Prussian Blues

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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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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 edition, which contains an invaluable historical introduction and copious notes that put the story into sharp focus. The context is the retreat through Poland and Prussia of what was left of Napoleon’s Grande Armée from the charred ruins of Moscow. (Sadly Fontane was unaware of my favourite story of the time, of Napoleon riding up to a group of muzhiks and asking them imperiously if they had met any French deserters. ‘No, Your Majesty,’ came the answer, ‘you are the first one we have seen.’)

One important element in the background of this great novel is the fact that in the days of what is called the Enlightenment, Frederick the Great was a fervent admirer and patron of French tastes, habits and philosophy, and traces of this fashion survived, even after the disaster of Jena, among cultivated, high-ranking ladies of a certain age, further complicating the prevailing mood. But Prussia had been severely humiliated. The Emperor of the French had smashed her army at Jena in 1806, and matters were made worse when he forced her to produce 20,000 troops for his Russian campaign. In consequence, no less than 300 officers resigned from the Prussian army, including Clausewitz. Later, Field Marshal York von Hardenburg withdrew the 20,000 from the war and signed an agreement of neutrality with the Russians. Prussia actually declared war on France in March 1813, and the action of this novel takes place only a few weeks earlier, when the burning political question of the day was whether to attack the French or not.

In one sense Before the Storm is a Prussian counterpart to War and Peace ; but it is constructed with a sense of order of which Tolstoy knew nothing and cared less. Fontane never attempts the extraordinary range of thoughts and emotions which Tolstoy pours out from Prince Andrei when he is wounded at Austerlitz. But if you want to know what happened at Borodino, when and why, Fontane will tell you. In a nutshell, the French, under Murat, Ney and Davoust, found themselves compelled to attack a large Russian army under Kutuzov across the deep bed of a dried-up river, almost a gorge. In the bitter fighting, the French lost a third of their numbers, and the Russians half of theirs. But as usual the Russians could afford their losses far more easily, and Kutuzov’s retreat drew the French on to ultimate disaster.

Much of Before the Storm consists of dialogue, conducted with a serious but never tedious thoughtfulness, and a humour which enlivens the characters taking part. The story revolves around the family of Vitzevitz, owners of an ancestral estate near Frankfurt-on-Oder, and the von Ladalinskis, survivors from the Partition of Poland, now established in the government hierarchy in Berlin. A double Montague-Capulet situation emerges between the sons and daughters of the respective families, and through their conversations the main characters become real people, so that in varying degrees we can like and respect them, and sympathize with all their problems. Their joys and sorrows, their doubts and certainties throw a convincing light on the sufferings of the human heart, the ups and downs of emotional life, and the changes of mood to which even the steadiest characters are prone.

The cast is beautifully constructed. The chief heroine is the enchanting Renate von Vitzevitz, ultra-loyal to her family and friends, coolly objective in her judgement of issues, slowly advancing into a slightly melancholy but nevertheless satisfying life of inner piety and service, noble but never cloying, never too good to be true. At the opposite extreme is the extraordinary retired General von Bamme, by no means a noble character, full of whims and vanities, assertive and quarrelsome, but fearless and above all honest – a sort of Prussian version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brigadier Ritchie-Hook. He too is completely convincing.

And besides the barons and generals and blue-stocking ladies there is the unforgettable figure of Hoppenmarieke, a dwarfish, gypsy-like postwoman, who doubles as a fortune-teller and a local distributor of eggs and also every scrap of local gossip. Unlike the others, she lives in a mud hut with a single door and window, which is neither inside nor outside the domain of the Vitzevitzes. Operating on both sides of the law, and of the village boundary, she is warmly tolerated by the lord of the manor, and as in a fairy story . . . but it would be a pity to reveal the end.

In Fontane’s world, authority could be exerted because respect was earned. Values and traditions were shared in a way which has mostly been obliterated by the hideous storms of the twentieth century. With no trace of pomposity, self-importance or condescension, Fontane’s characters display (among other things) integrity and dignity, qualities not aspired to, or perhaps even heard of, by the governing classes of Europe today. That is one of the characteristics, though there are several others, which make this book so refreshing, and the characters, and the carefully created atmosphere, so attractive in such an unfamiliar way.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © John Jolliffe 2006


About the contributor

John Jolliffe has edited various biographical collections, including Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters, and written a history of Glyndebourne. He also reviews regularly for The Spectator and Country Life.

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