24 NOVEMBER 1990, Page 30

Eric Christiansen

Before the Storm by Theodore Fontane, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (OUP, £6.95). The World's Classics did it again: published a fine big book at a realistic price. This is Germany's answer to War and Peace, an '1812' or '1813' historical novel about Prussian folk trapped in an elemental upsurge against Buonaparte. Allow for the fact that even a decent chap like Fontane was infected by the mass- delusions of nationalism and historicism; allow for his being as sentimental in his own way as Tolstoy in his, about ghosts and young girls, as opposed to peasants and young girls; allow for his belief in the middle-class virtues (not one of Tolstoy's tendresses), and I dare suggest that Before the Storm will hold its own, provided you aren't in a hurry.

During the three or four months I spent reading it, the exasperation roused at first by the detailed descriptions of Brandenbur- ger social life gave way to abject admira- tion. The invasion of private by public life is shown as a series of small hesitant gestures by worried people culminating in a futile assault on a French garrison. The bill for heroism is out of proportion to the meal, and it is paid not by single-minded patriots but by abject Prussians frightened above all by the prospect of disobeying orders, after six years of subservience to the French. The best moment is when the rather pallid hero sees what a troop of defeated Frenchmen, struggling back from Russia, actually looks like. He bumps into them on his way to a badger-hunt, and discovers that these are not ignoble men, and that nothing he can ever do will equal their epic of survival. Such encounters make up for Fontane's remorseless accu- mulation of less interesting anecdotes, his lush antiquarianism, and his heavy humour. This was my book of the year. and I wish I had read it 30 years ago.

The best light reading was Loopy by George Kennard (Leo Cooper, £12.95). Now a cult-book west of Salisbury Plain, it is a chronicle of unbridled violence, raw sex, and naked ambition by a flagrant hussar. A must for all aficionados of military autobiography and mobile cater- ing.