Since things are ever-changing, for better and for worse, periods of flux are common, albeit easier to delineate later. On Tangled Paths, a novel the German writer Theodor Fontane published in 1888, is set a decade earlier, in just such a time of change. It starts with the timeless image of a market garden - cottage, fruit trees, flock of pigeons, barking dog, turret with remains of clock. Yet all is about to vanish, enveloped by the spread of the city. The encroaching city is Berlin, evoked with such particularity and fondness that it becomes more than a mere setting.
Lene, the young woman living in the cottage with her foster mother, is like a fairy-tale heroine, orphaned, beautiful, loved by a handsome young baron. But this is the cusp of modernity: the seamstress Lene has the self confidence of one who earns her own living. She embarks on loving the baron knowing that he will not break with his aristocratic background. Money is not mentioned, but Fontane makes clear that, unlike Lene, the baron is incapable of supporting himself.
Life in his elite regiment is expensive, creditors are foreclosing on his estate, his widowed mother is pressing him to marry his rich cousin. Yet because of true love, they have a few happy months. Much is lost in the course of this tender, thoughtful story, but it is the baron, stuck in his gilded cage, who has more to regret. Lene suffers, but is better able to adapt to the future.
When he wrote No Way Back in 1891, Fontane knew what would become of the contested duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. But for his characters, living there 30 years earlier, Prussia's triumph over Denmark could only be foreseen, or not. As with Lene's baron, Count Holk is an agreeable aristocrat, with nothing to gain from social change. Gregarious, interested in everything, he enjoys playing gentleman-in-waiting to an elderly Danish princess as a relief from home life in Schleswig.
The princess and Holk's wife, Christine, are both strong women, but quite unalike. The former is a remnant of the ancien regime, all for politics, gossip, fun, intrigue; while Christine is a more Victorian, religious type. Young Ebba, also the princess's attendant, is another forceful character, of the selfish, manipulative sort at home in any era. Between them, Holk is soon out of his depths, ending up far from the sunny, glowing happiness he seeks.
There is an undertow of sadness to both this stories, yet to read them is a joy, for their humanity, subtlety and visual immediacy. And, for those who don't know German, their novelty. Fontane, who loved England and translated much from English into German, felt disappointed that the compliment was not returned.
Although these are not the first translations, they are the first for a while. They read effortlessly well – so thanks to the translators, and to Angel Books.