Author: Horvath, Brooke
Date published: October 1, 2011
Theodor Fontane. On Tangled Paths: An Everyday Berlin Story. Trans. and afterword Peter James Bowman. Angel Books, 2010. 192 pp. Cloth: $21.95.
_____ . No Way Back. Trans. Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers. Angel Books, 2010. 256 pp. Cloth: $24.95.
Theodore Fontane, the most important German novelist of the years between Goethe and Mann, has enjoyed nowhere near their popularity here in America despite a string of translations beginning in 1964 (On Tangled Paths- Irrungen, Wirrungen- is the exception, the first of its five translations into English having appeared in 1917). Set in the mid- 187Os and first published in 1888, On Tangled Paths possesses a familiar plot (as Fontane was well aware): Lene, a comely young seamstress, falls in love with Baron Botho von Rienäcker, a dashing Prussian lieutenant met by accident during a boating mishap. He returns her love, but his sorry finances may force him to marry his cousin Käthe von Sellenthin, a lovely airhead who happens to be loaded. Will love or money prevail? Well, Fontane writes social realism, so the answer should be obvious. (Not that there aren't surprises: Lene and Botho spend a weekend together, sharing a room at an inn, and neither suffers socially for this escapade.) However, plot is not intended to be the principal attraction here; indeed, Fontane once observed that nothing much ever happened in his novels. As much a psychological as a social realist, the author is interested in the emotional conflicts that arise between individual desire and social conditioning, class expectations and personality - which, as Peter James Bowman observes in his helpful afterword, Fontane limns with a mixture of detached "urbanity, gentle irony, and humanity" that the translation successfully captures.
When Fontane's characters stray too far down tangled paths, they sometimes discover they've reached a point of no return. This is certainly true for Count Hoik and his wife Christine in the 1891 novel No Way Back (Unwiederbringlich). Set in Denmark and the German state of Schleswig-Holstein in the late 185Os, the novel follows the affairs of the Count, an easygoing courtier to a Danish princess. Of his character, his pious and exceedingly solemn wife accurately remarks, "he would be the ideal husband, if only he had some ideals." For his part, Hoik has put up with Christine's self-righteousness and relentless reprobation for seventeen years before an extended stay in Copenhagen and acquaintance with the freethinking Fraulein Ebba von Rosenberg push his marital dissatisfactions to a crisis, causing him at one point to explain to Christine her deficiencies: "Of light and sun you have nothing. You lack everything feminine, you are harsh and sullen . . ." Call it a clash between romantic and Moravian sensibilities, or the behavior of a middle-aged man suddenly confronted by what might yet be; the protracted consequences of Hoik's flirtation with remaking himself are both tragic and pathetic, although I shan't spoil what is again in many ways a familiar story. What eventuates is, as an early review in the Kölnische Zeitung put it, "bitter disaster emerging] from pardonable error," from the "weaknesses and mistakes that everyone is prone to." Again, what interests here is the narrative voice, the deft evocation of period manners, and the probing of perennial concerns: marriage and midlife crisis, the unignorable seductiveness of selfdestructive impulses, the can't-get-enough fascination of chroniques scan-daleuses, the complications of masculinity when its virtues find no outlet. It may be true, Fontane suggests, that "no good can come of lax principles," but it may also be true that "those who have mastered the art of taking things lightly, they are alive." Many readers should be able to sympathize with the "fickle and indecisive" Hoik, the well-intentioned but fundamentally lost Christine, both of whom flounder between these competing ways of living. [Brooke Horvath]