German Realism culminated in the late nineteenth century novels of Theodor Fontane (fawn-TAH-nuh). Born into a Huguenot family in Prussia, Fontane later portrayed that north German landscape unforgettably. Initially he chose the same profession as his father and trained as an apothecary, working in Berlin, Burg, Leipzig, and Dresden. When he was twenty-five he joined the apolitical Berlin literary society Der Tunnel Ober der Spree (tunnel over the spree), where he met weekly for many years with prominent writers and artists.
At the age of thirty, Fontane married and became a journalist, working in Germany and England for the Prussian press headquarters. At the same time he began to write ballads. Fontane was familiar with the English and Scottish ballad tradition, and he did not restrict himself to Prussian subject matter. One of his best-known ballads, “Archibald Douglas,” is about the Scotsman.
When he was forty, Fontane returned to Germany, where he worked for a decade as editor of the English section of the Kreuz-Zeitung, then from 1870 to 1889 as the theater critic for the Vossische Zeitung. During this time, Fontane, writing in a genre popular in Germany, reached a wide audience when he published four entertaining and informed accounts of his travels through the Mark Brandenburg region as well as a fifth volume about castles there.
Financial difficulties prevented Fontane from writing his first novel until he was almost sixty. He began with historical novels, as had the Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), whose work Fontane greatly admired. Vor dem Sturm and A Man of Honor are novels of the Napoleonic Wars. Fontane was almost seventy before he settled on the subject matter he portrayed best: Berlin society and the social issues arising from the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class. Trials and Tribulations, Jenny Treibel, Effi Briest, and The Stechlin are uncontestedly great works of literature, narrated with the wisdom and tolerance of maturity and economically constructed with rare stylistic finesse. Fontane was a master at writing dialogue; what is not said often reveals as much about a character as what is said.
Fontane’s works exerted a strong influence on many subsequent German novelists, among them Thomas Mann and Günter Grass, who used the well-known last words of Fontane’s masterpiece, Effi Briest, as the title of his 1995 novel Ein weites Feld (a broad subject). Effi Briest was filmed in 1939, 1955, 1968, and 1974. In 1994, the 175th anniversary of Fontane’s birth, the German post office issued a commemorative stamp, and a new, complete edition of his works appeared in German.
Henri Theodor Fontane was born on December 30, 1819, in Neuruppin, Prussia (now in Germany). Both of his parents were of French descent, part of the French Huguenot colony that had existed in Prussia since the Edict of Potsdam of 1685. Fontane’s father was a pharmacist. During the first year of his marriage, he acquired a well-established pharmacy in Neuruppin. He was not, however, a good businessman, and he lost considerable amounts of money at the gambling table. In 1827, the elder Fontane sold his pharmacy in Neuruppin and purchased another in Swinemünde.
The Fontane family then moved to Swinemünde, a port town that was much livelier than Neuruppin. For Fontane, Swinemünde was always imbued with a certain poetic quality, and he transmuted it into the setting of a few of his works. He attended the Gymnasium (academic high school) in Neuruppin for a few years, but eventually he switched to a vocational school in Berlin and, in 1836, was apprenticed to a pharmacy there. During those years, his father’s fortunes went from bad to worse, and his parents eventually separated.
Fontane’s father’s financial failures meant that, from a very young age, Fontane had to...
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