The two outstanding German storytellers of the latter part of the nineteenth century were Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane, writers whose reputations grew during the last several decades of the twentieth century. Since at least some of their work falls in the fin de siècle period, a more extended discussion of their contribution is in order here.
Raabe was a curiously isolated figure who had no real successors, although some of his narrative techniques foreshadow those of Thomas Mann. In his quirky ambivalence, wry humor, whimsy, and latter-day Romantic irony, this subtle and sophisticated storyteller harks back to Sterne and Jean Paul, but these qualities also bespeak an affinity with Dickens and Thackeray. Raabe grasped the moral dilemmas of his world and portrayed that world honestly and truthfully. His social range was rather narrow, his intellectual penetration not very profound, and he had little passion or reformers’ zeal. Yet his admitted philistinism had a gleam of true wisdom that has been called “simply an acknowledgment of the inscrutable fitness of things,” and his pessimism is somehow uplifting and cheering as often as it is despairing and depressing. Lange sees Raabe as the continuator of a fertile tradition, that of the German baroque imagination, and concludes that “his work represents the impressive climax of the literature of German bourgeois idealism." Barker Fairley calls Raabe’s work “the most richly conceived body of fiction in the German language.”
“Look up to the stars! Watch life in the streets!” This admonition reflects what may be termed Raabe’s idealistic realism as he foreshadows the coming German (and indeed European) crisis of morals. His best-known novels portray the eventual triumph of inner strength and integrity over the forces of decay and dissolution. The individual must stand inviolate amid all onslaughts: “We want to remain what we must be.” There is more tension than action in Raabe’s novels; his subjective style and multiple narrative perspectives may have been intended to facilitate communication with a wider readership, but in effect, his subtleties were lost on many readers, and his modest, pseudonaïve disclaimers were accepted at face value.
Raabe’s basic theme is humanity in an age of social change. After 1870, he remained loyal to the Reich, but he was troubled by the political developments and the social upheavals he witnessed, and his late novels reflect his disillusionment with Bismarck’s nationalistic policies. Pfisters Mühle (1884) deals with the clash of the old and the new as a rural landscape is rapidly transformed into an industrial one. The novel takes the form of a reminiscence of a young Berlin schoolmaster who is spending his honeymoon in his father’s mill, soon to make way for a factory. It turns out that the water of the millstream is polluted by the effluvia of a beet-sugar factory. Even though the father wins a lawsuit against the factory, it is a Pyrrhic victory, for he dies knowing that the old way of life is doomed. The conflict between the old and the new worlds is personified by Dr. Asche, who in his youth enjoyed the mill but as an industrial scientist and founder of a dye business aligns himself with the forces of “progress.” Yet the fact that he remains essentially humane shows that the march of time need not drown out the harmonies of tradition. Im alten Eisen (1887) is less optimistic; the wheel of history rolls over the human community. Das Odfeld (1889; The Odin Field, 2001), set during the Seven Years’ War, is about some uprooted civilians who are guided back to their homesteads to rebuild their lives. Die Akten des Vogelsangs (1896) tells the story of three children who experience the breakup of an old-fashioned neighborhood in a town that is being modernized. In an ironic concession to popular taste, Raabe called his novel Stopfkuchen: Eine See-und Mordgeschichte (1891; Tubby Schaumann: A Tale of Murder and the High Seas, 1983) a “murder and sea story”; he also described it as his best and most subjective book. The title is the nickname of a nibbler named Heinrich Schaumann, a warm and humane Biedermeier type, who tells the story of his life to Eduard, a prosperous settler in Africa who is on his way home after a visit to his native Germany. In its attack on tendencies to idealize the past and its deflation of the materialistic person of action, this wry commentary on a quarter-century of change may be regarded as anti-Faust.
Pointing out that Raabe “presents metaphysical problems in a precisely described social and historical milieu,” Eda Sagarra formulates some basic, penetrating questions that Raabe posed in his most mature novels: Should life be lived in conformity with changing patterns of society at the cost of spiritual and intellectual values, or should it be lived in self-imposed seclusion? Can one be involved in the process of historical change without...