Tree is the closest Fontane ever came to a novel of incident (if not action). Hradschek, a village innkeeper, murders a man who comes to collect a gambling debt … only to wind up dead himself soon after.

The Stechlin, translated by William Zwiebel

“At the end an old man dies and two young people get married—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages” was Fontane’s own summation of this book. The Stechlin was Fontane’s last major work. It’s been called, “probably the finest chronicle of the life style of the German upper classes in the late nineteenth century.” Camden House published William L. Zwiebel’s first-ever translation into English in 1995.

Douglas Parmée’s introductory essay to Irretrievable is now available on the NYRB webpage for the book, along with Lopate’s Afterword. The New Yorker also published a long essay, “Heroine Addict,” by Daniel Mendelsohn, in its 7 March 2011 issue.

4 thoughts on “Theodor Fontane

  1. I had a copy of Effi Briest on my bookshelf for over a decade, and your review prompted me to finally read it. It’s not at all dated; it struck me as fresh and original.
    What Fontane chooses to include and, more important, what he omits, is critical. We’re faced with enigmas, but they’re the kind that make you see life as an inexplicable and poignant mystery. Nobody is a villain, nobody is without flaws. No one is consistent. You can question every conclusion or justification any character makes.
    I don’t often accept wisdom from an author, but Fontane is an exception. The last two chapters are worth rereading for what they have to say about life.
    So thanks for the tip.

  2. I’d like to reprint this Fontane article in my monthly print mag, Black Lamb, which can be seen at Who is the author of this article?

  3. I am very grateful for this article. I read Effi Briest many years ago when I travelled in the then East German Baltic region as it was in a book list at the back of the Rough Guide. I have been searching for other translated novels and found this page.

  4. Does anyone know of an English translation of Wanderings in Brandenberg? I’ve been looking and don’t find anything.

Leave a Comment