Of the many missed opportunities of my schooldays, failure to learn German is the one I have regretted most and longest. But in 1949, when the chance arose, German was not the flavour of the month. There was still a large gap in one corner of School Yard where a German bomb had missed a large dormitory of sleeping boys by a few feet. And only a few years earlier, my housemaster had fought with distinction in the Green Jackets, and then married the widow of another officer, killed in battle. He bullied us into opting for elementary science (which has never been the slightest use to me) rather than German for School Certificate.
So I never learned German; and I was never drawn to German literature in translation. But recently, by great good luck, I have stumbled on the novels of Theodor Fontane. Born in 1819 in Brandenburg into a family of Huguenot émigrés on both sides, at the age of 30 he abandoned a career as a pharmacist and set up as a freelance journalist and travel writer. He was thus uniquely well placed to see both sides of the love-hate relationship between Prussia and France, which contained, understandably, a great deal less love on the French side than on the Prussian. He spent four years in England (1855–9), visited Scotland and followed the Tweed in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott. In 1864 he served as a war correspondent in Schleswig-Holstein, and again in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War when he was captured and interned for three months. His first, and in my opinion greatest novel, Before the Storm, was not published until 1878, but it was followed by fifteen others, the best-known being Effi Briest, which has been filmed four times, and my second favourite, Beyond Recall.
But Before the Storm is quite enough to be getting on with. The entire action takes place in the six weeks beginning on Christmas Eve 1812, yet the novel covers 680 pages in the wholly admirable Oxford World Classics paperback e
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