What I’m Reading: Theodor Fontane – Irrungen, Wirrungen

Theodor Fontane is generally considered to be the pinnacle of the realist novel in Germany, something like the German equivalent of Balzac and Dickens. There is one marked difference between his novels and that of his French and English counterparts, though – Fontane’s novels lack any trace of the sensational novel and of melodrama that run so strongly through the work of the other two. There never is much in the way of plot, and even if characters die through suicide or in duels, there is never really any sense of drama to it – even tragic events appear business as usual, pieces of miscellaneous news on the last page of the morning paper whose perusal hardly raises an eyebrow. Depending on the reader’s bias, the resulting novels have been called true to life, poetic, or plain boring, but for the most part, Fontane is considered on of the most important German language writers of the late 19th century.

Irrungen, Wirrungen fits quite well into this (the common English translation of this title as “Trials and Tribulations” is quite far off the mark, by the way, “Delusions, Confusions” is much closer to the German original, while “Entanglements” follows the spirit even as it strays from the letter). The novel, one of Fontane’s earlier ones, does not have an antagonist, does not even really have any conflict – it is about a pair of lovers separated by class, petit bourgeois Lene and aristocratic Botho who spend some time together but then go on to marry someone more appropriate to their social status. In the end, everyone just agrees to do the reasonable thing, and while they might bear some regrets both of the novel’s protagonists see societal conventions as something that cannot be circumvented or rebelled against but only submitted to. Even the reader is left behind wondering if this outcome isn’t the best for everyone concerned after all.

I used to intensely dislike Fontane; after struggling through two of his novels (struggling to stay awake, mostly), I filed him under “terminally boring” and gave up on him. It was somewhat to my surprise, then, that I not only felt the sudden urge to re-read something by Fontane but also found myself actually enjoying it – I suppose this is an indication that I’m getting old.

The plot of Irrungen, Wirrungen, such as it is, is almost reminiscent of Henry James, with class barriers playing the part of the gap between the Old and the New World, but the authorial temperaments of Fontane and James could hardly be more different. Where James constructs a hyper-subtle, extremely close third person point of view, Fontane’s narrator is omniscient and his tone genial and conversational – the German word “gemütlich” nails it quite precisely, evoking some kindly old grandfather figure sitting by the fireplace wrapped in a blanket and with his feet up telling stories from his life and times. But as it turns out, that congeniality is not really to be trusted – it masks just how relentless and without hope of escape a grip social conventions have on the novel’s protagonists. As one of the novel’s minor figures,  Frau Dörr, puts it (in an entirely different context but the image seems clearly intended as an emblem for Prussian society in the late 19th century), “It’s a swamp that just pretends to be a meadow.”


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