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9 - Fontane and World Literature: Prussians, Jews, and the Specter of Africa in Die Poggenpuhls

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 August 2019

Todd Kontje
Affiliation:
University of California, San Diego.
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Summary

WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION of Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane's fiction is rarely included in surveys of world literature. Unlike Kafka's deceptively simple modernist prose, which seems to come from nowhere in particular and speak to everyone in general, or the current bestsellers that are “born translated,” easily sold in a dozen languages to readers around the world, Fontane's work is firmly rooted in the local milieu of late-nineteenth-century Prussia, giving it a linguistic and cultural specificity that resists easy circulation in the global marketplace or inclusion in the college curriculum. His novels are nevertheless worldly in the sense described by Edward Said: they are “enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly.” Fontane's locally situated works reflect on Prussia's place in the recently unified German nation and on Imperial Germany's involvement in global politics. In this essay I focus on three interrelated themes in Die Poggenpuhls (The Poggenpuhl Family, 1896): the ossification and decline of the Prussian aristocracy as exemplified by the Poggenpuhl family, the rise of global capitalism and its association with international Jewry, and the relations between the modern metropolis of Berlin and Germany's new colonies in Africa.

For many years Die Poggenpuhls was relegated to the second tier of Fontane's literary production. Fontane began writing the novel in the early 1890s, but it was not published in book form until 1896, just after Effi Briest (1895) and shortly before Der Stechlin (1898), his last completed work. Running only 121 pages in the standard edition of Fontane's works, Die Poggenpuhls seems slight in comparison with the more substantial novels that proceeded and followed it; a few minor inconsistencies in dating the events in the novel suggest that Fontane sent a carelessly edited work out into the world. The narrative form oscillates between third-person narration and a series of letters, which also raised eyebrows among some readers. Most unusual, however, is the fact that nothing much happens. Unlike Effi Briest, whose plot-driven narrative of the protagonist's marriage, seduction, banishment, and death invites comparisons with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Die Poggenpuhls lacks a dominant character and a single, compelling plot.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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