Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'Irrungen, Wirrungen' ('Trials and Tribulations') by Theodor Fontane (Review)

As you may have seen, I did have some rather detailed plans for German Literature Month, but the best-laid plans of mice and men do tend to be deviated from.  While I've read some of the books I mentioned, others will have to wait - and then, of course, there are those books which came from nowhere (like today's book...).  So, who do you have to thank for today's choice?  Well, two people - but we'll get to that later...

Theodor Fontane's Irrungen, Wirrungen (Trials and Tribulations) begins in Berlin during the glorious summer of 1875.  Young seamstress Lene Nimptsch is enjoying the company of a noble cavalry officer, Botho von Rienäcker, after a chance encounter on a boating trip.  It's all a bit of summer loving, a harmless flirtation, but gradually both Lene and Botho learn to appreciate their partner more.

Botho is a gentleman who is genuinely attracted to Lene, and he starts to fall in love with the attractive commoner.  However, he's from a poor family, one which has fallen in its fortunes due to mismanagement of their estates, leaving him (and others) under no illusion as to his duty to marry into money:
"Rienäcker steht vor einer scharfen Ecke."
  "Und vor welcher?"
  "Er soll heiraten."
  "Und das nennen Sie eine scharfe Ecke?  Ich bitte Sie, Wedell, Rienäcker steht vor einer viel schärferen: Er hat 9000 jährlich und gibt 12000 aus, und das ist immer die schärfste aller Ecken, jedenfalls schärfer als die Heiratsecke."

"Rienäcker's in a sticky situation."
  "He has to get married."
  "And you call that a sticky situation?  I beg you, Wedell, Rienäcker is about to be in a much stickier one:  He has 9,000 a year and spends 12,000, and that's the stickiest of all situations, in any case much stickier than marriage." *** (my translation)
Lene is well aware of this and is content to enjoy her days in the sun - but what will happen when the summer is over?

While I'm a big fan of Fontane, he wasn't on my original list, and there are two people to blame for my trying another of his books this month.  The first is Lizzy, whose great review of Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable), plus her readalong of Effi Briest three years ago, got me into Fontane in the first place.  The second is Tom, the Amateur Reader himself, whose series of reviews on Unwiederbringlich early in November had me itching to try another of Fontane's books.  And very happy I am too to have been swayed as Irrungen, Wirrungen is a great bit of G-Lit comfort reading :)

As Tom discussed (and as I've mentioned before), Fontane is almost unique among 19th-Century German writers for his ability to write rounded characters.  For anyone who has read much of Anthony Trollope's work, Fontane's novels will be rather familiar, with their focus on the romantic trials and tribulations of the upper-middle and noble classes.  In fact, if you strip away the superfluous court case in Trollope's Lady Anna (my most recent Trollope read), the two novels have very serious themes.

What we have here is a nice young nobleman from a poor family, one who needs to revive the fortunes of his house, and at first it seems as if he's destined to break Lene's heart.  The truth is, though, that she knows the score right from the start:
"Wie du mich verkennst.  Glaube mir, daß ich dich habe, diese Stunde habe, das ist mein Glück.  Was daraus wird, das Kümmert mich nicht.  Eines Tages bist du weggeflogen..."

"How little you know me.  Believe me, that I have you, that I have this hour, that makes me happy.  What the future holds doesn't concern me.  One day, you'll be gone..." ***
Lene is simply happy to know a few short months of love, fully prepared to get on with her life once the autumn has arrived...

Many of Botho's officer friends also have their flirtations in Berlin, but Fontane makes Lene stand out among these lower-class figures.  She's charming, well-mannered and intelligent, more than a match for the aristocratic soldier, and it would be hard for the modern reader to find anything to object to in her behaviour.  However, this wasn't the case for the original readers - in fact, Fontane was roundly condemned for the sympathetic treatment of his heroine.

For much of the novel, Irrungen, Wirrungen is played with a fairly light touch.  One example of the humour is the comic figure of Lene's motherly friend, Frau Dörr, a statuesque figure who accompanies the young couple on many of their early walks.  Another is mentioned in a friend's discussion of the Rienäcker's (blonde) intended bride when doubt is cast upon Botho's intentions towards her:
"Rienäcker ist nämlich seit einiger Zeit in einen anderen Farbenton, und zwar ins Aschfarbene, gefallen..."

"You see, Rienäcker has recently acquired a liking for another colour, namely ash..." ***
Which makes little sense in English unless you are told that the German name for Cinderella is Aschenpüttel!  This is just one example of a lot of sparkling conversation, and the first part, in particular, feels almost like a play at times.

Later, however, the story becomes more serious as Fontane explores the aftermath of the relationship.  There's nothing predictable about the story though, and the handling of both sides is surprisingly nuanced - I doubt many readers will guess exactly how the story ends.  It's a novel which is never dull, an enjoyable look at regret and reality, romance and responsibility.

On finishing, I was surprised to realise that this was actually the sixth of Fontane's books I'd read.  One thing I can say with certainty is that it won't be my last. Just like Trollope, Teddy F. is a writer I can turn to when I want some guaranteed quality comfort reading :)

There is a translation floating around, but reviews suggest that it's very old and not well edited: Trials and Tribulations, translated by Katharine Royce (available in several cheapish editions because of lapse of copyright).

Update: After Lizzy pointed out a newer edition (Angel Classics) and translation (by Peter James Bowman - see comments), I've also noticed that the same book is now available in the Penguin Classics range as On Tangled Paths :)

Another Update:  Tom has pointed out a bilingual edition from Quillcox Press!  This one is called Diversions and Entanglements and is translated by Curt Swanson - Irrungen, Wirrungen indeed...