Monday, May 27, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“EFFI BRIEST” by Theodor Fontane (first published 1894; Douglas Parmee’s English language Penguin Classics translation first published 1967)

            I sometimes toy with the game of reducing classic plots to a few curt sentences. Greek wanderer accidentally kills father, marries mother and blinds himself. Danish prince winds up dead after taking too long avenging his father’s murder. Jewish ad-man and Irish student wander around Dublin, get pissed and meet in a whorehouse. Tory MP’s wife plans a party on the same day a shell-shocked soldier kills himself – that sort of thing.

To reduce plots to a few words is literally reductionist and always misleading. A novel or play isn’t just its plot anyway, and anything can be made to look ridiculous or trivial in such a brief summary. Ask the idiot 17th century critic who, after summarising Shakespeare’s plot, claimed that the whole point of Othello was that wives shouldn’t lose their handkerchiefs.

Anyway, with all this in mind, I venture to prove the point by giving you a brief plot summary of one of my favourite novels. Young woman makes arranged marriage with older aristocratic civil servant, is profoundly bored by married life in a provincial small town, and is caught out and destroyed when she has an adulterous affair.

Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? And as many commentators have noted, if you substituted “doctor” for “civil servant”, this summary of Effi Briest could almost be a summary of Madame Bovary.

Let me make it more coherent by giving a more detailed plot summary.

Living not too far from Berlin, Effi Briest is a vivacious, impulsive 17-year-old girl at the beginning of the novel. Her friendships with other girls are frankly giggly and silly. Although middle class, her parents pride themselves on being of minor aristocratic descent. Therefore they are happy to arrange for her to marry Baron Geert von Innstetten who, at 40, is over twice her age (and is indeed a former admirer of her mother). And Effi is happy to be so married, because she has beaten her giggly friends to the altar.

Effi and Innstetten go to live in the small town of Kessin in Pomerania, near the sea, where Innstetten has some prestige as a local governor, a role he sees as part of his career path in the civil service. The newly married couple live in a large house, about which there circulate odd rumours and stories of the ghost of a Chinaman; and in which there hang a stuffed crocodile and a stuffed shark. When she lies in bed at night, Effi hears strange movement upstairs.

At first the novelty of Kessin interests Effi, but rapidly life in the small town palls and of course Innstetten is frequently away on official business. It is the process of Effi’s disillusion that occupies the central section of the novel  – an almost plotless series of encounters with local people, such as the courteous, hunchbacked shopkeeper Alonzo Gieshubler or the visiting opera singer “Marietta Trippelli” (really a Prussian lady, Fraulein Trippel) with her florid and loud theatrical manners. Sometimes we have vignettes of Effi and her husband visiting simple locals, who are overawed by his office. In her loneliness, Effie finds near the churchyard the simple servant Roswitha, who becomes her closest confidante.

A child, Annie, is born.

For a time Effi becomes obsessed with the story of the Chinaman’s ghost. She socializes with Sidonie von Grosenabb. She socializes with Major Crampas. On one outing, she and Major Crampas share a carriage, which becomes stuck in the mire.

Some years go by.

Innstetten is transferred to Berlin and Effi goes with him, without many regrets. Six and a half years after the transfer, little Annie is injured in a fall and the servants force open a desk to get a bandage…. and a bundle of letters fall out.

Innstetten reads them and is horrified to discover they are love letters between Effi and Major Crampas. Effi is away on holiday when this discovery is made. Innstetten summons his friend Wullersdorf and discusses whether he should defend his honour with a duel, despite the time that has elapsed since the affair happened. Wullersdorf agrees that he should. So with his friend as his second, Innstetten travels back to Kessin, arranges the duel and efficiently dispatches Major Crampas. He then writes to Effi, formally separating himself from her, and takes complete custody of the child Annie. When she receives the letter, Effi faints. Her disgraced parents refuse to take her back.

Three years go by.

Living with the servant Roswitha in a cramped flat in Berlin, Effi longs to have access to Annie after glimpsing her on a city tram. But when they do meet, their reunion is not a success. Annie has completely absorbed her father’s cold, formal manners and treats her mother with disdain. Effi’s parents reluctantly take Effi back. The local pastor Niemayer shows Effi some sympathy, as he recognizes her girlishness and emotional immaturity despite the fact that she is now a woman in her thirties.

Despite this partial acceptance, Effi still dies of grief. But before she dies, she requests that her tombstone bear her original name, as she believes she has brought no “honour” to her husband’s name. She accepts those very values that have been partly responsible for destroying her.

There now. I have totally outraged you by filling this summary with “spoilers” and ruining your own discovery of what is rightly regarded as a German masterpiece (“the most famous German novel of the nineteenth century” according to the back cover of my Penguin Classics paperback edition).

Or have I? For this is a novel where style and structure count for as much as plot.

I read this novel for the second time twenty years after I had first read it. Between readings, I had recalled accurately its sense of coldness, formality and the monotony of small-town existence in a flat landscape. But the single point I best remembered was how Fontane underplayed the duel. After the build-up, Fontane simply tells us in a sentence or two that Major Crampas was killed. The actual duel simply isn’t dramatised. What I did not recall is that this elliptical technique is true of the whole novel. Those events we would expect to be colourful or climactic (Effi’s wedding; the birth of Annie; the duel) are either shuffled over in a few lines or take place “off stage”. And this is especially true of Effi’s adultery. We are not even aware that it has happened until it is over and (three-quarters of the way through the novel) reduced to a bundle of yellowing letters.

What is the emotional impact of this deliberate avoidance of dramatic climax and its attendant catharsis? It is to emphasise anticipation and regret rather than action, achievement or the lived moment. Effi Briest becomes a novel of foreboding, of brooding, of monotony, of time passing slowly and time hanging heavy on Effi’s hands. It dramatises the truth that for most people, a lingering condition is more potent than a resolved event.

The ghost of the Chinaman and the stuffed crocodile and shark are curiously allusive symbols – but of what? Of Effi’s fears and guilts? Of the alien situation she finds herself in and cannot control? Innstetten uses the ghost as a means of taming and controlling his good little wife; but Effi’s belief in the ghost is also akin to her romantic and imaginative side, which cannot be harnessed to a rational Prussian code. The scene where Major Crampas’s’ carriage is stuck in the mire screams out with foreboding. The flat Pomeranian landscape has its own oppressive emotional power.

Male novelists in the nineteenth century wrote many sympathetic novels about women in loveless marriages – Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Dombey and Son or William Dean Howells’ A Modern Instance to give just some obvious examples. They do not always meet with the approval of modern feminist critics, who can interpret them as male projections of how a woman’s mind works. Like Emma Bovary, Effi Briest is na├»ve and suggestible with a limited understanding of society. Yet I think Fontane’s account of her is as acute psychologically as it can be, and Fontane’s style is at least as chiselled as Flaubert’s. In Chapter 24, Effi’s mother describes Effi’s moral outlook thus:

She has a tendency to look on God as a good, kind man and console herself with the hope that he won’t be too strict with her.”

This comes up against the Prussian-ness of Innstetten who, in Chapter 35, defines happiness in these cold terms:

If I’m right, happiness consists of two things: first, in being where you belong… and secondly, and best of all, that one’s ordinary, everyday life should follow a smooth and easy course, that is, that you’ve slept soundly and your new boots don’t pinch you. If the seven hundred and twenty minutes of your twelve-hour day have gone by without particular annoyance, then you can talk of a ‘happy day.’

I should also note that this novel is as much a comment on national character as it is an account of a failed marriage. A Prussian of French Protestant descent, Theodor Fontane (1819-98) was in his seventies when he wrote Effi Briest. His views on his nation could be conventionally patriotic or severely critical. Between my first two readings of the novel, I had somehow got it into my head that it was set in the early or mid-19th century. Perhaps this was because of the less advanced country town where most of it takes place. In fact, with mention of the telegraph and the telegram and the telephone, it is quite specifically set in the decade when it was written, the 1890s. And Fontane more than once notes the boastful and vainglorious way Prussians still talked about their victory over the French in 1870.

This well-wrought, carefully-constructed, genuinely tragic novel is as great a work as it is claimed to be.

Some personal comments to conclude with.
First, I know only a few words of German, so I am reliant on Douglas Parmee’s translation for my assessment of Fontane’s style. It is excellent, but I did feel an awful crunch in Chapter 18 when Parmee uses the term “flappers” to describe giggly young women. Maybe the translator was getting old. The word belongs to the 1920s, and not the 1960s when the translation was made.

Second, I was so impressed with this novel that I hastened to read the other novel by Fontane that is readily available in English in the Oxford World Classics series, Before the Storm (Vor den Sturm), written in 1878. It is an historical novel set in Prussia at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Oh dear. I might some day make it a “Something Old”, but I found it as rambling and unengaging as I found Effi Briest focused and arresting.

Third, many years ago I saw a Film Society screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film version of Effi Briest (as a German classic, the novel has been filmed four or five times by the Germans, and is taught regularly in German schools). It was shot in black and white and starred Hanna Schygulla as Effi. Usually I found Fassbinder’s films verbose and sexually explicit bores, but I make an exception for this one. Fassbinder really got the point of Fontane’s elliptical style, and shot the duel scene in one brief, objective long shot. The film’s severe, controlled style, so atypical of its director, reflects accurately the novel’s sense of repression and limitation.

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