The late great critic and "Pope" of German literature - Marcel Reich-Ranicki - included Theodor Fontane's 1882 work Schach von Wuthenow in his Kanon of essential German literature, along with Fontane's better-known novels Frau Jenny Treibel and Effi Briest. Fontane himself called Schach a "story" (Erzählung ) - Erzählung aus der Zeit des Regiments Gensdarmes. I would categorize it as a Novelle. - a genre where Fontane excelled. Actually Fontane excelled in everything - novels, novellas, stories, poetry, travelogues, and historical writings. I completely agree with Reich-Ranicki that Schach von Wuthenow is one of the Fontane's finest works - very much worthwhile (re)reading. It is a surprisingly modern work of fiction with an impartial narrator who constantly shifts perspective among the key characters; it also has a scandalous episode of illicit sex at its center which must have shocked some of the readers of the Vossische Zeitung, where it first appeared in serial form.
Like much of Fontane's writing, Schach von Wuthenow is about Berlin - but not the 1870s Berlin of Irrungen Wirrungen. Rather, the story - based on a true event - takes the reader back to 1806, shortly before the Prussian army's crushing defeat by Napoleon at Jena. One of Fontane's favorite topics is the weakness and shortsightedness of the Prussian aristocracy - embodied here in the central character, the cavalry officer Schach von Wuthenow. Schach is a dashing figure, admired by men and women alike for his good looks and personal charisma. But he is also a vain and superficial character, torn between pursuing own selfish desires and an exaggerated sense of the duty to the king. He's also blind to the inferiority of the Prussian army compared to France's military might ( „ich aber halte zu dem friderizianischen Satze, dass die Welt nicht sicherer auf den Schultern des Atlas ruht, als Preußen auf den Schultern seiner Armee“). Schach's counterpart - and eventual downfall - is Victoire von Carayon. Victoire is Schach's exact opposite: a highly intelligent young woman with sparkling wit, whose face is disfigured by pockmarks. She and her widowed mother - the beautiful Josephine von Carayon - are both attracted to the cavalry officer and vie for his attention, despite recognizing his weak character. Josephine's verdict: " Er [Schach] ist schwach und eitel nach Art aller schönen Männer"
It was Goethe who stated that the distinguishing feature of the Novelle is the "die unerhörte Begebenheit" or "extraordinary event". In Schach von Wuthenow this takes place at about the midpoint when Shach has sex with Victoire ("off stage" , naturally, but completely obvious to the reader). Schach may have been influenced by a long discussion on the nature of Beauty in salon of the decadent Prince Louis, where the prince expounded on the beauté du diable in connection with Victoire. Schach immediately regrets his "moment of weakness" with the (in his eyes) ugly Victoire, and would just have preferred to continue his freewheeling bachelor life, but the strong-willed Josephine has other plans for him and enlists the support of none other than the king to force Schach into marriage with her daughter. In a remarkable scene, Schach is summoned to the king (and queen), and Fontane somehow is able to capture the king's idiosyncratic way of speaking:
»Habe Sie rufen lassen, lieber Schach... Die Carayon; fatale Sache. Spiele nicht gern den Moralisten und Splitterrichter; mir verhaßt; auch meine Verirrungen. Aber in Verirrungen nicht steckenbleiben; wiedergutmachen. Übrigens nicht recht begreife. Schöne Frau, die Mutter; mir sehr gefallen; kluge Frau. »Und die Tochter! Weiß wohl, weiß; armes Kind... Aber enfin, müssen sie doch charmant gefunden haben. Und was man einmal charmant gefunden, findet man, wenn man nur will, auch wieder. Aber das ist Ihre Sache, geht mich nichts an. Was mich angeht, das ist die Honnêteté. Die verlang ich, und um dieser Honnêteté willen verlang ich Ihre Heirat mit dem Fräulein von Carayon. Oder Sie müßten denn Ihren Abschied nehmen und den Dienst quittieren wollen.«
Thus is Schach's fate sealed: he cannot contemplate leaving his military service, nor can he withstand the ridicule of his comrades for marrying Victoire.
There is so much more to Schach von Wuthenow than just this bare plot line - many different characters (some are real historical figures) , venues, political debates. Fontane is able to construct a whole world - a place in time - that fascinated his readers in 1882 and continues to fascinate today. (Note to North American readers: Schach von Wuthenow and all of Fontane's major works are available for download free of charge from the Amazon Kindle Store.)