[This page by Ernest Schonfield]
Die Poggenpuhls; The Poggenpuhl Family (written 1892-95; published 1895-96)
The Poggenpuhls are a family of Prussian aristocrats who have fallen on hard times after generations of military service. Major von Poggenpuhl was killed over twenty years previously at the Battle of Gravelotte on 18 August 1870, the largest battle of the Franco-Prussian War (Gravelotte was a village in Lorraine). The Major left behind a wife (referred to in the text as ‘die Frau Majorin’; ‘the Lady Major’) and five children: Therese, Sophie, Wendelin, Leo and Manon. The widowed Lady Major Albertine von Poggenpuhl (née Pütter; she came from a bourgeois family and married into the aristocracy) now lives with her adult daughters in Berlin in the Großgörschenstrasse; the two sons are posted to a regiment in Thorn in Silesia (now Toruń in modern-day Poland).
The novel is a classic example of late Fontane: one hundred pages long and hardly any plot. In this sense the text anticipates Fontane’s late masterwork Der Stechlin. The action of the Poggenpuhls consists mainly of family visits, the mother’s birthday party and the death of Uncle Eberhard. The novel deliberately avoids action and sensation: Manon is friends with Flora Bartenstein, the daughter of a rich Jewish banker, but we never meet the Bartensteins. There are hints about Leo’s love life, but nothing comes of it. There is a hint of rivalry between the two brothers, but the older brother, Wendelin, who is a careerist, does not even appear. There is a brief disagreement between Therese and Manon about which clothes to wear to the funeral. Perhaps the most sensational event is when the family meet a young aristocrat, Herr von Klessentin, who is working as an extra in the theatre. This is something that might perhaps have been considered scandalous a generation ago, but Uncle Eberhard takes it in his stride. This is ironic because the family is constantly struggling to keep up appearances and maintain their dwindling aristocratic status. They too are actors, as Eberhard later concedes.
What matters here is not plot but the distillation of family life; the dialogues between the characters are presented with such delicacy and finesse that the reader is drawn in to the domesticity of the Poggenpuhls. For one hundred pages we share intimately in the life of this family. The novel is like an exquisitely rendered milieu painting, but one that walks and talks. Every detail of the dialogue is lovingly crafted; Fontane’s characters are profound but they wear their profundity lightly. They deliver their insights in casual, careless, and gently humorous tones. The skilful patterning of Fontane’s text had a decisive influence on the next generation of German writers: Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Georg Hermann, Gabriele Tergit.
In Chapter One we are introduced to the Lady Major (Albertine) and her three daughters Therese (aged 30), Sophie (in her twenties) and Manon (aged 17), and the housekeeper Friederike. We learn that they had to give up the family estate and move to Berlin seven years ago; their landlord, Noteboom, has promised never to raise the rent out of respect for the family; he too fought at the Battle of Gravelotte. We learn that Wendelin is clever and ambitious and that Leo is irresponsible with money.
In Chapter Two we encounter a family heirloom: a painting of a Major von Poggenpuhl who died in the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758 during the Seven Years’ War. The painting is so heavy it keeps falling off the wall and cracking the plaster. The Lady Major gets a letter from her son Leo saying that he is coming to Berlin to visit for her birthday.
In Chapter Three Leo arrives and wishes that he had a rich aunt, preferably a canoness (Stiftsdame), or that Uncle Eberhard was more generous with his money.
In Chapter Four Leo’s mother Albertine asks him to be more realistic and he asks her to let him entertain his illusions.
In Chapter Five Leo tells the housekeeper Friederike that he has a Jewish girlfriend in Thorn, but if he doesn’t marry her then he may have to go to Africa to seek his fortune. Leo consumes the remains of an edam cheese, skilfully removing the good bits with his knife: ‘Ja, Friederike, so muß man leben, immer so die kleinen Freuden aufpicken, bis das große Glück kommt…’; ‘Yes Friederike, this is how one should live; always make the most of little pleasures like this, until your ship comes in’.
In Chapter Six Uncle Eberhard, a retired general, arrives, bringing birthday greetings to the Lady Major.
In Chapter Seven Eberhard takes Leo, Therese, Sophie and Manon to the theatre. Afterwards they go to a restaurant; Leo meets Herr von Klessentin, an old friend from cadet school. Klessentin joins them and explains that he was on stage as an extra. He pursues his theatrical career under the name of ‘Herr Manfred’. Eberhard is fascinated.
In Chapter Eight Manon tells Leo that he should not marry Esther Blumenthal in Thorn, instead he should marry Flora Bartenstein in Berlin.
In Chapter Nine Eberhard tells the Lady Major about Herr von Klessentin’s theatrical career and adds: ‘eigentlich ist ja doch jeder Schauspieler’; ‘actually we are all actors in a way’. Then he explains that his wife would like Sophie to come and stay with them on their estate in Adamsdorf in Silesia (today: Adamowo in Jabłonowo Pomorskie in Poland).
Chapter Ten consists of Sophie’s letters home to her mother. Sophie is saved from an accident by a young aristocrat, but (unfortunately) he is already engaged. Sophie is going to employ her talent as a painter, and paint scenes from the Old Testament to decorate the church in Adamsdorf.
In Chapter Eleven Manon writes to Leo telling him that he should marry Flora. Leo complains about his brother’s superiority and arrogance, and complains: ‘das ist das fatale der ganzen Karriere -, man muß sich immer ducken’; ‘that’s the terrible thing about advancing your career – you have to creep and crawl all the time’.
In Chapter Twelve Leo befriends a card-playing Catholic priest and forgets about romance. Uncle Eberhard’s wife explains to Sophie that she is not rich and that she only enjoys the usufruct of the estate, when she dies, the estate will revert to the Leysewitz family. Uncle Eberhard makes a speech on the anniversary of the Battle of Sedan; he contracts typhoid fever.
In Chapter Thirteen Eberhard dies. Eberhard’s widow sends a thousand mark note to the family to pay for their travel expenses and funeral attire. Therese, Manon and their mother make the journey to Adamsdorf.
In Chapter Fourteen the funeral takes place. Afterwards the Lady General (Eberhard’s widow) tells the Lady Major (Albertine) of the generous financial arrangements that she has put in place for the family.
In Chapter Fifteen the porter’s daughter Agnes reads out the funeral notice from the newspaper. The porter, Nebelung, helps to carry the cases when the Poggenpuhl ladies arrive back at their Berlin apartment. Friederike welcomes them home. Therese makes a snobbish allusion to her mother’s lack of aristocratic status. Albertine complains, and Therese apologises. In the concluding discussion, they recognise that their aunt has not given them a life-changing sum of money. They are better off than before, but their situation has not significantly altered.
Theodor Fontane, Delusions, Confusions and The Poggenpuhl Family, ed. by Peter Demetz (New York: Continuum, 1989)
Further Reading in English
Alan Bance, Theodor Fontane: The Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Chapter 7 on Die Poggenpuhls
Stefan Bronner, ‘Theodor Fontane in the Age of Appearance: Critical Aestheticism in Die Poggenpuhls’, Colloquia Germanica 52:1-2 (2020)
Todd Kontje, ‘Fontane and World Literature: Prussians, Jews, and the Specter of Africa in Die Poggenpuhls’, in Fontane in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by John B. Lyon and Brian Tucker (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2019), pp. 161-84
Donald C. Riechel, ‘“Thou com’st in such a questionable shape”: Theodor Fontane’s Die Poggenpuhls’, in Herkommen und Erneuerung: Essays für Oskar Seidlin, ed. by Gerald Gillespie and Edgar Lohner (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1976), pp. 241-55
Further Reading in German
Ernest Schonfield, ‘Der Fontane-Ton am Beispiel der Poggenpuhls’, in Der Fontane-Ton: Stil im Werk Theodor Fontanes, ed. by Andrew Cusack and Michael White, Schriften der Theodor Fontane Gesellschaft 13 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021), pp. 195-216