Whether owing to the impetus of the 150th anniversary of Gustav Freytag’s Soll und Haben or for some other reason, studies of the once-disparaged author have been proliferating. [End Page 312] Here are two more, quite different in purpose and execution. Irmgard Hnilica, though she acknowledges the justification of social-historical and political analyses of the novel’s antisemitic and nationalist-xenophobic dimension, focuses on it as a literary and aesthetic achievement with a “romantische Aura des Wunderbaren” and “ein Reich der Magie” (9). Her introduction has the traditional form of a dissertation: a dense exposition of method, an account of reception, and an explanation of why most previous views of the topic are wrong. Like Marx with Hegel, she proposes to stand the novel on its head, or back on its feet, apparently out of contrariness, “aus Freude am akademischen Dissens” (147). Conventional also is the assertion that the topic has been neglected, even while studies have been emerging on all sides. One reason for this apprehension is a spotty awareness of English-language contributions. I myself have edited in recent years three monographs on Freytag, apparently unknown to Hnilica.
Her approach is poorly chosen and, in my opinion, should have been intercepted by her dissertation advisor. It is to argue a Romantic dimension to the novel by paralleling it to Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Elixiere des Teufels, certainly an eccentric combination. There is no evidence that Freytag knew these works—that his associate Julian Schmidt edited Heinrich von Ofterdingen more than twenty years later is hardly relevant—but it does not matter, as contemporary theory has shown that the center of the text is not the author but the intertextual environment. Hnilica concentrates on spaces, comparing Novalis’s mine and Freytag’s warehouse vaults as magical places and the Polish landscape as a medievalized “grüne Stelle” where Anton notices, among other blossoms, a blue flower in the flax fields. In both novels a young man, inspired by dreams, leaves home and encounters merchants who lead him to poesy in a re-enchanted world. I am puzzled by a claim that Heinrich von Ofterdingen begins, like Soll und Haben, with a place name, which it does not. Hnilica does not get to Die Elixiere des Teufels until three-quarters through the book and soon drops the comparison of the two novels as Künst-lerromane after juxtaposing the stimulation of alcohol in Hoffmann’s novel with that of coffee in Freytag’s, finding Doppelgänger and pacts with the devil in both, and arguing that, as the merchant ethos has replaced religion, the protagonist, monkish like Medardus, has evolved into a merchant artist and acquires an “Aura des Sakralen” (152), unlike Medardus, I should think.
I find most of this unpersuasive, as I do the repeated claims of phallic and vaginal imagery and the ascription of a homoerotic subtext to the friendship situations, all with reference to the dubious metaphorical associations of Freud, here taken to be authoritative. It is convenient that Hnilica can disregard the author, as it seems unlikely that such a mediocre mind as Freytag’s could generate the complexity that is insisted upon here. However, it is possible to extract from the thicket fresh insights into Romantic aspects of the novel beyond Anton’s often-cited reverie about the poesy of colonial commodities: a number of fairy-tale motifs; Anton as Ritter and his Minnedienst in the Polish Minneburg; the empathetic plaster cat; the strength of women; and references to arabesque. Thus the book may have some value to an advanced student of Freytag, though it is not recommendable to a general reader.
Benedict Schofield returns...