On Tangled Paths (1888) by Theodor Fontane


I found this tiny book nestled in between the Gillian Flynns and the John Grishams in my local library. It’s unusual to find obscure classics at my library.  Austen? Yes. Brontes? Charlotte yes, Emily maybe, Anne no. Eliot? Pffft, no chance.  But Theodor Fontane? Wowzers. I knew the name but not the works so I thought it was worth a try.

The original German title of this particular book is Irrungen, Wirrungen which apparently translates as Confusions, Delusions although elsewhere I’ve seen it written as Trials and Tribulations. The ‘tangled path’ of the English title is trodden by Botho, an aristocratic Cavalry officer, and Lene, a seamstress. Their affair lasts just one summer and ends quietly, with sadness but no recriminations on either side. Botho and Lene are aware from the beginning that their relationship can’t last so when the time comes for Botho to marry a more suitable (i.e. wealthy) woman they do the reasonable thing and part. There’s no melodrama; instead it’s a simple and thoughtful account of the few happy months they have together and their lives after the affair has ended.

I read somewhere that some of Fontane’s contemporaries were scandalised by the very open way in which he describes their relationship. He doesn’t judge the couple or portray Lene as a ‘fallen woman’; on the contrary, he paints her as a rational, clear headed girl who happens to have fallen in love with a man from another social class. It can’t be helped and it’s never suggested that this relationship is out of the ordinary, far from it. I love the fact that Lene never feels hard done by or ashamed of her past. Botho, on the other hand, has more to regret. I found his chatterbox wife Kathe wonderfully entertaining but I can see why she’d be a poor substitute.

Fontane captures Berlin at the height of summer, at least during the first half of the book, and some of his descriptions are beautifully evocative. You can feel the sun shining through the pages. This is the first of my #AW80books reads that’s set somewhere I’ve visited (three times in this case). Of course, a lot has happened since 1888 so the city I remember is very different to the one Fontane describes but it was nice to be a able to picture certain streets and parks as they were when I saw them. It’s not often that I can do that.

This was a quiet, understated little novel but I’m really interested in finding some of Fontane’s other works. I don’t know any others by name but maybe they’ll turn up unexpectedly at the library….

7 thoughts on “On Tangled Paths (1888) by Theodor Fontane

  1. I’ve never come across Theodor Fontane, but I’ll keep an eye out from now on, as this sounds like a really good find. I know what you mean about reading about places you’ve been to. It’s like revisiting your favourite haunts through the eyes and footsteps of a novel’s characters. Mind you, I love doing it the other way round too – reading novels set somewhere i’m about to visit, so I already have a sense of the place before I go. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • We just booked a weekend in north Wales and the first thing I did was look for Welsh authors at the library so I know exactly what you mean! All I could lay my hands on was Under Milk Wood but I thought it was a start a least 🙂


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