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?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *