Tag Archives: Theodor Fontane

Theodor Fontane’s Poetic Geography of Beer

It is not uncommon to see in Fontane’s novels an aesthetic geography that portrays North:South as prose:poetry.  As the Bavarian Baron Berchtesgaden remarks when listening to the birds and feeling the beautiful weather around the Stechlin estate towards the end of The Stechlin: “Wie schön! . . . Und dabei spricht man immer von der Dürftigkeit und Prosa dieser Gegenden” (GBA 454) / “How beautiful . . . and yet you always hear talk of the unpoetic barrenness of these regions” (Camden House Edition: 323).

This dichotomy manifests itself in the novel, amusingly, in the consumption of beer.  It may seem overwrought to say that Fontane has a poetic geography of beer.  But then, as is so often the case with Fontane, even thought the beer in Stechlin is a seemingly minor detail, this is an author who is famous for his “Poesie des Nebensächlichen” (“poetry of the incidental”).  To treat details like beer as irrelevant is to overlook the “große Zusammenhang der Dinge,” or “great interrelatedness of things” for which Lake Stechlin stands (GBA : 320, CHE : 226).

The first instance where beer becomes significant is when the day-trip party arrives at the Eierhäuschen, a real-existing outdoor restaurant in Berlin-Treptow and we see a sign advertising the Munich beer brand Löwenbräu.  Ostensibly about a flight from the urban milieu, this is the section in the novel when we glimpse the new industrial age most directly, namely when they see the Spindler cleaning factory at Spindlersfeld.  Spindler was also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle.

Later in the novel we meet Dr. Pusch, who, like Fontane himself, spent time as a journalist in England, but unlike Fontane, made it over to the United States, where “er fand indessen das Freie dort freier, als es ihm lieb war” / “he found freedom (although the outside or outdoors would also be a legitimate translation, AP) a bit freer than to this liking” (GBA : 353, CHE : 249).  He has settled in Berlin, and the narrator shares this with us:

Als wichtigstes Ereignis seiner letzten sieben Jahre galt ihm sein Übertritt vom Pilsener zum Weihenstephan.  “Sehen Sie, meine Herren, vom Weihenstephan zum Pilsener, das kann jeder; aber das Umgekehrte, das ist was.  Chinesen werden christlich, gut.  Aber wenn ein Christ ein Chinese wird, das ist doch immer noch eine Sache von Belang.” (GBA :353)

The most important event of his last seven years he considered to be his change from Pilsener beer to the Bavarian lager brand Weihenstephan.  “You see, gentlemen, from Weihenstephan to Pilsener, anybody can do that.  But the reverse, now that’s something.  Chinamen are becoming Christians, fine.  But when a Christian becomes a Chinaman, that’s still a matter of some importance after all, you know. (CHE : 249)

Switching beer brands becomes a symbol for a certain relation to the direction of the power shift in Germany after 1871, and worldwide in the era of colonialism.  What’s remarkable about switching from pilsner to Weihenstephan is that it runs against the centralization of power within Germany from the South to the North, and globally around an imperialist Europe.  Drinking Weihenstephan or Löwenbräu would seem to position oneself outside and away from the political culture of the German Empire.

Or does it?  As any homebrewer (such as myself!) is aware, the late nineteenth century was also the moment when beer brewing moved outside of the home or local tavern and became a mass market commodity.  Weihenstephan, supposedly the oldest brewery in the world, is a brand most Americans can find in the grocery store, and Löwenbräu is a global brand with a brewery in Texas that supplies the American market.  On the other hand, the narrator does not tell us which specific brands of pilsner are being consumed.  The Bavarian beers are the only named brands, and they are available at some distance from their sites of production.

I always enjoy Fontane because he has a particularly sensitive set of antennae, and he sees the creep of consumer culture in the nineteenth century.  In another moment in Stechlin, Woldemar is making his way through Berlin.  He passes a wall where

ein wohl zwanzig Fuß hohes, riesiges Kaffeemädchen mit einem ganz kleinen Häubchen auf dem Kopf freundlich auf die Welt der Vorübereilenden herniederblickt, um ihnen ein Paket Kneippschen Malzkaffee zu präsentieren. (GBA : 147)

a gigantic coffee girl some twenty feet tall, a tiny bonnett on her head, cheerfully looks down on the world of those passing by to present them with a packet of Kneipp’s malt coffee. (CHE : 102).

The ad is a monstrous, almost frightening document of consumer culture that appears between in a text that straddles German realism and aesthetic modernism.  And aren’t we here already on the way to the opening titles of Mad Men?

Literature and Limnology

There’s an interesting history of studies of German realist texts coming from the natural sciences.  The earliest critical essays on Wilhelm Raabe’s Pfisters Mühle that are worth citing today are a pair of essays that appeared in 1925 by noted German limnologist August Thienemann.  Thienemann’s studies of dams in the first half of the 20th century make him an important figure in the history of ecology in Germany.  While Thienemann discusses the issue of industrial pollution, his interest is more a disciplinary one, that is, how Raabe borrowed from the natural scientists, specifically studies by his acquaintance and fellow member of the Kleiderseller Heinrich Beckurts.1  Still, Thienemann’s discoveries are of no small significance for Raabe scholarship.  Much of the philological background that was included in the notes in the current critical edition, the Braunschweig edition, are from Thienemann.  Bacteriologist Ludwig Popp’s 1959 essay on Pfisters Mühle situates the novel within an environmental history of Braunschweig.  Popp includes some of his own findings on the water quality in the area, taken after the factory that inspired the story had been shut down.2 These were some of the essays Horst Denkler criticized as not being wrong, but as magnifying aspects of the texts without connecting them to the larger narrative structure(85-86).3

Turning to the scholarship on Fontane, I have just finished reading Heinz-Dieter Krausch’s 1968 essay “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.” 4  Krausch was working at the research station on Lake Stechlin, the eponymous body of water in Theodor Fontane’s last finished novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin).  Krausch’s essay is all about the physical characteristics of the actual lake and its surroundings.  As interesting as his account is, the result is an essay that falls more on the side of “Wirklichkeit” (reality) and less on the side of “Dichtung” (poetry).  In other words, the essay spends most of its time outside of the text.  For instance, the novel cites the myth of the red hen, which supposedly rises out of the lake’s water when there’s some major seismic event somewhere on the planet.  Krausch suggests that this may be traced back to fishermen on the lake at night whose nets released methane produced by decaying organic matter on the seafloor, which their torches then ignited (345).  A discussion of the symbolic importance of this myth within Fontane’s novel, however, is not supplied.

None of this is to cast aspersions on Thienemann, Popp, Krausch, or any other natural scientist who feels moved to write about literature of engaging in bad critical practice.  I mean to suggest instead that when we in literary studies ask how we might cross disciplinary boundaries to explore our objects of study (i.e. people and places that may have physical equivalents but are, in the final analysis, mediated through language), it is important not to lose sight of the important questions that literary studies exists to explore in the first place.

1. Thienemann, August. “»Pfisters Mühle«. Ein Kapitel Aus Der Geschichte Der Biologischen Wasseranalyse.” Verhandlungen des Naturhistorischen Vereins der preußischen Rheinlande und Westfalens 82 (1925): 315-29.

—. “Wilhelm Raabe und die Abwasserbiologie.” Mitteilungen für die Gesellschaft der Freunde Wilhelm Raabes 15 (1925): 124-31.

2. Popp, Ludwig. “»Pfisters Mühle«.  Schlüsselroman zu einem Abwasserprozeß.” Städtehygiene.2 (1959): 21-25.

3. Denkler, Horst. “Die Antwort literarischer Phantasie auf eine der »größeren Fragen der Zeit«: Zu Wilhelm Raabes »Sommerferienheft« Pfisters Mühle.” Neues über Wilhelm Raabe: Zehn Annährungsversuche an einen verkannten Schriftsteller. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1988. 81-102.

4.  Krausch, Heinz-Dieter. “Die natürliche Umwelt in Fontanes “Stechlin.”  Dichtung und Wirklichkeit.”  Fontane-Blätter 1.7 (1968): 345-353.

Maps: Illustrating the Economic and Material Background of German Realism

The theoretical problems that underpin both the critical discourse and the literary production in the era of German realism can be very surprising for an audience schooled on the Victorian novel.  When I first encountered German realism myself, it seemed to me to be not realism at all.  How can literature be “realistic” while at the same time be committed to a process of transfiguration (Verklärung)?  Doesn’t the German verb itself, verklären, imply a moving away from realistic representation?  These questions might be naive, but they were my basic point of departure.  Since I had mostly dealt with the Anglophone canon in school, when I thought of “realism” I thought of Dickens’ London.  I associated the term with the kind of misere that Theodor Fontane specifically rejects in his essay “Unsere lyrische und epische Poesie seit 1848” (147-148).1 This is not to say that the authors of this period simply ignored the changing reality of German in this period.  Early in Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), for instance, Heinrich Drendorf visits a valley filled with factories and carefully studies the production processes there.  But this scene occupies all of a paragraph, and in the next he’s off studying plants.  My initial question might have been summed up as: “where have all the street urchins gone?”

This and other questions evolved into the basic problem that my dissertation seeks to address. The problem boils down to a basic aporia that has puzzled me about German realism since the start, namely the contradiction between the programmatic realist imperative to portray the world in a way that is objective and poetically transfigured (verklärt) and the increasingly prosaic character of that world.  After several years of formulating and re-formulating a question that might be sufficient to drive a dissertation, what I really want to know is this: what happens to a realist program of aesthetic transfiguration when an industrial mode of production has transformed the environment to such an extent that it no longer lends itself to poetic representation?

In the spirit of Frederic Jameson’s injunction to “always historicize!,” we might actually look at what was going on in the physical world at the time that the literature was written.  Here are three maps of Cologne that make visible the material basis of the theoretical questions my project raises.

Cologne 1807 2This first map is a representation of Cologne in the year 1807.  The city has been under French control since 1794, the year prior Napoleon had dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and issued Prussia a stinging defeat at Jena-Auerstadt.  There is no bridge over the Rhine.  The surrounding areas show little development, and the city walls clearly delineate the boundary between city and country.

Here is another map of Cologne, this time from 1845.  Cologne has since fallen under Prussian control, and the Catholic/Protestant divide within the expanded Prussia has caused no small amount of tension. There Cologne 1845are a few distinct changes in the landscape.  We now have a bridge over the Rhine, and railroads extend at least up to the city walls.  Nevertheless, the city’s physical makeup hasn’t change all that much.  The wetlands on each bank of the Rhine to the south of the city still appear to be in place.

Compare this to the Cologne 1893following map of Cologne from 1893.  Within one human lifetime, the city has radically changed.  The railroad network is much more extensive, and settlements like Nippes have been transformed into dense areas of industrial development.  The wetlands on the left bank of the Rhine have also vanished, and “nature” can now be found in the lovely “Stadtwald,” adjacent to Braunsfeld and Lindenthal.

These maps speak volumes about the historical processes underway in Germany after 1848 and especially after 1871.  These processes are there even in the texts that are truest to the tenets of programmatic realism.  Taken together, there is an interesting story to be told here, one that, I believe, may not be so alien to an English language readership after all.

1.  Reprinted in Plumpe, Gerhard (ed.). Theorie des bürgerlichen Realismus: Eine Textsammlung. Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag, 1997. 140-148

Thinking in 140 Characters

Early in Theodor Fontane’s last completed novel Der Stechlin (available in English as The Stechlin), there is an amusing conversation at telegraphy that reminded me of contemporary anxieties about speech in the digital age.  Dubslav von Stechlin observes:

Es ist das mit dem Telegraphieren solche Sache, mances wird besser, aber manches wird auch schlechter, und die feinere Sitte leidet nun schon ganz gewiß.  Schon die Form, die Abfassung.  Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen, heißt meistens uach, sich grob fassen.  . . .  So läßt sich jetzt beinahe sagen, >das gröbste Telegramm ist das feinste<.  Wenigstens das in seiner Art vollendetste.  Jeder, der wieder eine Fünfpfennigersparnis herausdoktert, ist ein Genie. (1998 : 26).

That’s how it is with this telegraphing business, some things are improved but some are made worse too, and more elegant manners suffer absolutely for sure.  Just the form, th style.  Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying anything briefly usually means saying them coarsely.  . . .  So nowadays you could almost say, the coarsest telegram is the most elegant.  At least the most perfect of its kind.  Anybody who comes up with another five-pfennig saving is a genius. (1995 : 17).

Interestingly, the lake itself, we are told, stands in a telegraphic relationship with the rest of the world.