I recently picked up thie short novel and read it in just a couple of sittings- it is more a novella than a full novel, and is a delightful read. Irrungen WIrrungen, published in 1888, is one of Fontane's Berlin novels; the events take place in the Berlin of the 1870s. The novel lacks the tragic drama of Unwiederbringlich (see my review) or of his masterpiece Effi Briest, but it is a beautifully crafted piece of fiction and Fontane's trademark sunny melancholy is apparent throughout.
The novel deals with the impossible relationship between an aristocratic calvary officer (Botho von Rienäcker) and a seamstress from the lower class (Lene Nimptsch). Irrungen Wirrungen must have pushed the boundaries of literary propriety of the times, since Lene is depicted as an independent, sexually active single woman, who chooses to love Botho even though she knows the affair can go nowhere. The Baron is attracted to Lene's sweetness, but also to her authenticity and honesty - something he finds lacking in his peers.
The high point of the story takes place precisely midpoint in the narrative when the couple makes an overnight getaway to Hankels Ablage, a small resort hotel just outside Berlin. There, far from the the madding crowd, in the tranquility of nature, the young lovers can relax and enjoy each other's company. The magical spell abruptly dissipates the next morning with the arrival of several Botho's officer friends in the company of some high-class prostitutes. Lene now clearly sees the impossibility of her situation and breaks with Botho:
"Du liebst mich und bist schwach. Daran ist nichts zu ändern. Alle schönen Männer sind schwach und der Stärkre beherrscht sie... Und der Stärkre... ja, wer ist dieser Stärkre? Nun entweder ist's deine Mutter, oder das Gerede der Menschen, oder die Verhältnisse. Oder vielleicht alles drei."
("You do love me but you are weak. Nothing can change this. Handsome men are all weak and are controlled by something stronger. And that stronger force - well what or who is this stronger one? Either it's your mother, or the gossip, or just society. Or maybe it's all three...")
Botho has to agree with Lene's assessment, and gives up his one chance for happiness.
The peripheral figures in Irrungen Wirrungen are vividly drawn by Fontane. Both Botho and Lene end up in loveless marriages: Botho with a young countess whose constant chatter exasperates him (but is quite amusing to the reader). Lene marries an emotionally repressed factory owner who had fallen into some kind of fundamentalist Christian sect during a sojurn in America.
The tone of Irrungen Wirrungen is resigned melancholy. Resignation at the transience of happiness ("Dann lebt man ohne Glück," Lene says at one point). Resignation at the transience of life - the death of Lene's foster mother is a central scene, as is Botho's pilgrimage to her grave. These are themes that Fontane takes up to greater effect in his later novels, but this novella is a thoroughly enjoyable "warm up" exercise by the great writer.
The novel has been translated into English as On Tangled Paths by Peter James Bowman and is available through Penguin Classics. I was able to download the orignial German version for free at Amazon Kindle.