On Tangled Paths (Irrungen, Wirrungen)

By Theodor Fontane
Penguin Classics edition translated from German by Peter James Bowman
Goodreads Rating: 3.23
GL Rating: 4.5

Came across this title on a year-end “These were great books I read in 2018” list published by the New Statesman. I’d not heard of Fontane, nor of this book.

I picked it up, and was struck by the novel’s opening paragraph:

“At the point where the Kurfurstendamm intersects the Kurfurstenstrasse, diagonally across from the Zoological Gardens, there was still, in the mid eighteen-seventies, a large market garden running back to the open fields behind; and in it stood a small, three-windowed house with its own little front garden, set back about a hundred paces from the road that went by and clearly visible from there despite being so small and secluded. However, the other building in the market garden, indeed without doubt its main feature, was concealed by this little house as if by the wings of a stage set, and only a red- and green­painted wooden turret with the remains of a clock face (no trace of an actual clock) under its pointed roof suggested that there was something hidden in the wings, a suggestion confirmed by a flock of pigeons fluttering up round the turret from time to time and, even more, by the occasional barking of a dog. The whereabouts of this dog eluded the viewer, although the front door on the far left stood open all day long, affording a glimpse of the yard. There was in general no apparent intention to hide anything, and yet anyone who passed that way at the time our story begins had to be content not to see beyond the little three-windowed house and a few fruit trees standing in the front garden.”

The imagery is very dense, and it seems to be a significant passage thematically. While Fontane writes in a realist/natural mode, this paragraph, with its distorted space (small buildings obscuring larger buildings) and mutated clocks has a surrealist feel to it. The contents of the garden are emphatically visible and concealed at the same time. Oddly enough, there’s not really another paragraph like it in the story, which is too bad.

I’ll start with some of the book’s shortcomings before moving on to its … [looks furtively over shoulder, turns back to camera] charms.

My primary gripe with Paths is that the story, the tale of a somewhat down-on-his-pfennings baron who falls for a working girl and is forced to choose between her and a wealthy woman who will keep him ensconced in the aristocracy, feels conventional to a modern reader. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it formulaic, as Fontane’s handling of the story is nuanced, but for the most part it unfolds in ways that do not surprise.

On a sentence-to-sentence level, the writing (as translated) is apt, but it’s generally not much beyond apt. You wouldn’t read this novel for the language.

Finally, the characters are not particularly complex and almost read like types, rather than as individuals.

Those considerations aside, while I would only recommend reading the novel with a few caveats, I did enjoy it, and for reasons that I didn’t anticipate.

While the plot was not a barn-burner, I found early on in the book that the details about life in Berlin and its environs at that time were very interesting, and you get a sense of this from the first paragraph. The book is peppered throughout with references to historical people, places, and events, and it draws from a rich milieu. With On Tangled Paths, the context in some ways outshines the story. This makes sense, in that Fontane had a long career as a journalist, and in fact did not start publishing fiction until is late 50s.

There is one section of the story set in a village called Hanckel’s Stowage which almost managed to carry the entire book. The description of the setting (which itself is not particularly remarkable) and, moreso, the comings and goings of the inhabitants and German tourists, was inspired and masterful.

I was curious enough about the documentary-like details in the story that I resolved early on to root around for more dirt on Fontane and the novel’s backstory. Fortunately the Penguin Classic version includes a top-shelf afterword written by the translator, with many great morsels about the book and its author.

In fact, this was a rare instance where I almost wish I’d read the afterword prior to reading the novel, as I think I would have appreciated the story more. Although I don’t believe he’s particularly well-known in the States, Fontane is generally regarded (according to the translator, anyway) as the foremost German novelist to ply his trade between Goethe and Mann.

Also, while the plot is pretty tame by today’s standards, and doesn’t seem particularly scandalous, it caused a shit-storm when it first appeared, serialized in a Berlin paper. While affairs between horny Prussian aristocrats and mop-toting peasant girls were common at the time, it was not something that was openly discussed. The story’s serialization led to a deluge of cancelled subscriptions.

So, the final verdict: On Tangled Paths, while I’d never put it on a “best book I’ve read this year” list, is a pretty groovy way to while away a few hours, especially if you’re interested in German or European history, or curious about life in Berlin at the end of the 19th Century. It almost feels like a guilty pleasure, but a guilty pleasure packed with … nutrients.

Tally ho!