THE STECHLIN - Theodore Fontane
One of the best known 19th century German novelists, Theodore Fontane was just brought to my attention by a review of some recent translations of his books. This novel is his last and according to William Zwiebel, the translator, Fontane "set out to write a serious political statement, a novel which gave full measure of respect to the finer qualities of the Prussian aristocratic heritage, but which also pointed out its provincialism and morbidity and the pressing need for a total restructuring of Prussian society."
All that Zweibel describes is encompassed in the novel, but in a story, which despite being peopled by many soldiers, is a gentle story of the elder Stechlin's humorous and serious meditations on Prussian society as he himself faces death and of his son's meditations on the same while falling in love and marrying. The world is that of Berlin and the Stechlin's country home thirty miles from Berlin on Lake Stechlin. It is a world I haven't read much about and the gentleness and integrity of the main characters made me wonder how from this society the tragedies of the next fifty years could have sprung. What part would the children and grandchildren of these members of the Second Reich have played in the terrible Third Reich? Fontane died in 1898 in the hope that the Germany of the new century would be enlightened, that a and better order would be established. Zweibel comments "It is one of the small and ironic tragedies of the terrible age that followed, that this manifesto of a sage and humane Prussian, had its message been followed, might have led to a wiser Germany and one considerably less burdened with guilt."
Having just read Anthony Trollope's Dr. Thorne, I was intrigued by the way both authors presented a similar plot: a young man of property who does not want to acquiesce in his elders' wishes that he should marry a woman with money and status. In Trollope the family pushes the son to do so. In Fantone the family recommends but doesn't insist, and although a bit upset because the girl chosen had a mother who was half-Swiss are soon reconciled to her, helped of course by the fact that she does have money. Trollope's elegant prose moves faster, but his characters do not seem as real as Fantone's, whose characters are revealed mostly through dialogue rather than description. Everyone talks a lot in this novel, about social mores, ethics, the past, the future. Fantone was a military historian as well as a novelist, so his soldiers are much more specific as to past battles than those found in most novels. There are also a multiplicity of minor characters, many extremely funny, such as the young attractive Hedvig, a servant girl who is constantly leaving jobs because of the amorous approaches of her employers. Hedvig is rendered not as a victim but as a spunky girl who allows no one to take advantage of her.