He befriends an old organ-grinder, a kind of urban hermit-philosopher, who performs in the market square but lives in a cave outside town. And he falls in love with Sophie, the daughter of a local merchant, who is betrothed to the heir of one of the town's leading families.
Hans' courtship of Sophie is played out in her weekly salon, along with local intellectual dignitary Professor Mietter, a pious Catholic widow, a Jewish merchant and his wife, Sophie's father and sometimes her fiancé Rudi, and Alvaro, a Spaniard representing a London textile business. Their debates include arguments over Fichte and Herder and Kant and the possibilities of German politics, as well as debates over aesthetics and literature. Presented through compressed dialogue, these conversations, and the occasional reading of plays, are cleverly used for character exposition and plot development.
"One contemporary novelist, Professor Mietter went on, has suggested that the novel, yes, with sugar, please, the modern novel mirrors our customs, that ideas are irrelevant and only observation matters, and everything that happens in life is worth writing about. An interesting notion, and one that accounts for the prevailing bad taste, wouldn't you agree? Any arrant nonsense or folly is worth relating simply because it happened. This idea, said Sophie, of the modern novel as a mirror is much bandied about these days, but what if we ourselves were the mirrors? I mean, what if we, the readers, were a reflection of the customs and events narrated in the novel? This, Hans concurred, seems to me a far more attractive idea, it means each reader becomes a kind of book. My dear, said Rudi, hastening to show his appreciation and seizing her hand, it's brilliant, I completely agree. The idea, Alvaro remarked, was already invented by Cervantes."
In these meetings and through the exchange of letters, extracts from which are given, Hans and Sophie engage in a drawn out flirtation in which the intellectual and the sensual are fused.
Meanwhile Hans spends many evenings with the organ-grinder in his cave, with two other regular visitors, one a farm labourer and the other a factory worker, and sometimes Alvaro. Here the conversations are less intellectual but just as philosophical, dwelling on the interpretation of dreams, the meanings of flowers, the appreciation of nature, and so forth, as well as earthier, more practical concerns.
The pace doesn't drop off once Hans and Sophie consummate their relationship: they continue to exchange letters and begin to work together translating poetry, which they combine with vigorous sex. (Neuman doesn't overdo the latter, with maybe one part erotica to every ten parts poetics.)
"What are we translating today? Sophie asked as she came in. Realising she was in the mood for work, Hans struggled to ignore the erection in his breeches. This effort excited her, for she had arrived in a state of desire and felt like tormenting him a little. But Hans's self-restraint was such that Sophie ended up thinking he preferred to work.
Ah, he smiled, I've left the best until last — Novalis (your Novalis lived in a dream world, too, Sophie contended), true, except it wasn't fantasy that interested him, but rather the unknown. His mysticism was, shall we say, practical. A mysticism through which to explore the present. (I understand, she said, but I'm surprised, wasn't he a religious poet?) No, exactly, that's the point! I think Novalis was like Hölderlin, his hymns describe the impossibility of overcoming the earthly condition, when he says 'I feel in my depths, a divine weariness', his weariness is worldly, his disillusionment is rational. (Yes, she said, but he also wrote: 'Who, without the promise of the skies could bear the earth and all its lies?' How do you explain that? How can you understand Novalis without heaven?)"
(When Hans and Sophie translate English poetry, one assumes the original El Viajero Del Siglo had Spanish versions representing their attempted translations into German, but here we get the original English poems; the translations of Spanish poetry will have gone the other way. Hans and Sophie also attempt to translate poetry from Russian, which neither knows, using dictionaries and translations into other languages.)
Most of Traveller of the Century is told from Hans' perspective, but it occasionally ventures to those of others: Sophie's maid; the innkeeper's family; and so forth. One subplot involves a masked rapist who is terrorising the town's young women. Another has a comic father and son police duo investigating these attacks. The local priest writes reports to his bishop about what's happening in the town. And Hans secretly teaches his inn-keeper's daughter how to read and write.
The only fantastic feature of Wandernburg is that its layout of streets seems to change; it is quite grounded as a historical novel. A reference to a Catalan revolt against King Ferdinand of Spain places the year as 1827 — and the Wandernburg public library already has all nine volumes of Rotteck's Universal History, the last of which only appeared in that year. There are some anachronisms: stock market indices didn't exist at the time, for example, and no German town yet had a formal police force.
More significantly, many of the characters and ideas and debates are modern. Sophie is an intellectually and sexually liberated woman, self-confident and assured — not an impossible figure for the time but a pretty unlikely one, especially in her early twenties. Hans himself is not bloodless, not quite "a man without qualities", but his passions seem slightly abstracted; Traveller of the Century is not really a novel of character development.
Much of the conversation about ideas, in Sophie's salon or the organ-grinder's cave or Hans' inn room, also feels contemporary, or perhaps timeless. The debates about German identity and politics surely reflect current concerns about the European Union. An attempt to touch on "industrial relations" seems tacked on. And the debates over poetry translation surely reflect modern sensibilities. This may be dissatisfying in an abstract way, but the currency of its ideas means that Traveller of the Century is a lot easier to read than any realistic early nineteenth century novel of ideas could be.
In its attempt to integrate political and philosophical ideas with the course of a romantic relationship, Traveller of the Century fits into a long tradition of German novels. Neuman doesn't write down to his readers, but he has produced a novel of ideas which can be appreciated without any detailed knowledge of the politics and philosophy and poetry of the period.
Leavened with a quiet, gentle humour and not taking itself too seriously, Traveller of the Century is way too much fun to qualify as a "great German novel" even if it had been written in the right language.