Category Archives: Fontane Theodor

The Poggenpuhl Family: Theodor Fontane

German 2015

Back to German Literature Month and another novella from Theodor Fontane. This time it’s The Poggenpuhl Family, the story of an aristocratic Berlin family fallen on hard times after Major von Poggenpuhl died an “honorable death” in battle. The family, the major’s widow and five children live in an “aura of expiring grandeurexpiring but nevertheless bearing witness to past glories.” Most of those ‘past glories’ linger in the military reputation of the dead Poggenpuhl males, so it’s no surprise that a huge portrait of an ancestor, a long-dead military hero takes pride of place in the parlour.

a woman taken in adulteryThe widow Poggenpuhl and her three daughters lead a life of stringent poverty while any resources squeezed from their penury is directed towards the two sons, both military officers. A familiar story of course, since the hopes of a shift in the family’s fortunes reside in the males. The girls might marry (Melanie de Caparoux married well in The Woman Taken in Adultery,) but that seems unlikely–at least for the eldest, Therese, who is thirty years old. The two youngest girls, Sophie and Manon, have adjusted to their lowly status or as Fontane says they have “adapted themselves to their condition and to the modern world and they worked as a team.”

Therese, already thirty, might seem somewhat unpractical at first sight, and that is what she was often taken to be. The only art she appeared to have learned was that of reclining gracefully in a rocking chair. But she was really just as capable as her two younger sisters; it was only that she labored in a different vineyard. Because of her particular character, she was convinced that the task of upholding high the Poggenpuhl banner had fallen to her, and it was her duty to take her place more deliberately than her sisters cared to in the world to which they rightfully belonged. So she was at home in the families of generals and ministers of state in the Behren-and Wilhemstrasse; their tea tables never failed to resound with approval and applause when she gave one of her maliciously humorous accounts of her younger sisters and their adventures in the “would-be-aristocracy.”

Sophie, the middle sister, is immensely talented–as talented with art as she is in the kitchen. Manon, at seventeen, is popular and she has made a point of befriending the families of bankers. Manon always offers the services of Sophie for a range of tasks, and consequently the widow’s tiny pension is supplemented by the crumbs of the “would-be-aristocracy.” Fontane shows how the two younger sisters have adapted to their new social and financial reality. Manon was born after her father’s death, so she knows no other life than that of poverty. All three sisters reflect the phases of the family’s fortunes with Therese, who remembers better times, hanging onto that place in society while her two younger sisters navigate social roles Therese rejects.

The novella centres on the birthday of the widow Poggenpuhl; her eldest son, the eminently responsible Wendelin, sends his younger sibling, Leo, home to celebrate. Leo finds his lack of financial resources difficult to bear. He’s the type of young officer who wants to cut a dash but lacks the funds to do so. At several points in the story, the Poggenpuhls’ ancient servant offers food to Leo–it’s always meagre leftovers and Leo, a young man with a ravenous appetite, either never quite gets or chooses to ignore his mother’s situation. Yes, he’s told what food is available in an either-or way and he always polishes off the lot.

The family’s hopes, then, reside in the military careers of the two sons, but then there’s also an uncle who’s married a rich widow. Uncle Poggenpuhl is a good-hearted man who’d clearly like to do more for his brother’s family, but his wife holds the purse strings. Plus then there’s no love lost between Uncle Poggenpuhl’s wife and her in-laws. She may have money but she’s middle-class.

Class plays a huge role in this novella with the widow Poggenpuhl desperately hanging onto the grandeur of the family name while covering her poverty in a way that fools no one. Uncle Poggenpuhl married out of his class, and that has created an awkward situation even though at the same time this alliance proves to be fortuitous.

The Poggenpuhl Family, IMO, is a better novella than The Woman Taken in Adultery. Although the scenario of the family living in poverty while keeping their pride is familiar, Fontane added some very nice touches here–especially in the way he showed how the youngest two girls adapted while the eldest did not.

Translated by Gabriele Annan.

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The Woman Taken in Adultery: Theodor Fontane

“She’s got a bit of Geneva chic. But what does it all add up to? Everything from Geneva is secondhand for a start.”

Back to German Literature Month and this time it’s a novella from Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Fontane’s most famous work is arguably Effi Briest, and The Woman Taken in Adultery, an earlier work, is another tale on the same theme: an unhappy marriage and infidelity. The book’s back cover states that the book is “remarkable” for its portrayal of adultery with a “happy ending.” Compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, well yes, the book has a “happy ending,” and yet somehow the conclusion wasn’t as ‘happy’ as I expected.

a woman taken in adulteryUnder scrutiny here is the marriage between financier van der Straaten and his much younger, charming wife, Melanie. It’s Berlin in the 1880s and the van der Straatens, parents of two girls, have been married now for ten years. Before marriage, Melanie was a Caparoux or de Caparoux (depending on who you’re talking to), the daughter of French-Swiss nobility, and although her childhood was wrapped in privilege, her father, a consul-general died young and left only debts behind. As a penniless 17-year-old, she married 42 year-old van der Straaten. Very early in the story, we get a sense of van der Straatan’s temperament; he “oscillated between the earthy and the sentimental, between one extreme and another.” Melanie ‘manages’ her husband, flattering him, and she “played with the man whose plaything she appeared and pretended to be.”  She loves spending time alone in the country villa as “her supremacy depended on self-control, and to be free of this restraint was her constant secret desire.”

Van der Straaten is an extremely wealthy man but he’s a problem when it comes to society: “he had been too little in the world and had failed to acquire a generally acceptable degree of polish or even a bearing suitable to his position.” In chapter one, we’re told that van der Straaten is frequently asked if he’s related to a famous actor who has a similar name. These days, there’s a good implication to being asked if you’re related to an actor–but in 19th century Germany…. the question is loaded with social snobbery. This theme, that van der Straaten, although good-natured, doesn’t quite ‘fit’ into society, continues, and as the story develops, we see that the financier’s behaviour pains his wife, Melanie. Trouble appears in the marriage when van der Straatan insists that Rubehn, a former cavalry officer, soon-to-be apprentice, take up residence in his home.

There’s a dinner party scene in which van der Straaten dominates his guests and while the scene itself was rather tedious, it’s the after-dinner conversations that spark interest as the departing guests share their opinions of the van der Straatans’ marriage. Some of the guests have sympathy for Melanie van der Straaten and consider that she, an elegant woman of refined sensibilities, is wasted on her husband. Others don’t share that opinion and consider that Melanie’s impoverished family have no bragging rights.  Melanie’s brother-in-law, Major Gryczinski, married to Melanie’s younger sister, Jacobine de Caparoux, has his own opinion:

When they were in the middle of the brightly lit square, the lovely young woman nestled fondly against her husband and said, “what a day that was, Otto, I did admire you.”

“It wasn’t as hard for me as you think. I just play with him. He’s just an old child.”

“And Melanie! She feels it, you know. And I’m sorry for her. You’re smiling? Aren’t you sorry for her?”

“Yes and no, ma chère. Nothing in the world comes free. She has her summer villa and her picture gallery.”

“Which she doesn’t care for. You know how little it means to her.”

“And she has two charming children…”

“For which I almost envy her.”

“There you are,” laughed the major. “We all have to learn the art of making do with what we have. If I were my brother-in-law, I should say…”

But she closed his mouth with a kiss, and the next moment the carriage drew to a halt.

It would seem that Jacobine and Major Gryczinski married for love, but another guest speculates that the Major selected his wife on the basis that he would acquire a useful, extremely wealthy brother-in-law. But regardless of speculation, Melanie’s marriage to van der Straaten had to be an advantageous move for her younger sister. Would the major have married Jacobine if she didn’t have this advantageous, powerful connection? Would Jacobine even have been in society if Melanie hadn’t made a great match? These questions linger, unspoken, underneath the Gryczinskis’ criticisms.

Fontane initially “rejected the title as too aggressively moralistic,” but the title (based on a real life incident) works rather interestingly with the plot’s argument against moral judgment. The title also highlights an early scene in the story when van der Straaten, fascinated by a Tintoretto painting, acquires a copy. Van der Straaten’s later behaviour, in the face of his wife’s affair,  illustrates that he’s a decent, good-hearted man–not someone who passes moral judgment–even when he suffers. Looked down upon by the fussy, snobby society forced to accept him because of his financial standing, he’s a much better person than those who patronize him behind his back.  The Woman Taken in Adultery, IMO, is not as good as Effi Briest. Melanie van der Straaten’s marriage isn’t miserable enough, and the love affair isn’t charismatic enough to rouse much emotional investment, but it is an unusual tale of adultery when compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. There’s very little moral judgment here–and most of the moral judgment within these pages comes from Melanie van der Straaten’s eldest daughter–a sensitive girl who sees that Rubehn is a threat immediately.

Translated by Gabriele Annan

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Cécile by Theodor Fontane

“I fall in love with them, not because of their virtues, but because of their human qualities, that is to say, their weaknesses and sins.”  (Theodor Fontane in a letter in which he discusses his female characters.)

Cécile isn’t considered Theodor Fontane’s (1819-1898) best novel, and after reading it, it’s easy to see why. It’s a wonderful story, but there are initially many references to German culture, history and society, and unless you’re very familiar with the names and incidents, it’s easy to get distracted and become lost in the notes. My copy from Angel Books is translated by Stanley Radcliffe. If you want to read the book (and it is recommended), then I suggest this edition. The explanatory notes are essential, and the afterword is excellent.

cecilePeople who regularly read this blog know that I love to read books about people on holiday, and that’s exactly how Cécile opens. It’s late 19th century, and a husband and wife take a train to Thale–a tourist spa town in the Harz mountains. The story begins with the couple boarding the train, and Fontane shows us right away that there’s something a little off about this couple. Could it be the age difference? He’s late fifties and she’s much younger, elegant, and very beautiful, but this age difference isn’t the explanation–there seems to be something deeply buried between this husband and wife. These are the St. Arnauds. He’s a former colonel, and his years of military life show in the economy of his movements, and his attention to detail.  There’s a certain air of detachment from Cécile St. Arnaud towards both her husband and her life, and then they appear to be shunned by other military men who acknowledge the Colonel’s presence but “then immediately avoided coming anywhere” near them again.

The air of mystery surrounding the St. Arnauds continues and deepens throughout almost the entire novel. The St. Arnauds arrive at the wonderfully named Ten Pound Hotel (Hotel Zehnpfund), and another guest, civil engineer Herr von Gordon, is immediately fascinated by them. He’s enormously attracted to the beautiful, fragile Cécile, who seems to be an invalid with “nervous afflictions,” but there’s something about Cécile and her relationship with her husband that von Gordon can’t quite define. After learning the name of the couple he remembers hearing gossip in 1870 about the colonel fighting a duel and killing his opponent.  The St Arnauds seem out of place at the hotel:

“There goes Baden-Baden,” said the man who watched them from the balcony. “Baden-Baden or Brighton  or Biarritz, but not the Harz and the Ten Pound Hotel.” And as he talked to himself in this way his eye followed the couple with growing interest as they came closer and then went away again, while he sought deeper in his memory at the same time. “St Arnaud. In 1870 he was still unmarried, and she would scarcely have been eighteen at the time.” And as he calculated and pondered in this way he indulged further and further speculation as to the precise circumstances of this somewhat strange and surprising marriage. “There’s a novel in all this. He is more than twenty years older than her. Well, that could be all right, that doesn’t mean much in some cases. But to give up his commission, such a brilliant and effective officer! You can still see the dash about him: guards colonel comme il faut, every inch of him. And yet on the retired list. Could it be … But no, she’s no coquette, and his behaviour towards her is also completely proper. He is good-mannered and obliging, but not too assiduously, as though trying to conceal something. Oh well, I’ll find out in time.”

Fascinated by Cécile, and intrigued by signals about the odd relationship between the St. Arnauds, Herr von Gordon, strikes up an acquaintance and along with a few other tourists, including painter Rosa Malheur (named after Rosa Bonheur) accompanies the couple on various tourist excursions throughout the area. Fontane takes us on tour too, and these early sections are packed with references to German history. One of the trips takes them to Quedlinburg and specifically to its castle. These scenes are humorous as Fontane places the main drama between the characters on hold while he delivers a wonderful scene on the rip-off side of tourism. The St Arnauds, von Gordon and Rosa enter the castle expecting to see its treasures and magnificent art collection with the steward as a tour guide:

This man, a pleasant and friendly person, immediately won them over with his affability, but on the other hand, somewhat surprised them by a manner that betrayed a troubled and almost guilty conscience, like someone who offers lottery tickets for sale knowing them to be blanks. And indeed, his castle could throughout all its rooms truly be regarded as a prime example of a blank. Whatever treasures it had once possessed had long since gone and so it fell to him, the guardian of erstwhile splendor, to speak only of things no longer there. No easy task. He undertook it with however with great skill, transforming the traditional custodian’s lecture hinging upon tangible exhibits into a historical discourse that contrariwise occupied itself with what had vanished.

Fontane cleverly gives us a glimpse into the private regions of the St. Arnauds’ married life through a few discussions between husband and wife. In one scene, St. Arnaud admonishes his wife for her poor choice of reading material, choices that “shocked” St. Arnaud by their superficiality:

She nodded her agreement with a tired air, as nearly always when something was discussed closely that did not directly relate to her person or her inclinations. And so she rapidly changed the topic of conversation.

It’s through scenes such as these that we see how the St. Arnauds manage their marriage and each other. Cécile mentions that Herr von Gordon is a  “first-rate travel guide. Only he talks too much about things that don’t interest everybody.” St. Arnaud laughingly responds that he knows his wife wants von Gordon to be a “stylite” devoted only to her. He’s not threatened or jealous by her need for male attention and devotion. Subsequently, Gordon spends a great deal of time in the company of the St. Arnauds, but proximity only deepens the mystery for von Gordon. He knows that the St. Arnauds did not marry for love. Is Cécile a trophy wife for her husband? After days in their company, von Gordon only has more questions about Cécile. She is a beautiful ornament for her husband’s arm, but their tour excursions reveal a shocking ignorance on Cécile’s part. Why are the St. Arnauds shunned by some people? Why does Cécile blush when some subjects come up in conversation? What secret is she hiding?

The afterword to this edition states that Cécile was written in 1866 (p.186) , and this must be a typo as St Arnaud’s scandalous duel took place in 1870, and Herr von Gordon has to strain his memory to recall the details. Elsewhere in the afterword, it is mentioned that Cécile appeared initially in serial form and then was published as a book in 1887. Fontane travelled to Thale and actually stayed at the Hotel Zehnpfund in 1881 and 1882. He stayed in another hotel in the area in 1883 and 1884 and in a letter to a friend, he wrote of his plans to write a novel set in the Hotel Zehnpfund. It seems that he began work on the novel in 1884.

While Cécile is a marvelous story, as I mentioned, the downside for readers who are not versed in German culture, are the dense, frequent references to German culture and history. After all the novel begins with a story set in a tourist area, so we get the spiel of the area historical significance and major attractions: Rosstrappe, the Witches’ Dance Floor, Quedlinburg, and Altenbrak. You could probably take this book on a Fontane-inspired holiday and have quite a bit of fun tracing his characters’ steps.

Later in the novel when the action moves to Berlin, the history and culture references drop and we are left with just the drama of two people who feel an intense sexual attraction to each other, and Herr von Gordon, who has written to his sister enquiring about Cécile St. Arnaud’s past, finally discovers the truth. He should stay away, and while his common sense tells him to forget her, his passion dictates the opposite….Cécile is a very well structured novel, and the power of its structure becomes evident as the novel concludes.

This is an amazingly visual novel–no doubt the visuals are encouraged by the descriptions of the tourist attractions, but the visual qualities of the novel extend beyond promontories and magnificent views. We can see St Arnaud confidently strutting around with military precision, and although no monocle was mentioned, I gave him one. And then there’s Cécile, a flawed woman who seems to live and breathe in these pages as she walks slowly around the hotel grounds like some delicate, fragile and rare hot house flower, perfumed, exquisite and yet whose existence depends on the care and attentions of others.  The mystery that keeps von Gordon on edge is subtly addressed by Fontane by clues which are embedded in the story. It’s the novel’s denouement that lifts these clues to the fore, and then we realize that the truth was staring us in the face all along. Cécile is a fascinating heroine–a product of her time and circumstances, she’s flawed and superficial, and yet she’s not without feelings and neither is she unsympathetic. The novel’s conclusion leaves the reader with a deeply unsettling and unanswered question regarding the nature of Cécile’s unhappiness.

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