Theodor Fontane is described as a German Jane Austen in the afterword of No way back. I can see why – like Austen, his society novel is concerned with relationships, is sharp and witty, and strong on dialogue. But unlike Austen, who brought couples together and left them at the altar, Fontane charts the course of a failing marriage.
Count Holk and his wife Christine have been married for 17 years and have 2 children. They’re also singularly incompatible. He’s carefree and cheerful, not troubling his intellect with anything more onerous than the agricultural projects he carries out on his estate. She’s seemingly perfect in every way – beautiful, clever and pious. But these qualities, which initially attracted him, are now a constant source of friction. His lack of piety and thoughtfulness exasperates her, she acts morally superior towards him, and he turns away from her, thinking she is cold and too principled. At the start of the book, my sympathy lay firmly with him. Here is a typical quote from Christine:
“In Copenhagen everything is of this world, it’s all pleasure, sensuality and intoxication, and that gives no strength. Strength is on the side of the sober, those who control themselves.”
Oppressed by his marital unhappiness, Holk leaps at the chance to spend time at the Danish royal court, as a gentleman-in-waiting to the elderly Princess, aunt of the King. Here he is entertained by witty, amoralistic people who are the very opposite of his dour, disapproving wife. Inevitably, the faultlines in the marriage widen to a chasm, until it is irreparable, and there really is no way back.
Who is to blame for the breakdown of the relationship? Holk is a good-natured, well-intentioned man. But this is not always enough. The socialite Ebba Rosenberg sharply penetrates his failings in a gossipy conversation with the Princess:
“His character is what’s really weak about him … He’s a moral fellow, indeed you might almost say he’s a paragon of virtue, but he’s not entirely averse to being a man of the world, and that’s the worst part of his half-heartedness.”
The ending is sudden and unexpected, the very opposite of what a Jane Austen novel would provide. It causes us to re-interpret Christine’s character in a much more sympathetic light. It also brings the melancholy atmosphere that is in the background for most of the novel into sharp focus. The tragedy here comes from the fact that this marriage was doomed to fail without either spouse wishing it. It shows how small misunderstandings and misplaced pride can ruin a relationship.
No way back is a slight story, where not much happens. In some novels, such as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (which has a similar storyline) the simplicity of the plot suits the story, as it is complemented by emotional intensity. No way back doesn’t have that intensity. Still, it has that quiet way that nineteenth century novels often do of drawing you in and then staying with you.