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  • Out of Place: German Realism, Displacement and Modernity by John B. Lyon
  • Frederick Betz
Out of Place: German Realism, Displacement and Modernity. By John B. Lyon. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. xi + 241 pages + 2 b/w illustrations. $110.00.

Against the background of the technological, political, economic, and demographic forces of modernity, which occurred later and much more intensely in Germany than elsewhere in Europe and America, and which therefore brought about a more dramatic shift from a sense of belonging to place to a feeling of being out of place, Lyon’s book focuses on how 19th-century German Realists dealt with this change, how they at first tried to preserve a threatened sense of place, but ultimately prepared the way for a new understanding of place as more ephemeral, an understanding that is normally associated with high modernism and still resonates with the widespread sense of displacement in the world today.

Lyon first offers a socio-historical analysis of Berlin in order to argue on a larger scale that the changes associated with ascendant modernity transformed the experience of place. The phenomenal growth of Berlin was largely the result of displacement of vast numbers of immigrants from their places of origin to the industrial metropolis, where they suffered further loss of place by being crowded into “Mietskasernen” that maximized owners’ profits while minimizing renters’ living space. James Hobrecht’s city plan (1862) privileged public spaces by proposing wide avenues [End Page 310] and large squares, based on the model of Paris. City and housing reformers proposed more single-family homes, socially and economically differentiated neighborhoods, and parks, which reflected an effort to recover a sense of place for individual inhabitants, but also betrayed their own concept of space in relation to functionality and class.

While authors of “Heimatliteratur” simply created a fiction of place to compensate for the loss of connection to place in the modern city, 19th-century German Realists depict the struggle between being in and out of place, whether in small rural villages or in the metropolis. Social disruptions and tensions in the relationship to place are pervasive in German Realism, but Lyon focuses on Raabe, Fontane, and Keller (based on their similar aesthetic practices and their connection to Berlin), analyzing the shift in the concept of place in Raabe’s Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse (1856) and Die Akten des Vogelsangs (1896), Fontane’s Irrungen Wirrungen (1888), and Keller’s Martin Salander (1886).

Die Chronik is set in a small alley of a large metropolis (modeled on the Spreegasse, where Raabe lived in Berlin from 1854 to 1856), while Die Akten is set both in a small neighborhood (Vogelsang), which is eventually swallowed up by the encroaching metropolis, and in a small apartment in Berlin. In Die Chronik, Johannes Wacholder reflects on his friends and neighbors, past and present events, and places near and far, but holistically experiences the “universe” in his own “dwelling” (cf. Heidegger), which Raabe achieves by embedding place spatially, textually, and temporally (in memory), but also calls into question by revealing that his narrator is not always reliable. In Die Akten, Karl Krumhardt reflects on early friends (Helene Trotzendorff, Velten Andres) and neighbors, who face the dilemma of binding themselves to a sense of place and therefore also to confining social structures (des Beaux family, Frau Fechtmeisterin Feucht) or freeing themselves from such confining social structures but simultaneously losing all connection to place and other humans (Velten). Krumhardt is in the “grip” of these two incompatible ways of life, for which Raabe shows understanding, but does not offer a solution.

In the first half of Irrungen Wirrungen, while Botho and Lene are still together, a stable, almost idyllic, notion of space predominates, but yields in the second half, after they separate, to the notion that there is no place outside social reality. However, even before they part there are places (Hankels Ablage, Jungfernheide) where the lovers are reminded of the impossibility of escaping social scrutiny (Lene) or of social obligation (Botho). References to immigration, Mietskasernen, Frau Nimptsch and Lene as renters, the threat of Botho’s family losing its estate, and the merging of urban and rural...


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pp. 310-312
Launched on MUSE
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