Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
THEODOR FONTANE, though ranking as one of the greatest of German novelists, was by race entirely of French Huguenot stock. He was born at Neu-Ruppin, near Berlin, on December 30, 1819. His father, the son of a Gascon drawing-master at the court of Prussia, was an apothecary; but his happy-go-lucky disposition and his passion for gambling hindered his success in business. The mother was able and practical, but was unable to keep up the family fortunes, and the marriage was finally dissolved.
After a somewhat irregular education, Theodor was apprenticed to an apothecary in Berlin when he was sixteen, and after four years of preparation he found himself qualified to practice a profession in which he had no interest. Before he was twenty he had published verses and a story, and he spent his leisure in literary clubs. In 1850 he received a position in the press department of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, on the strength of which he married. Two years later he was sent to London to write reports on conditions in England for government journals, and this was only the first of a series of visits to Britain. He acted as war correspondent in the campaigns of 1864, 1866, and 1870, being taken prisoner by the French when visiting the home of Joan of Arc. His interest in the picturesque history of Scotland seems to have led him to the study of the past of his own region, the Mark of Brandenburg, his thorough knowledge of which appears both in his descriptive works and in his fiction. The greater part of his life was spent in Berlin, where he died on September 20, 1898, honored as one of the leading men of letters of his time.
Fontanes earlier literary efforts were mainly in verse, the best of which is ballad poetry, largely of Scottish inspiration. His middle period was chiefly devoted to descriptions of travel. It was not till he was nearly sixty that he really found himself and turned to the writing of the novels on which his fame chiefly depends. He began in 1878 with Before the Storm, a long romance after the manner of Sir Walter Scott, and for the next twenty years he drew on his accumulated knowledge of life and produced with great fertility. His most successful field was the Berlin life with which fifty years in the Prussian capital had made him intimately familiar, and his chief works are LAdultera (1882), Petöfi (1884), Cécile (1887), Stine (1890), Frau Jenny Treibel (1892), The Poggenpuhls (1896), and, in the year of his death, Stechlin.
The interest of these novels lies rather in character than in action. While he portrays many types characteristic of Berlin and the surrounding region, and is very successful in rendering local color and the atmosphere of the particular circle described in each book, his penetration into universal human nature is sufficiently deep to raise him far above provincialism. His effort is to represent people vividly and naturally in their normal relations, not to strain after sensational or even dramatic situations, though two of his shorter tales, Grete Minde and Ellern-klipp, dealing as they do with crimes, are to some extent exceptions to this rule. Trials and Tribulations (Irrungen Wirrungen, 1887) gives an excellent idea of his power. In a gently moving story, told without the forcing of emotion or the contriving of exciting scenes, he deals with the pathos of the relation between a man and a woman, alike in an attractive simplicity of character, but forced apart by difference of rank. The situation is laid before us without expressed censure or protest, and is allowed to have its effect by the sober truth of its presentation. Fontanes is an honest and sincere art, none the less great because unpretentious.