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  • Fictions of Legibility: The Human Face and Body in Modern German Novels from Sophie von La Roche to Alfred Döblin by Gabriela Stoicea
  • Ross Etherton
Fictions of Legibility: The Human Face and Body in Modern German Novels from Sophie von La Roche to Alfred Döblin. By Gabriela Stoicea. Bielefeld: transcript, 2020. Pp. 200. Paper $60.00. ISBN 978-3837647204.

In her smartly written and concise book, Gabriela Stoicea examines the role that corporeal legibility plays in three German novels between 1771 and 1929, showing how they shaped and responded to physiognomic debates. The book covers the period of the most dramatic activity in physiognomy, whose attention to the face, body, and clothing changed over the course of 150 years from a pseudoscience promoting "the knowledge and love of mankind" into a foundation of Nazi racial policy (12). By focusing closely on three works, Stoicea champions the sort of close reading and attention to nuance that physiognomy ignores, presenting literary texts in their multivocality, complexity, and resistance to immediate and unilateral legibility.

The book begins with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's statement, made during the eighteenth century's "physiognomic debate," that "the most entertaining surface on earth … is that of the human face" (9). This debate was fueled by Lichtenberg's contemporary Johann Caspar Lavater and his four-volume Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), which provided a foundation for the proliferation of physiognomic thinking, stoking an interest in corporeal legibility. While Lavater's views were later discredited, his legacy loomed large for 200 years in the shape of continued debates and influenced philosophy and medicine as they attempted to read past the human body, effectively effacing it and "[conflating] readability with transparency" (12). Stoicea shows how novels by Sophie La Roche, Friedrich Spielhagen, and Alfred Döblin resisted Lavater's instructions regarding the "reading" of faces and bodies and intervened in contemporary physiognomic conversations. She asserts that physiognomy helped [End Page 405] the novel, as a relatively new literary form, defend itself against critiques that it was a "pseudo-epic," and shows that novelistic attention to corporeal details was crucial to the genre's ability to develop complex characters and depict relationships. Since physiognomy resided at the nexus of divergent fields like medicine, philosophy, and the visual arts, the conversation that arose between it and literature allowed novelists to shed light on "the body's trials and tribulations in the age of scientific rationalism" (14). According to Stoicea, these novelists were not just illuminating the body and a mode of reading—they also were active participants in a conversation that would effect real change. Novels that took part in these conversations led to a more humane understanding of the body and contained "moments of resistance … [to] the doctrines of bodily effacement spawned by Lavater's physiognomic system" (15).

The first two sections of the book begin with historical background situating La Roche's and Spielhagen's novels within the evolution of physiognomic thinking. This overview is particularly valuable in the section on La Roche, as it responds most directly to a Lavaterian mode of reading. Stoicea shows that La Roche's 1771 epistolary novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, more radical in its polyphony than Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), played a decisive role in conversations surrounding the relevance of the novel and the unique possibilities it offered readers. Here Stoicea deftly employs close readings that focus on instances where both the body and the text are made visible and shows how La Roche's novel enacts its unique qualities through multiperspectival narration.

When a scholar deals with relatively neglected or forgotten authors like La Roche or Spielhagen, it is easy for readers to get lost in the analysis of unfamiliar narratives. Stoicea avoids this pitfall by providing accounts, alongside her close readings, of plot details in an exciting way, bringing unfamiliar readers closer to the source material and piquing their interest in the process. She thus does a service to her own critiques and to novels that have fallen into obscurity. Stoicea's skill is particularly evident in her chapter on Spielhagen's 1897 novel Zum Zeitvertrieb, which she reads...