German narrative literature had its beginnings in the medieval epics of such poets as Wolfram von Eschenbach and Hartmann von Aue. Although the novels of the Middle Ages were composed in highly stylized verse, conforming to specific metric patterns, they nevertheless exhibit many elements that are characteristic of later prose fiction. Among the significant features shared by these early romances and the productions of modern novelists are divisions of the presentation into chapters, projection of the plot against a broad world background, detailed development of a variety of characters, careful painting of substantial landscapes, and the artistic interweaving of multiple strands of action. The tremendous literary force of major works that were written during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries derives from the effective combination of fullness of life with rhythmic form of exposition. One of the most significant creations of the period was Wolfram’s Parzival (c. 1200-1210; English translation, 1894), which is, in many respects, a forerunner of the bildungsroman.
Substance for these sophisticated lyric tales came from the common European cultural heritage. Arthurian legend had an especially strong impact on writers of the time, as did Germanic sagas and material pertaining to the world of Charlemagne. Typically, the resulting products were heroic stories of love and adventure that taught carefully calculated lessons about particular chivalrous ideals. In their essence, these components of the courtly ethic are spiritualized and ascetic; at their center is the concept of moderation, which leads to a harmonious life through the exercise of discipline, decency, and decorum. Other advocated virtues include courage, humor, loyalty, constancy, and gentleness. Illustrations of these ideas are offered within the context of portrayals of the problems of the times. The primary focus is knighthood and its attendant phenomena. Courtly love is a key theme, as are the tensions that arise out of certain existential polarities, especially this world and the hereafter, the material and the spiritual aspects of life, and beauty and sin. Heavily pronounced qualities of this medieval fiction are orientation toward the ideal, distance from reality, aristocratic exclusiveness, clarity, and artful simplicity.
During the late Middle Ages, the rise of the middle class and the shifting of the religious-political balance of power in favor of the state had a marked impact upon the evolving literature. As the burghers began to demonstrate increased interest in education, they traveled more and became professionally involved in the arts. One important outgrowth of this situation was the decline of verse and the rise of prose as the new medium of narration.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, three factors strongly contributed to the expanded use of prose in German fiction. The propagation of expository documents—especially the writings of prominent mystics, including Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1328), Heinrich Seuse (c. 1300-1366), and Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361)—served as a stimulus for the refinement of prose style. On another level, the decay of courtly culture fostered the appearance of prose versions of the heroic epics. Perhaps most important of all, German-language writers began to translate stories and novels that had been written in other European languages. These translations from foreign literatures, particularly from the French, Latin, and Italian masters, offered needed models to writers who were interested in genres that were more suited to the real-world bent of the era. Among the most significant accomplishments of this kind were Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken’s renderings of examples of the French chanson de geste into German prose and the translation into German of novellas from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) by Heinrich Arigo, Niklas von Wyle, and Heinrich Steinhöwe. Many of the Volksbücher (folk-books) that appeared as the Middle Ages waned had their origins in these and other translation efforts.
Narrative prose created during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries shows little originality in substance or approach. Its tone was dictated to some extent by the melancholy mood of an era subject to famine, pestilence, and disease. An inclination toward concern for things real and useful is manifest in the emergence of social, political, historical, and travel fiction. Didactic stories became increasingly widespread, favoring the employment of allegory and satire.
Aside from the verse epics of the Middle Ages, major achievements in long fiction written prior to the eighteenth century are primarily isolated occurrences that participate in no true continuum of development in point of technical approach or artistic orientation. Nevertheless, individual works and authors did exert significant influence on the later evolution of the novel and the novella in German literature.
Despite the Reformation-inspired Humanistic direction of intellectual life in the sixteenth century, few authors made noteworthy contributions to the prose narrative in German. There were two closely related reasons for that situation. First, the main written language of the Renaissance was Latin; second, much of the energy of creative minds was devoted to religious and technical writings that documented the theological and political controversies of the day. As a result, most of the novels and stories that circulated in German-speaking areas were merely works of popular entertainment with little or no lasting artistic value. The basic tone of these productions was more pedagogical than poetic, and didactic tales were commonly satiric, with religious and political overtones. In addition to novels, various kinds of novellas and Volksbücher were widely read.
There are two notable exceptions to the otherwise undistinguished progress of German long fiction during the Renaissance. The first is the early middle-class family story Fortunatus (1509). Written by an unknown author, it is unique for its time and certainly the best instructional narrative of the beginning part of the century. The basic account, which describes the life of the title character, whose pursuit of riches rather than wisdom leads to the eventual downfall of his family, is enhanced by fairy-tale elements (a wishing hat and an inexhaustible purse) that contribute to the work’s success as literary art. More important within the history of German letters are the books of Georg Wickram (c. 1505-c. 1561), Germany’s earliest successful prose novelist. Wickram moved from tortuously involved novels based on common European themes to clearly organized instructive presentations that combined traditional narrative features with personal experience. Among the characteristic stylistic devices that he introduced into his prose were long monologues and conversations, songs that revealed things that the singer could not say directly, and letters that conveyed information about relationships among characters. With his Der jungen Knaben Spiegel (1555; mirror of boyhood), based on the then-popular biblical motif of the prodigal son, he became the true founder of the German middle-class novel.
Wickram’s creations had little immediate influence on other writers, and after his death, there was a break of many years before significant novels were produced again in German. Much of the popular narrative literature of the last half of the sixteenth century consisted of translations and various free interpretations of material that originally had appeared in other languages.
The first calculated attempts to set up meaningful artistic criteria for German fiction were made by Martin Opitz (1597-1639) in the seventeenth century. Opitz worked as a literary organizer, seeking to bring order to belles lettres through the establishment of a well-defined poetics and the generation of paradigms for the various genres. Major authors of the baroque period regarded Opitz as their spiritual father; following his lead, they did away with many of the remains of medieval influences, overcame the dominance of the Latin tradition, and formed the basis for an artistic prose style.
Narratives created under the sway of Opitz’s reforms were certainly not uniform in quality and lasting value. What did emerge, however, was a new general orientation toward literary art. It specifically reflected broad cultural developments in other areas. German baroque literature is a part of the art of the Counter-Reformation and documents a definite clash between antiquity and Christianity, with no attempt to find a synthesis of the two. The pessimistic approach to life that was a direct product of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) colors many of the novels of the time, with fear of death and hunger for life appearing as characteristic attitudes. Typical productions are heavy with Christian content that focuses on the dualism between extravagant lifestyles and asceticism by balancing Christian stoicism against passion and enjoyment of existence. Important themes are the transitoriness of everything earthly, a special awareness of death, absolutism in church and state, and the rejection of individualism and subjectivism.
The prevailing style of German baroque fiction is best described as massive and ornate. Overemphasis on form is especially visible in works that incline toward accumulation and expansion of substance. A strong tendency to gather, pile up, and vary forms and devices of antiquity is paralleled by a love for affectation, ornamentation, the farfetched, and the allegorical. Opitz’s demand for mastery of technique and aesthetic principles was greeted by a fashion of fastidiousness.
During the seventeenth century, epic literature was largely a product of the Protestant regions of northern and eastern Germany. Although occasional novellas appeared, the predominant form was the novel, of which there were three main types: pastoral love stories, historical narratives that were based upon materials from a broad range of sources, and earthy, humorous, picaresque tales, all of which became popular to varying degrees.
Pastoral creations are found in all baroque genres, including poetry and drama. They arose out of a longing for naturalness, for a golden age of peaceful existence, and out of a love for masquerade. Anacreontic forms were introduced into German literature by Opitz. Apart from him, only a few authors composed successful bucolic prose. Opitz set the pattern for this kind of writing with his slender volume Die Schäfferey von der Nimphen Hercinie (1630; the pastoral life of the nymph Hercinie). Among its paradigmatic characteristics are the setting in an idyllic landscape; employment of verse inserts; use of the narrative as a vehicle for intellectual discussion; exposition about elements of nature such as mountains, rocks, and water; and the emphasis placed on family history. The Anacreontic novel’s predilection for the treatment of problems related to love is perhaps best illustrated in Philipp von Zesen’s Die adriatische Rosemund (1645; Adriatic Rosemund), the most important pastoral work of the period. Its love conflict is centered on the special German situation of the insurmountable obstacle that is erected by a difference in religious confessions.
Baroque novelists achieved their greatest breadth and diversity in political and social accounts framed in historical settings. These works are notable for their sheer bulk (multiple volumes involving thousands of pages in many instances), proliferation of primary characters, labyrinthine webs of many plots and subplots, vast scope, and richness of detail. Events and situations of immediate local Germanic interest are often clothed in the trappings of Romanic or Asian history. More frequently than not, heterogeneous masses of material make the presentation ungainly, while accumulations of figures and relationships inhibit the story’s progress and contribute to weak epic development. Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig provided significant models for the complicated baroque history in his Die durchläuchtige Syrerin Aramena (1669-1673; the illuminated Syrian woman Aramena) and the more famous Die römische Octavia (1677-1707; Octavia of Rome). One of the more powerful literary monuments of the seventeenth century is Heinrich Anshelm von Ziegler und Kliphausen’s Die asiatische Banise: Oder, Das blutige, doch muthige Pegu (1689; Banise of Asia, or the bloody but courageous Pegu), an exotic novel that is peculiar for its extremes of terrifying events coupled with indifference of feeling.
The most important accomplishments in German baroque fiction were made in the picaresque novels of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Indeed, the only seventeenth century prose epic with substantial artistic significance beyond its own time is Grimmelshausen’s slice of life from the time of the Thirty Years’ War, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912). Factors that contribute to its unprecedented narrative success include the humanness of the central character; the fascinating flow of the story; the inexhaustible wisdom that is integrated into the partially autobiographical account of the hero’s life; the vividness and plasticity of individual scenes; the stark portrayal of raw reality in a difficult, tumultuous, confused era; and, above all, the pulsating vitality of the whole. The Adventurous Simplicissimus is especially noteworthy within the framework of German literary history as the first authentic example of the novel of personal development.
Unlike other writers of his day, Grimmelshausen had profound impact on his contemporaries and immediate successors. There were many imitations of The Adventurous Simplicissimus, although none was very successful from an artistic point of view. The only other seventeenth century picaresque novel of any real literary magnitude is Christian Reuter’s Schelmuffskys wahrhafftige curiöse und sehr gefährliche Reisebeschreibung zu Wasser und Lande (1696, 1697; Shelmuffsky, 1962), a mendacious travel novel that presents sharp criticism of the society and times in a guise of comical exaggeration, pointed distortion of material reality, and clever social caricature.
During the early part of the eighteenth century, development of the novel and the novella as artistic literary genres languished. At the same time, substantial amounts of mediocre and low-quality entertainment prose were published. Three kinds of light fiction became popular with middle-class readers: The courtly novel had shallow ties to some forms of baroque literature; so-called gallant narratives satisfied the never-ending public craving for stories about love; and tales of travel and adventure provided escape into exotic realms.
An especially representative example of the courtly novel is Johann Michael Freiherr von Loën’s Der redliche Mann am Hofe: Oder, Die Begebenheiten des Grafen von Rivera (1740; the honest man at the court). A didactic account of intrigue, its central theme is the realization of the ideal of integrity through personal action. Impressive for its combination of utopian scope with interpretation of reality, the work features a typically involved pattern of episodic situations, tested human relationships, life stories, and social challenges.
Gallant fiction was commonly composed in the manner of the courtly historical novel, but it lacked the elements of heroic adventure and involvement in national political processes. It was smoothly written, characterized by the clever arrangement of many captivating episodes, and presented love as an amusingly frivolous play of confusions and mistakes. The writers who created this kind of fiction were quite prolific but produced nothing of lasting importance. Among them were figures such as August Bohse, who published more than twenty volumes, Christian Friedrich Hunold, whose four novels each appeared in several editions, and Leonhard Rost, the author of at least nine books.
A rather interesting phenomenon was the rapid proliferation of adventure novels patterned after Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Within a few years after the first German translation of Defoe’s masterpiece was circulated in 1721, between thirty and forty imitations had appeared in print. Especially attractive to the German reader were the ideas of complete isolation and individual activity outside the constraints of society. The German imitations were generally much weaker than Defoe’s original; they usually combined elements of traditional adventure stories with the English author’s ideas, but they lacked the component of moral education that characterizes Robinson Crusoe. Many of the books were simply tales of travel that capitalized on Defoe’s many possibilities for exciting episodes while ignoring the profound psychological development of the central character that had been so important for the Englishman. Of all the German novels of this type, only Johann Gottfried Schnabel’s Wunderliche Fata einiger See-Fahrer, absonderlich Alberti Julii . . . (1731-1743, 4 volumes; also known as Die Insel Felsenberg) is worthy of note as a minor artistic achievement.
Toward the middle of the century, taste and cultural attitudes changed, leading to far-reaching effects on the artistic evolution of German long prose forms. These modifications were a specific product of the Enlightenment. Classicistic in orientation, the new spiritual-intellectual trend emphasized the ideas of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and philosophical and general education, thereby fostering the reuniting of religious, social, and political elements of life that had become separated during the seventeenth century. The movement had its theoretical basis in the English empiricism of John Locke and David Hume, as mediated on the Continent by Voltaire.
An important contributor to German Enlightenment thought was the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who sought to devise a complementary union of theological-teleological and physical-mechanical views of the world. Leibniz took the position that body and soul exist in a preestablished harmony with each other, and he argued that the artist imitates God in the creative process. As a reflection of nature, art must be formed according to rules. Production thus becomes subordinate to theory. Christian von Wolff popularized and systematized Leibniz’s philosophy, emphasizing its practical application and underscoring the ideals of healthy human understanding and virtue as sources of mortal happiness. In turn, Johann Christoph Gottsched spread Wolff’s teachings and established their relationship to literature, advocating German adherence to French classicistic, Roman, and classical Greek styles as the realization of reason and nature. Gottsched’s demands were later opposed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who insisted that truly German literature was more closely related to English models.
While coming to grips with Enlightenment ideas, German novelists pursued definite goals in their narrative presentations. One of the most pronounced of these goals was a concerted effort to free people from their traditional ties to the world beyond, in order to bring about a universal independent development of human intellect. Especially visible manifestations of this thrust were attacks against the supernatural aspects of Christian theology by people educated in physical science and the promotion of Deism as a more acceptable natural religion. Absolute rationalistic dogmatism that demanded the achievement of social progress through the advancement of reason was tempered only by a parallel insistence upon humanistic behavior, which promoted an attitude of religious tolerance.
Prose literature that was produced under the influence of these ideas is characteristically optimistic in tone and meticulously precise in style. It was intended to be both useful and entertaining. Leibniz’s doctrine of the best of all possible worlds finds reflection in works that affirm the complex realities of mortal experience while expressing both doubts about the validity of revelation and a coincident firm belief that everything can be explained. Humans stand in the foreground as entities in the process of perfecting themselves through the exercise of will and reason. They learn to control their drives by basing their conduct upon purposeful rational action that leads in the direction of beauty and social harmony. The most important key to Enlightenment storytellers’ approach to the problem of humans in their world is the perception that ethical and aesthetic values are the same.
At the beginning of the Enlightenment period, a literary art that was dominated by feeling had special meaning for the rise of prose fiction as a major mode of expression, not only during the middle years of the century but also during the Sturm und Drang era. Political and social repression of the middle class found a relief valve in writings that were filled with the rapture of self-satisfied sensitivity and enthusiasm, often connected with patriotism and a more subjectively than objectively encountered hatred of tyranny. In contrast to the strongly rationalistic bent of the mature Enlightenment, many of these works were molded by Pietistic tendencies toward a renewal of mysticism. They document the intensification of emotional life that is based on inner experience of salvation and rebirth. Significant substance is provided by a new sense of communality that has as a side effect the participation in spiritual events that takes place within other individuals. A general tie between the literature of sentimentality and mainstream Enlightenment philosophy exists in the emphasis placed upon piousness of the heart that serves as a basis for practical humanistic discipleship in Christ.
Primary stimuli for German propagation of sentimental fiction came from England. During the 1740’s and 1750’s, Samuel Richardson’s narratives about family and virtue, especially Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754), established patterns that became extremely popular in Germany. Richardson’s influence was particularly strong in connection with development of the epistolary novel. The works of Henry Fielding became important as models for a deliberate separation of author and narrator with regard to the focus of presentation. Following Fielding’s lead, German novelists began to introduce fictive storytellers who became focal figures in creations that revealed the nature of their inner worlds. Even more significant for their impact upon German writers were Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768). Sterne stressed the experiences of thinking and feeling, amplifying the concept of the fictional narrator by styling his novels as conversations between storyteller and reader. Employment of the motif of the journey as a frame for the depiction of humanity’s internal life became a definitive characteristic of German emulation of his techniques. One other Englishman whose writing profoundly affected German prose throughout the last one-third of the eighteenth century was Oliver Goldsmith. Through its powerful revelation of the central figure’s strength of spirit, his famous book, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), reinforced existing tendencies toward intense portrayal of inward experience.
The English preoccupation with artistic analysis of human sensitivities is mirrored in the German creation of three types of the sentimental novel. In the first variety, fictional life stories, often told in the first person, mingle the objective narration of events and circumstances with subjective reflections, explanations, and interpretations. Emotionally charged travel narratives constitute a second type, in which the focus is on the hero’s heartfelt responses to external impressions; to some extent, these writings are socially critical, but they also frequently feature displays of empathy for meaningless objects and phenomena. Heavily autobiographical accounts form a third kind of sentimental novel that is related to the other two in its intensity of often religiously based self-examination.
Among the more noteworthy examples of the German “life and opinions” novel are Christian Fürchtegott Gellert’s Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G(1747-1748; The Life of the Swedish Countess of G, 1752), Sophie von La Roche’s Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771; The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim, 1776), Friedrich Nicolai’s Das Leben und die Meinungen des Herrn Magister Sebaldus Nothanker (1773-1776; The Life and Opinions of Master Sebaldus Nothanker, 1798), and Johann Karl Wezel’s Lebensgeschichte Tobias Knauts, des Weisen, sonst der...
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