Monday, July 14, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “BEFORE THE STORM” (“VOR DEM STURM”) by Theodor Fontane (first published in 1878; R.J.Hollingdale’s English translation first published in Oxford World Classics 1985)
Some time ago on this blog, I wrote of Theodore Fontane’s German masterpiece of conciseness and elliptical construction Effi Briest (look it up on the index at right). I noted that reading that masterpiece had led me to read the one other novel by Fontane (1819-1898) that is readily available in English, Before the Storm. Given that Before the Storm is an historical novel, set among the Prussian gentry over a few months in the winter of 1812-1813, and given that it concerns the German national uprising against Napoleon, I half-expected something like a German equivalent of War and Peace: an epic of the Napoleonic Wars as seen from a German perspective. Alas, I found Before the Storm to be no such thing. Instead, I found it to be a rambling, descriptive work, which took a long time to get nowhere, and I dismissed it as one of the most boring books I had ever read.
One day, I said, I would explain why I came to that conclusion.
So here I am doing so.
Let it be noted that for most of its length, Before the Storm has no “plot” as such. It is a series of sketches, vignettes, anecdotes and descriptions in which, presumably, Fontane is attempting to build up a panoramic portrait of Prussian society on the eve of its national revolt. For what it’s worth, the wisp of “plot” concerns the two young adult children of the widowed Prussian squire Berndt von Vitzewitz – Lewin and Renate. They seem, by love and mutual affection, destined to marry the two children of Privy Councillor von Ladalinski, a Pole who had become a Protestant and embraced Prussia as his homeland. But Kathinka Ladalinski, whom Lewin loves, eventually runs away with the Polish Count Jarosh Brinski, and re-embraces the Catholic faith. Lewin von Vitzewitz is heartbroken, but consoles himself by marrying Marie, a village girl, orphan daughter of a travelling showman. The novel seems to intend this to represent the rejuvenation of aristocratic blood by the blood of the people. Meanwhile Renate von Vitzewitz remains in love with Tubal Ladalinski, but Tubal dies heroically after being wounded in the national uprising, and Renate lives out the rest of her life as a sort of Protestant nun.
As I say, this “plot” is no more than the thread on which to hang various observations. For most of the novel, “nothing happens” in the sense of a story moving forward. Instead, we have a series of self-contained scenes and descriptions, often more in the form of separable essays than of narrative. Such scenes are mainly set either on the von Vitzewitzes’ East Prussian estate Hohen-Vietz, near the River Oder, or in Berlin. Thus, to illuminate various sides of Prussian life we are introduced to:
* A “Hernhutter” Protestant “Aunt” Schorlemmer, who rages against the slackness of the official Lutheran church.
* A grotesque dwarf-woman Hoppenmarieken, receiver of stolen goods and spy, who redeems herself in the last few pages by helping to rescue Lewin from a French prison. I assume she is intended to illustrate the nationalist worth of even the lowliest Prussian.
* The estate’s antiquarian clergyman Seidentopf, who is more interested in archaeology and various racial theories about the origins of Prussians than he is in preaching.
* There is also the complete Francophile Countess Amalie, Berndt von Vitzewitz’s sister, who adores French culture at the expense of German culture. That she dies in the last pages, around the time of the nationalist revolt, may be intended as some sort of symbol of the end of that sort of French-dominated “Enlightenment” ethos, and the birth of a new unified German spirit.
There are a host of other minor characters, but the only one who lodges in my mind is the rough-and-ready old “General” Bamme who takes over a local command in the final section. Fontane does, however, in “long shot” as it were, introduce some real historical personages. For example, in Berlin, Lewin attends a lecture by the German nationalist philosopher Fichte, and poets of the period are quoted at length.
Prussia in 1812 was still officially allied with Napoleon. Many soldiers and patriots were unhappy with this. Many Prussians fought for the French in the Grande Armee, but some had taken service with the Russians against the French. As the novel trundles along, there is much discussion and much agonizing about whether people should join a revolt against the French (who are at this stage straggling back from their catastrophic defeat in Russia). But, being good Prussians, nobody does anything until the King of Prussia issues a proclamation saying they can. In a 680-page novel (in the Oxford World Classics edition I read), the revolt itself takes up at most 60 pages near the end, and for some reason Fontane decides to focus on an entirely fictitious event – the attack by Prussian militia and volunteers upon a French garrison in the East Prussian town of Frankfurt. (Germany has more than one Frankfurt, remember.) It has been claimed that Fontane’s real theme is not the patriotic Prussian uprising against the French, but the repercussions of Prussia’s initial defeat by the French in 1806. It has further been claimed that his central idea is the tension between patriotism and duty to authority.
Even if this is so, however, it does not compensate for the novel’s lack of real dramatisation.
It is hard to believe that this novel, Fontane’s first, was written by the same man who, 16 years later, was to write Effi Briest (his 14th novel). If he was later to become a master of compression and understated irony, he is here still the journalist and regional historian, striving to cram all his research into his novel. I detect a distant echo of the type of thing Sir Walter Scott was attempting to do, especially in his earlier Waverley novels, half a century before Fontane – an attempt to give a portrait of a whole society at an historical moment, introducing some factual characters and some historical events. Unfortunately, Before the Storm is almost as stylistically stiff and theatrical as Sir Walter Scott is. This is not the German War and Peace (history dramatised). It is the German The Antiquary (history annotated).
There are long and verbose discussions, not only of the proposed military action, but also of German poetry and Prussian law and the archaeological origins of Prussia. Numerous folk-tales are introduced, which seem to be the fruit of Fontane’s having recently written travel books about Brandenburg. Too often, rather than dramatising events, Fontane has people reporting them in conversation, telling rather than showing. The upheavals of the Napoleonic wars are conveyed by what characters say about them. Thus we hear older soldiers (some of whom fought for the French and some for the allies) discussing the Peninsular War in Spain. The Battle of Borodino and later the French retreat from Russia are talked about only. But so (in a letter) is a fire on the Hohen-Veitz estate and much of the skirmishing as Cossacks chase the French across parts of Brandenburg – events that would have impinged directly on the novel’s main characters. I was strongly reminded of a very boring old Hollywood film (Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of The Buccaneer), which chitter-chatters at length about conflict, but then after the long build-up disposes of its (supposedly) climactic battle in a handful of long shots. Fontane’s deliberate ellipses and evasion of some key action in Effi Briest are the work of a master ironist. In Before the Storm they seem the work of an incompetent and lead to bathetic anti-climax.
Such few pleasures as this novel affords, then, are the pleasures of the history textbook or antiquarian document, not of the novel.
Be it noted that with 200 years of hindsight, there is something disturbing about the novel’s Prussian-Germanic patriotism. Fontane himself (a Prussian with French Protestant forebears) is an urbane and civilised European gentleman. He shows – honestly enough, I suppose – that Prussian opinion in 1812-13 ran the whole gamut from loyal servants and admirers of the French to ardent Teutonists. He sometimes says admiring words about French soldiership and paints an amiable portrait of Lewin’s Gascon gaoler late in the novel. There is a tender scene (at Countess Amalie’s) in which it is admitted that Corneille is as stirring as German romantic poetry.
Even so, implicit in the whole structure of the novel is the idea of all levels of society (from king to dwarfish receiver of stolen goods) joining in a “holy” national crusade. Much of it sounds perilously like later Blut-und-Boden fantasies – the mystical union of Germans to German soil, and the type of racial “national community” that Adolf craved. As a research scientist, one of my sons once ran a Max Planck laboratory in Leipzig, not too far from the great German national monument commemorating the “Battle of the Nations” victory over Napoleon. Occasionally, he said, small groups of extreme right-wing German nationalists, rightly regarded with contempt by most modern Germans, would still demonstrate there – neo-Nazis, skinheads etc. Of course it is not Fontane’s fault, and his novel has to be read in its historical context, but the ideology of Before the Storm does lead directly to such scenes.
Some interesting sidelights of the novel:
As “allies”, the Russians are treated in a friendly enough fashion by Fontane, although there is much muttering about how “unreliable” they are when joint operations are planned.
The official Lutheran church is not satirised by Fontane, but is presented as the Anglican Church often was in contemporaneous English novels – that is, as a comfy institution, which few people take too seriously, its pastors being mainly careerists. Therefore, in Before the Storm, strong Protestant opinion is represented by “Herrnhutters”, Calvinists and various evangelicals, most of whom really do satirise official Lutheranism.
Particularly disturbing and distasteful is the novel’s attitude towards the Poles. We are quite a few miles away from later “biological” German racism, which saw Poles and other Slavs as inherently “inferior”. The Ladalinskis are clearly worthy enough to marry Prussian gentry and serve the Prussian government; but Kathinka’s return to the Catholic Church and to Polish patriotism is treated with scorn late in the novel. I detect here something akin to the English Establishment’s attitude towards the Irish – they are acceptable so long as they are a subject people and adopt our ways. Paddy is a fine fellow when he is willing to serve in the British Army; but he is a nuisance who deserves to be ridiculed when he starts talking about independence.  Likewise, according to this novel, Poles are fine people who are civilised only so long as they adopt Prussian ways and serve Prussia.
One final thought: how aware was Fontane himself of how pusillanimous the Prussian patriotic uprising at last seems in this novel? No matter how much it is dollied up in chatter, in the end all we see is the kicking of a demoralised French army that had already been defeated in Russia anyway.
I have just spent far too long trashing a novel, which you were probably never going to read in the first place. Apart from detecting future sinister trends in German nationalism – for which Fontane was not responsible – why have I raged on at such length? Because I know that, later, the author was capable of much, much better.
The key to my appreciation of Before the Storm is therefore intense disappointment.


  1. I read this a few years ago, also having read and enjoyed Effi Briest. Like you, I found it a bit dull. Yet it's stuck obstinately in my memory, partly because the ideological construction of the thing is so precise (whatever one's reservations about the attitudes being expressed). But also, after the long, slow, leisurely buildup, I found the violent climax really quite shocking! The scene of Lewin in prison, awaiting what he assumes will be his execution, came across with real intensity; Fontane conveys admirably just how much you want to be alive when you are young! And Tubal's fatal wounding trying to save the dog is a haunting touch of irony. Another masterstroke of irony is the fact that the secularised, rationalist aunt dies because of superstitious fear - not only does Fontane dramatise, as you suggest, the collapse of French-influenced Enlightenment culture in the face of Prussian Calvinist piety, but he also implies that the Enlightenment didn't really believe in its own values.

    Oddly, I think about this book far more often than many books I enjoyed reading more!

    By the way, one correction - this is certainly not the only other Fontane novel readily available in English. No Way Back, On Tangled Paths and Two Novellas (The Poggenpuhls Family and The Women Taken in Adultery) are all in print in Penguin; I have read the first two, and both are much closer in spirit and standard to Effi Briest; the former, in particular, is close to being a masterpiece. Cecile and The Stechlin are in print from other publishers. One or two others can still be found second-hand. Fontane is far from a one-book wonder, even in translation. He was a major writer.

    1. I stand rebuked. Thank you for your informed comment here. Perhaps I should have said that they are the only two English-language translations of Fontane that it it EASY to find.