Of all the great 19th-century European novelists, Fontane is the least emphatic. He eschews scenes of grand passion and fierce melodrama. The tone of his novels, like that of the lives he chronicles, is largely muted and withheld. He is a superb eavesdropper, delighting in conversations through which the characters come as close as they are ever likely to get to self-revelation. The novel, in Fontane's hands, intermingles revelations and concealment: the seeming indirection and disarming casualness of narrative mode frequently reveals subtexts of extraordinary eloquence, even pathos. Harmless moments acquire symbolic resonances of deprivation and loss. The novel is more articulate than its characters - but deliberately, tactfully so. Fontane is not portentous; there is too much irony and urbanity for that. Yet, once we hear his tone aright, almost everything, even mere scraps of conversation, seems potentially significant.
Precisely this combination of obliquity and resonance poses particular problems for the translator. Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers have risen magnificently to the challenge. Take that moment of free indirect speech early on in chapter three when Effi's mother finds herself rejoicing that her rejected suitor of some years previously has now become engaged to her daughter: "It couldn't be her, so now, instead of her, it was her daughter - just as good, all in all, perhaps even better. For life with Briest was quite tolerable, even if he was a shade prosaic and lapsed on occasion into frivolity."
Or there is the moment when Effi is in Berlin with her mother, shopping for her trousseau: "She liked only what was most elegant, and if she couldn't have the best she would do without the second best, because second best meant nothing to her. Yes, she was capable of doing without, her mother was right about that, and doing without had an element of the undemanding; but when, exceptionally, it came to really wanting something, that something always had to be quite out of the ordinary. And in this she was demanding." This is magnificently done: every hesitation and cadence seem just right.
Martin Swales is professor of German, University College, London.
Author - Theodor Fontane
ISBN - 0 946162 44 1
Publisher - Angel Books
Price - £8.95
Pages - 245pp
Translator - Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers