Back to Berlin

Theodor Fontane was definitely one of my better G-Lit finds last year.  In addition to taking part in last year’s Effi Briest readalong, I also read Frau Jenny Treibel and Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable), so I was always going to add to that list for this years challenge.  This time around, I’ve picked another of Fontane’s tales of marital woe, so get comfy – the bus is off to Berlin today…

L’Adultera is set in the German capital towards the end of the nineteenth century and is another of Fontane’s Gesellschaftsromane (Society Novels).  Wealthy businessman Ezekiel van der Straaten lives with his wife, Melanie, and their two children in a luxurious Berlin mansion.  The fifty-two-year-old van der Straaaten married his beautiful Swiss wife ten years earlier – when she was just seventeen…

Although the marriage initially appears to be a happy one, it isn’t long until the cracks appear.  Van der Straaten can be boorish and arrogant at times, and his behaviour at a dinner party embarrasses his wife immensely.  When the weather gets warmer, and it is finally time for Melanie to move out to the couple’s country residence, she is only too glad to get some respite from her husband, whose work keeps him in the city for much of the time.

All that is needed for things to take a dramatic turn is a catalyst, and it is van der Straaten himself who unwittingly supplies one, in the shape of Ebenezer Rubehn.  This young businessman is a relative of a business partner, and van der Straaten finds himself obliged to offer the young man a home while he is finding his feet in Berlin.  Oh, did I mention that he was handsome, intelligent and cultured?  This can’t end well…

Anyone who was with us last year will immediately see that comparisons with Effi Briest are unavoidable.  Once again, the writer is exploring the perils of a marriage where there is a significant age gap, and the inevitability of a bored young housewife having a wandering eye.  However, in some ways it is a very different novel.  Van der Straaten, despite what I’ve said so far, comes across as a much more sympathetic character than Effi Briest‘s Innstetten ever did.  As for Melanie, well she’s not quite so loveable – she’s certainly no Effi 😉

The couple’s true characters are revealed in a wonderful scene in Chapter 16, entitled ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’).  Van der Straaten acknowledges his shortcomings and pours his heart out to his estranged wife: 

“Und sieh, Melanie, weiter will ich auch jetzt nichts, oder sag’ ich lieber, will ich auch in Zukunft nichts.  Denn in diesem Augenblick erscheint dir das wenige, was ich fordere, noch als zu viel.  Aber es wird anders, muß anders werden.”

“And Melanie, I want nothing more at the moment, or rather, I will want nothing more than this in future.  At the moment, the little I demand still seems too much for you.  But that will change, it must change.”

Melanie, however, is unable to see that her husband’s brusque, humorous tone hides true feelings and simply feels repelled.  It’s tempting to say that she doesn’t really deserve him

There are constant intimations of impending disaster in L’Adultera, whose title, as well as being that of a painting, is the Italian for ‘The Adultress’.  Melanie is warned of such occurrences by one of her closest friends, and a story told to her by the gardener comes very close to home.  Even van der Straaten himself, in buying the painting and in his anecdotes hints at the possibility of getting your fingers burnt:

“Und in die Luft geflogen warum?  Weil die Leute, die mit dem Feuer spielen, immer zu sicher sind und immer die Gefahr vergessen.  Ja, Melanie, du lachst.  Aber, es ist so, immer die Gefahr vergessen.”

“And why was he blown to kingdom come?  Because people who play with fire are always overconfident and always forget the risk.  Yes, Melanie, you may well laugh.  But it’s true, they always forget the risk.”

Sadly though, despite being a man of the world in many ways, in others he is blind and unsuspicious.  As the narrator says:

“Und am wenigsten sah er sie von der Seite her gefährdet, von der aus die Gefahr so nahe lag und von jedem andern erkannt worden wäre.”

“And he saw the least danger to her in the direction from which it was most likely to come and which would have been perceived by anyone else.”

Hindsight may be a wonderful thing, but surely most people would think that bringing a handsome young man into your house and leaving him alone with your beautiful young wife is tempting fate a tad, no?

While L’Adultera is not quite up to the standard of a couple of Fontane’s other novels (the ending, in particular, is a little weak), it’s still an enjoyable read, especially because such novels are relatively rare in nineteenth-century German-language literature.  In a sea of novellas, Fontane’s longer works stand out like beacons, particularly to those of us reared on Victorian blockbusters which require wheels if you’re planning to take them out of your study.

In fact, it is the similarities with another of my favourite writers, Anthony Trollope, which attract me to Fontane.  Like Trollope, Fontane is skillful in his depictions of the well-off citizens of a successful empire, and he is also very sympathetic in his portrayal of unhappy marriages and the effect they have on the women involved.  In one way, Fontane even has an advantage over his English counterpart – he is able to be much more daring when writing about characters with loose morals, which leads for some fascinating ethical dilemmas.  So, if you’ve always fancied reading some Victorian novels without implausibly virtuous young women, you could do worse than give Fontane a try…

11 thoughts on “Back to Berlin

  1. Nice review, Tony! This book does sound very similar to 'Effi Briest'. Your comment about Victorian blockbusters requiring wheels to be taken out of one's study, made me smile 🙂


  2. Fontane is one of my favourite authors -and L'Adultera and Cécile (the latter in particular)my favourite novels by him. I agree with you about the “weak ending”. However, it is worth noticing that it was quite a daring and modern thing to do in those days to have a dicvorced woman enter into a happy relationship after an adulterous affair.


  3. Vishy – Thanks 🙂 It's similar to 'Effi Briest', but not so much so that it seems like a copy. Like many writers, I think Fontane has variations on a theme.

    Margit – I haven't read 'Cécile' yet – I'm just hoping that not all his books are on the same topic. One disadvantage of the Germanic novella-style single-strand plot approach is that stories can seem very similar…


  4. When I was deciding what to tackle for GLM, Fontane was an author recommended to me for the Novella week – I just didn't manage to lay my hands on one in time. You've inspired me to keep an eye out for him. I need to give Effi Briest a go too, having read so many glowing reviews! Great character names in the novel also – always enjoy slightly quirky names!


  5. Sarah – Fontane's actually one of the few 19th-C German writers who wrote good novels (as opposed to novellas). I've read one of his novellas ('Grete Minde'), but I think with him, the longer the better. 'Unwiederbringlish' ('Irretrievable') was a very good read 🙂


  6. I just started reading Effi Briest and am rather enjoying it, I've been meaning to read it ever since the readalong last year. I know the library also has L'Adultera on their shelves but based on your review it might be too similar to read back to back… 🙂


  7. Alex – Definitely. I'd leave this for another time 🙂 I'd love to hear from someone who read the two the other way around too as that may colour how you see the books…


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