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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
  • Lilla Balint
STOICEA, GABRIELA. Fictions of Legibility: The Human Face and Body in Modern German Novels from Sophie von la Roche to Alfred Döblin. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2020. 197 pp. $60.00 paperback.

What do Sophie von La Roche’s epistolary novel Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771), Alexander Spielhagen’s nigh-forgotten realist novel Zum Zeitvertreib (1897), and Alfred Döblin’s modernist classic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) have in common? In her elegantly written study Fictions of Legibility, Gabriela Stoicea argues that each of these literary works sets itself in conversation with the medical, philosophical, and aesthetic debates of its time over the legibility of the human body. Focusing on the period between 1771 and 1929, Stoicea takes Johann Caspar Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–78; Physiognomic Fragments for the Promotion of Human Understanding and Human Love) and the “physiognomic controversy” of the eighteenth century as her starting point to trace how physiognomy transformed from a “pseudo-science designed to foster ‘the knowledge and love of mankind’ into a building bloc of racial-ethnic policies in Nazi Germany” (12). While medicine and philosophy, alongside physiognomy, “conflated readability with transparency” and thus relegated “the human frame to invisibility” (12), the study reveals the works of fiction to be invested in restoring the body’s visibility through a careful rendering of “facial traits, body language, and sartorial details” (9).

Stoicea’s overarching argument is that against the body’s discursive effacement in philosophy and its expanding classification in the medical sciences literature restores the body not only in its visibility but, as a corollary to that, in its fundamental illegibility, or polysemy. Organized chronologically, each of the monograph’s three parts revolves around a century. While the sections on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries begin with the recapitulation of the salient discourses regarding the body, against the background of which Stoicea situates the novels, the third part puts Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in direct dialogue with the debates of its time. The thorough reconstruction of the discursive embeddedness of the literary works contributes to Stoicea’s ambition of covering roughly one hundred and fifty years. At the same time, it forfeits one of the strongest aspects of her illuminating study: those percipient and meticulous close readings, from which Stoicea’s interpretations tend to unfold.

Stoicea’s talent for close reading is particularly noticeable in the first section on the eighteenth century, in which she develops her reading of La Roche’s Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim from a single scene, or rather from a single blush of the protagonist in what appears—by the standards of the eighteenth [End Page 442] century—as a morally compromising scene. But why, Stoicea asks, does the narrative return to the episode three times (and from different perspectives)? In response, she claims these apparent redundancies emphasize the possibility of multiple readings of the body—and, by extension, the impossibility of a single one. The main point here is that in comparison with more canonical examples of eighteenth-century literature such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) La Roche pioneered a rare polyphonic form of narration that opens up “multiple epistemic possibilities” (78). Whereas La Roche drew on Richardson in adopting the epistolary form, she also radicalized the narrative potentials that remained unrealized in Pamela. Stoicea’s monograph reaches one of its most powerful moments when it presents this rereading of the history of the novel, daringly introducing Sophie von La Roche as its newest protagonist.

For the nineteenth century, Stoicea also turns to a refreshingly off-canonical choice: Friedrich Spielhagen’s Zum Zeitvertreib, a novel based on the same real-life story of Elisabeth von Ardenne as Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest. In his adaptation of the extra-marital affair, however, Spielhagen sets markedly different accents than Fontane, spotlighting the “class conflict between the aristocracy and the cultivated bourgeoisie” (110). While this emphatic social orientation...