Study Guide

German Long Fiction from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to World War I

German Long Fiction from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to World War I Summary

Introduction (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

According to the historian Arnold Toynbee, historical periods and entire civilizations may be likened to lights that shine brightly for a time and then grow dim. German literature in the nineteenth century was such a light. The literary luminescence of German classicism and Romanticism and the dynamic, internationally oriented activism of the Young Germans were followed by decades of darkness, a period in which German writers seem to have lost international attention and recognition. Even a well-read person will draw a blank when asked to name German writers between Heine, who died in 1856, and Gerhart Hauptmann, whose first play was performed in 1889, or Thomas Mann, whose early novellas appeared in the 1890’s. From the 1840’s to the late 1880’s, German literature was out of step with the rest of European literature. Where is the German Honoré de Balzac or Stendhal? The German Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray? The German Fyodor Dostoevski or Leo Tolstoy? The German Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville? Yet any history of German literature lists Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Eduard Mörike, Franz Grillparzer, Adalbert Stifter, Friedrich Hebbel, Jeremias Gotthelf, Gottfried Keller, Theodor Storm, and other major writers of prose, poetry, and plays who were active around the middle of the century.

One reason that most of these writers were only rarely or belatedly translated and thus reached only a limited audience is that they persisted in exemplifying the attitudes and techniques of German idealism and Romanticism, a heritage that kept them out of the mainstream of European realism. When histories of German literature discuss the German variety of realism—which extended roughly from the 1840’s to the 1880’s—they often modify the word Realismus with an adjective such as poetisch, psychologisch, or bürgerlich.

The concept of poetic realism seems like a contradiction in terms and is peculiar to German literature. The term, coined by the philosopher Friedrich Schelling as early as 1802 and later popularized by Otto Ludwig in his studies of Shakespeare, refers both to a style and to a period. Poetic realism may be regarded as the most...

(The entire section is 907 words.)

German Long Fiction from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to World War I Storytellers from Switzerland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The foremost Swiss prose writer after Conrad Ferdinand Meyer was Carl Spitteler, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1919. A Symbolistic critic of the materialism and utilitarianism of his age, he expressed many psychological insights in his fiction. The story Conrad der Leutnant (1898) deals with a young man and his overbearing family. The title of Imago (1906), the story of a sexual obsession sublimated in devotion to art and a love attachment emerging from repression, supplied Freud and his circle with the name of both a significant psychoanalytic concept and a journal. Die Mädchenfeinde (1907; The Little Misogynists, 1923) is a sensitive and colorful tale about boys and girls on the verge of adolescence. The three novels of Robert Walser, who lived in psychiatric clinics for the last twenty-seven years of his life, are partly autobiographical. The subtly ironic Walser foreshadows Franz Kafka (who appreciated him) in that familiar details of everyday life are used as the stepping-stones to fantasy. In Jakob von Gunten (1909; English translation, 1969), the author exposes the moral ambivalence of his age through the diary entries and musings of a boy at a boarding school, a sort of urban “magic mountain,” who manages to take an imaginary trip that removes him from European culture. In Konrad Pilater (1910), by Jakob Schaffner, a young man is torn between political radicalism and love. Jakob Christoph Heer and Ernst Zahn dealt with aspects of Swiss cantonal life in their novels Der König der Bernina (1900) and Albin Indergang (1901), and the priest Heinrich Federer wrote Lachweiler Geschichten (1911), Swiss village tales in the tradition of Jeremias Gotthelf and Keller.

The Vienna of the end of the nineteenth century has attracted considerable attention in recent years. In the last decades of the old, moribund Habsburg Empire there was a greater consciousness of decline and dissolution in Austria than in Germany, and this sense of life found expression in impressionistic and Symbolistic terms. Naturalism never took hold in Austria, where industrialization was a much slower process, for writers there did not share the political activism of their German colleagues. Most of the Jung Wien, or Young Vienna, writers (Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Peter Altenberg, Stefan Zweig, and Leopold, Freiherr von Andrian-Werburg) were of an upper-middle-class background and thus tended to be conservators rather than reformers.

The great theme of the older generation of writers was the impact of modernization and early capitalism on the landed gentry and the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. The melancholy Ferdinand von Saar strove to depict society in the manner of Turgenev; his stance of scientific detachment and sympathy for those defeated by change links him to the naturalists. Saar is particularly remembered for his cycle Novellen aus sterreich (1877-1897; a literary picturebook of Francisco-Josephinian Austria) and the novel Schloss Kosternitz (1892). The dramatist Ludwig Anzengruber wrote the powerful novel Der Sternsteinhof (1885). The fiction of Peter Rosegger, including the novel Jakob der Letzte (1888), is rooted in his native Styria.

The senior member of Young Vienna, the dramatist and critic Bahr, has been called a “virtuoso of receptivity.” His considerable amount of fiction includes his first novel, Die gute Schule (1890), subtitled Seelenstände (psychic states), which tells the story of a young painter whose overcoming of a creative crisis in Paris makes him conclude that love is “the good school of true wisdom,” and Theater (1897), a roman à clef set in...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)