Fontane, at the end of his life, moved towards plotlessness. He knew how to employ the melodrama of life, so to speak. The events of Schach von Wuthenow / The Man of Honor (1882, the same year as L’Adultera) are effectively shocking. Irretrievable (1892) has the main characters escape a fire across a rooftop, although I see that last year I wrote a post about Fontane’s slow pace in which I noted that the fire is practically the first event depicted in the novel, on page 201 of 256. The first actual even, the beginning of an adulterous affair, took place in the blank space on page 200.
Not much happens in Fontane, is what I am saying, and my impression is that less happened as he wrote more fiction, culminating in a practically plotless but beloved and much quoted final novel, Der Stechlin (1898 – much quoted by Germans, I mean – I haven’t read it), and the novella Die Poggenpuhls / The Poggenpuhl Family (1896), which is intelligently paired with L’Adultera in a Penguin Classics volume. A family with an old name has entered genteel poverty. Three daughters live with their mother, “Major von Poggenpuhl’s widow” who “suffered from a perpetual cough and lived almost entirely on barley sugar and cough pastilles” (Ch. 1, 133). I believe there may be some symbolism in that line. Two sons are in the military, poor officers hoping to score promotions. Every few days, the devoted maid has to dust and then, inevitably, rehang their prize possession, an oil painting “artistically of the third or even fourth degree of merit” showing the death in battle of one of their ancestors.
Whose story is told in the 96 pages of this book? That of the mother; one or another of the daughters; the maid? Soon the younger son drops in, so maybe – no, now he is gone. An uncle visits, too, and treats his nephew and nieces to the theater and a restaurant. One of the sisters goes to keep an aunt company. There is a sledding accident. The uncle dies and everyone goes to the funeral. The Poggenpuhls have a bit more money at the end of the book than at the beginning.
“So everything is to go on as before?”
“Yes.” (Ch. 15, 228, a few lines form the end of the book)
The book is not static but it is hardly eventful. And it never does become the story of a particular character or two. I sometimes felt Die Poggenpuhls was written twenty years too early.
So she took the coffee mill down from the shelf and went briskly to work. When she had ground the coffee beans, she tipped them into the filter bag so that they would be ready later for her to pour on the water; finally she put the kettle back on the fire, picked up the basket of firewood… (etc., Ch. 2, 141)
Not that the entire book is written like this – hardly any of it – as if you do not know how coffee is made or fires are lit, just as not all of the dialogue is meaningless or atmospheric social chatter, although some of it definitely is. How do you know who these people are? In Fontane’s fiction, I do not eavesdrop on their thoughts. I just live with them for a little while.