When Christine dies at the end of Theodor Fontane’s No Way Back, it is felt less as a consequence of her husband Holk’s immorality than a consequence of his stupidity—and that stupidity is in turn felt less as a moral than a historical limitation. On the level of politics and nations, very few can see where they stand in relation to the future of their region of the world, soon to be the object of Bismark’s salvo in Prussian expansion; on the level of society, few can see how hollow and exhausted their friendships and social functions have become; on the level of the family, there is little hope of making the old roles fulfill their promise for the self or loved ones. There is no irritable reaching after renewal either; there is instead comfortable inertia, tinged by fatalism in some and sheer indolence in others. The trouble is not spiritual or moral; Christine possesses spiritual fervor in abundance; nor is the trouble disengagement or alienation, since Holk yearns for the political fray of Copenhagen. The trouble is that Fontane shows a world to which no fervor, fascination, or romance can adhere; it is depleted.
But the novel expresses this depletion not by satire or tragedy; not even by comedy; it expresses it by pale romance and fruitless plotting. Christine’s death, perhaps tragic in the hands of another author, can find no source of illumination requisite for tragedy in Fontane’s world. It feels instead like a final humiliating consequence of Holk’s blunders, the result of his incontinence of the will and his inability to see aright his own situation.
What is most surprising about the novel, and what sets it apart and makes it live like few other works, is Fontane’s decision to grant Holk the hero’s place, even though Christine is, by the admission of even Holk, far more intelligent, idealistic, and emotionally sensitive; by aesthetic rights, and ethical rights, it ought to be her story. But it is not. Of course. The comment on chauvinism in the novel’s world is not explicit, but it devastatingly exposed in Fontane’s decision to follow Holk to Copenhagen and leave Christine and her smothered inner life behind at the country estate, and beyond the central plot, which follows instead Holk’s pathetic (but not really pathetic, standing as pathos as melodrama stands to drama) intrigue with at the court of a dessicated Danish princess. When Christine’s letters arrive, Holk is baffled by her tone, ignores her words, proclaims that all is well, and only, at the end, registers unease when her brother, Holk’s friend (for what it is worth) Arne, intervenes to scold.
To have written about Christine at home would have been to come nearer to Ibsen. Instead, we get Holk. That choice haunts the pages, so that we feel wronged in just the right way. Christine’s religious idealism, her care for her children, her strong sense of how to live, placed in the torpor of a marriage to Holk, once alive with love, now propped up by routine, are sufficiently outlined for the reader to think: this is the stuff of a fine novel of tragic self-blindness, stifled ambition, and an imagination exceeding the fodder of daily life. Holk’s heroism is far duller; he too is imaginative, but his imagination runs in shallow, well-trodden, predictable grooves. His failure is melancholy rather than sad, exasperating rather than humorous. Christine’s purpose in the novel is to cast a shadow. It is also to diagnose; pretty much everything she says about Holk near the start is shown to be true. She has the superior mind. I can think of no other novelist who would create Christine and then push her to the side, and to do it without it feeling like an artistic blunder, with it feeling instead like the judgment by which the entire novel could be unlocked.
Alongside the negative impression of Ibsen, the novel needs to be placed alongside Madame Bovary on the one hand and The Ambassadors on the other, with Italo Svevo’s A Man Grows Older in some relation too. Like these, it is a novel about timid mediocrity in middle-aged men. Flaubert, of course, makes Emma the heroine; I wonder if Fontane took the challenge of making a Charles Bovary his hero. James, of course, has vastly greater sympathy for Lambert Strether than Fontane has for Holk. But the type of plot, with its climactic anti-climax of humiliation, in The Ambassadors, structures Fontane’s novel too; and Fontane is not without sympathy for any of the characters, and he grants their interests, their hopes, and their concerns his full attention, however far removed even from his own time, twenty-some years after the fact, they might now seem.
By the end of No Way Back, it’s hard not to feel that there is something to condemn—but the novel’s world is without resources for passing adequate condemnation on what has happened. Even Christine’s otherwise accurate diagnosis of Holk feels lacking in an account of what exactly he lacks; he is simply too conventional, too unimaginative. But so is everyone, even Christine. The novel invites the reader to the judge’s bar, only to find that the courtroom is abandoned. There’s not even a clerk to sneer. Instead, the last words belong to the lugubriously stolid Julie von Dobschutz, Christine’s companion, who saw everything and did little, whose life has itself been reduced only to waiting on her mistress-friend.
That is perhaps entirely right. Everyone in the novel is waiting without knowing what they wait for. They are waiting out the old virtues and maxims; they are waiting out the old court politics; they are waiting out the children, who will grow old in turn. It might be tempting to think Holk at least heroic in his sudden impulse to profess his love to Ebba (after the tepid farce of romance and Romanticism that is the fire at Fredriksborg) and throw away his former life, and wife—here, at least, we might think, someone will wait no longer—except that his impulse represents no seizing of the moment, no victory over indecision or manifestation of Kairos. Instead, Holk’s impetuousness represents a further symptom, a childish response to the waiting that does nothing to bring ends or means into clarity, nothing to reckon it for what it is.
Among the characters, there is an abiding and recurring interest in antiquarianism. They collect rocks, read runes, withdraw into the fabled past of the Baltic, and debate what it all means. It means nothing. It distracts the present, rather than filling it; the past can only fill the present when the future does too.
Someone would say what was wrong—Ibsen and others—but the world was not there yet, Fontane perhaps realized. Or perhaps he struggled to say and see much of it too. He gives us what he does see, as much as he can see it, which is Christine abandoned to a boredom that is itself tedious but also terrifying…does he write the entire novel for her? Unable to write a novel about her, he wanted (so my fiction runs) to write a novel that nonetheless brings her forth, into partial view. I can’t help but think of Munch’s paintings of women, solitary or with companions, often standing on a shore, looking out.