Saturday, 29 November 2014

Read in 2014 - 42: Der Stechlin

For a change (and because this book was part of the birthday gift from my sister, intended to educate me in terms of better reading), I have read another* classic of German literature: Der Stechlin by Theodor Fontane.

Der Stechlin simply means "The Stechlin", and refers to a lake in North-East Germany by this name. The lake really exists; the village, the palace (actually, a large mansion) and the aristocratic family by the same name are the author's invention.
Written in the years 1895 to 1897, it was first published (as used to be the case for so many books) in installments in a magazine in 1897, and two years later appeared in the shape of a book for the first time.
It was one of the last works Fontane ever wrote; he died a year after publication.

The plot is quickly told: Dubslav von Stechlin, member of an old aristocratic family, a man in his mid-sixties, is a quirky, lovable character with very liberal views not shared by many of his fellow aristocrats and village dwellers.
He has one son, Woldemar, who spends most of his time in Berlin, working at his military career.
Dubslav loves discussions and conversations and surrounds himself with people from all walks of life and with different political and religious views. 

Back in Berlin, Woldemar strikes up a friendship with another aristrocratic family: an elderly widower - not unlike his father in character - with two daughters, Armgard and Melusine. Armgard is pale and beautiful, quiet and ladylike, while Melusine, already in her 30s and of a more vital beauty, is divorced, very clever and witty. After one of Woldemar's visits, the reader expects an engagement, without at first knowing which of the women Woldemar will choose, as he seems on equally friendly terms with both of them.

Before anything further happens, though, Woldemar is called to the Royal Court of England for a mission that is never really explained in detail. He spends several weeks away, and upon his return, immediately visits his friends in Berlin again. A few days later, the engagement of Woldemar and Armgard is announced.

The couple and Melusine visit Dubslav at his country mansion over Christmas. At the end of February, Woldemar's and Armgard's wedding takes place in Berlin. While the newlyweds leave for their honeymoon in Italy, Dubslav returns to the country, where he falls ill.

His illness turns out to be rather severe, but right until the end, the old gentleman does not lose his characteristical wit. He dies without having seen his son and daughter-in-law again. After their return from the honeymoon, the young couple live in Berlin for a while, but move to the old country mansion eventually. The novel ends with a letter from Melusine.

Although this sounds like a family story, Fontane's intention was to write a political novel. And there is a lot of politics going on, mainly referred to in conversations between the various characters. This was a time when old and new ideas in Germany clashed on so many levels, and the characters represent this Old and New very well. Dubslav himself is a good example; his liberal ideas represent the New, but his mere existence as a retired Major, offspring of a long line of aristocrats, is Old.

I enjoyed this book very much. The language is different from the way a modern German author would write; the people are interesting and well written, the places are as full of character as are the people.
* Click here for my review of the "Buddenbrooks", maybe THE classic German novel.


  1. I wonder whether I am ready for serious novels.....And whether this is available in English....
    Ha! I finally found an English translation, very expensive, for nearly $40.00 though I could have it in German on my kindle for 99cents.......But some of the other titles by this author sound intriguing. A Tour of Scotland, from the late 1850s. Thank you writing about this author who was completely unknown to me, until today.

    1. Fontane is one of the German authors responsible for several works deemed "classic" here, such as Effi Briest, which is probably his best-known novel. It was turned into a film more than once. I've just looked him up on and, like you, found many of his works in German for free in the kindle store, and many translations at low prices.

  2. The whole concept of 'serious' novels and 'the rest' is so often blurred. Dickens is regarded as classic and 'serious' these days [although I have never been able to finish a Dickens novel] but in its day was often nothing more than a weekly story. Oddly, though, I devoured the Russian novels in my youth. It calls into question the reason for reading. Do we read for entertainment or relaxation or education? Of course it can be all there but I think one of the things age has brought to me is a feeling that I can watch the films I want to watch and read the books I want to read and I have no 'need' to be educated if I don't actually feel like it.

    1. My reasons for reading are all those - sometimes, I want nothing more than to be entertained, sometimes I am eager to learn something, sometimes I just want to enjoy the elegant flow of words. No matter what my current motivation may be, I shall be forever grateful to my sister, since it was she who originally taught me reading a year before I started school myself.