Friday, January 10, 2014

On a Prussian Marriage

Theodor Fontane’s elliptical and serenely devastating novel, 'Effi Briest', is salutary in reminding us that not so long ago, northern Europe was no different from the Third World. The swamps and moors of late 19th century Prussia were ghost-haunted tribal territories, something like rural Pakistan or the Central African Republic today. Fontane’s novel tells the story of the calamitous consequences of child-marriage and one of the shocking things about the book is that the Victorian-era novelist writes to condemn a practice apparently common prior to World War One. Urged by well-meaning, if stupid, parents into marriage when she is only 16, Effi, Fontane’s heroine, is the victim of a grotesque misalliance with a much older man, the well-to-do, obtuse bureaucrat, Baron von Instettin. The consequences of Effi’s marriage to Instetten are predictable: she is dead before her 30th birthday.

In the German-speaking world, Theodor Fontane is greatly admired and Effi Briest is said to be his masterpiece. The book is the sort of thing that German Junior College students are assigned in their first-year literature classes. (I read the book in a German edition annotated for college students and equipped with an elaborate history of the book’s critical reception and a summary of the literary themes generally agreed to be implied by the text – a sort of Norton critical edition auf Deutsch.) Thomas Mann said that Effi Briest is perfect, one of the “six novels” that Mann would take with him if stranded on a desert isle. The simple, yet dramatic, story has been filmed three times, in all cases by distinguished German film makers. The last movie version of the novel, Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, to which the insurgent director appended a lengthy and bullying Brechtian title, was released in 1974. I recall attending the film when I was not much older than Effi, probably 21 or 22, and, significantly, not grasping what it was about – the movie, shot in languid black-and-white, seemed miraculously, ineffably dull to me. The complete title to Fassbinder’s film is Effi Briest – Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Moeglichkeiten und Beduerfneissen und dennoch has herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestaetigen (Effi Briest or Many who have a notion of their own capabilities and deficiencies nonetheless accept in their minds the ruling system and through their acts even fortify and confirm it.) Fassbinder’s scrupulous film adaptation is not available in a Region 1 DVD (that is, the United States) and, even well-read Americans know nothing about the novel. The book is too muted, I think, and intellectually rigorous to resonate with most American readers. It’s a book about adultery in which there is no adultery and, ostensibly, a novel about a love affair in which there is no affair and, indeed, no real romantic love at all.

Here is the story: Effi is a care-free, negligently educated 16 year-old girl who lives with her parents in a small provincial Prussian village. Baron Geert von Instetten, a middle-aged bureacrat connected to the nether reaches of Bismarck’s administration, asks for the child’s hand. Her parents urge her to marry Instetten, although Effi’s mother has some misgivings. Suddenly, and the book is full of abrupt transitions, Effi finds herself married to Instetten and living in Kessin, small city remote from her hometown. She is so naive that she really doesn’t know where the city is located and imagines it be in a much colder northern climate – in her mind, she has been exiled to a strange place somewhere near the wilds of Russia. After a six week honeymoon, Effi finds herself alone in a moldering manor in a coastal city located near densely wooded tracts of land adjacent to a stormy sea-coast, a wilderness of dark forests, cold waves and sand-dunes. Instetten travels continuously on inscrutable official business leaving Effi alone in his decomposing home. The manor, described like the Gothic family mansion in The Addams Family, (there is a stuffed shark displayed in the foyer), happens to be haunted and Instetten regards the ghost – or, more accurately, Effi’s desperate fear of the spook – as a useful means to intimidate his child-like bride. Effi has only a few friends among the dour local Prussians, the scions of much-decayed ancient Teutonic families, half-embalmed old ladies and minor gentry with distinctly ossified manners and social mores. We are surprised to learn, through a casual sentence or two, that Effi becomes pregnant and has a child – no one in the book seems to have the slightest interest in sex and Effi’s relationship with her husband is icy and remote. In the course of her three or four year residence in the chilly coastal city, Effi attracts the interest of another local dignitary, Baron Crampas, an unhappily married man with an unsavory reputation as a lady’s man and seducer. (Apparently, inept as a duelist, in an earlier contretemps, he has been wounded in the shoulder and half-maimed.) Crampas is not much, but he’s a bit more lively then the other denizens of this provincial city and, at least, he shows some slight, if unsavory, interest in the charming young Frau. (Effi’s other best friend in Kessin is a hunchback.) Crampas sniffs around Effi and makes a half-hearted effort to seduce her. But Effi is a good Lutheran and she rejects Crampas’ advances. Nothing comes of the relationship, although a hundred pages later, we are surprised to discover that Crampas and Effi have apparently indulged in some romantic correspondence. Instetten wins a transfer to Berlin and moves his family there. Effi is invigorated by the big, bustling city and she is very happy. Then, by accident, Instetten discovers the love letters between Effi and his friend, Baron Crampas. Instetten would prefer to ignore the matter – the love letters are now six years old and yellow with age. But, as a good Prussian official, Instetten decides impulsively that it is his duty to seek recompense for the offense against his honor. At this point, the book slides into social terrain that would be perfectly comprehensible to people living in the tribal areas of Afghanistan. Instetten fights a duel with Crampas and kills him. Simultaneously, he banishes Effi, taking custory of their child, and shunning her completely. Effi shows surprising resilience and makes a life for herself alone in Berlin. But she is socially tainted and, after an unfortunate encounter with her daughter, becomes desperately ill. Effi returns to her parent’s home and becomes their “little girl” again. Instetten, who has served only six weeks for the honor-slaying, recognizes that his life is now blighted and dreams of escaping to Africa, but we know that he will never do this – he is too spineless and unimaginative. Effi is happy to be restored to her status as the only child of aging parents. Instetten is sufficiently magnanimous to allow Effi to take custody of the family’s dog, Rollo, a powerful Newfoundland hound. Of course, Effi sickens and dies. As far as polite Berlin society is concerned, the affair has a single moral, candidly expressed by a society woman: only idiots write love letters and only a complete fool keeps the incriminating evidence – “after all,” the woman observes, “what else are furnaces and fire-places good for?” The cynical truth is that Effi’s offense was immaterial itself – her inexcusable error was getting caught.

Fontane narrates this tale with uncanny precision and, despite the novel’s dispassionate efficiency, the novel has surprising emotional force. The book is thoroughly engineered: all of its moving parts fit together and every effect is carefully calculated to be meaningful on several different levels of interpretation. It’s an Audi or Porsche of a novel, a literary instrument effectively constructed to generate meanings (and ambiguities) through an ideal synthesis of style and content. Nothing is accidental and everything is intended as part of the pattern devised by Fontane. If a flower-bed shaped in a noteworthy pattern appears on page one of the book, you may be assured that this same flower-bed will have dire significance in the novel’s final chapter. There are leit motifs distributed throughout the text, phrases and words that re-occur in slightly different contexts and that assume complex emotional values each time repeated. Fontane’s landscape descriptions, beautiful and exact, also sketch emotional terrain significant to the action. Characters are equipped with meaningful features and gestures. The diction varies, according to Fontane’s needs, between simple girlish banter, elaborate and courtly forms of address, and stark, analytical descriptive prose, writing that is like the owner’s manual for an experience precision-engineered instrument. As an example of Fontane’s subtle word-choice, consider his use of the (literally) outlandish term “Schloon” in a central scene involving Crampas attempting to seduce Effi during a sleigh-ride. Several couples are traveling across the snowy sea-coast in the wintertime in horse-drawn sleighs. Crampas contrives the outing so that he occupies the Effi’s sleigh. While crossing a landscape of dunes along the shore, Effi’s sleigh encounters a “Schloon,” a word describing a conduit for sea-surge hidden under the sand and, therefore, dangerous to travelers. Fontane has to pause to define the peculiar word, a low-German expression apparently on-loan from the Dutch. This “Schloon” symbolically represents Crampas’ danger to Effi and Fontane uses the term to show that his heroine can’t exactly appreciate the threat, that Crampas’ attempt to seduce her can’t be assimilated to her experience and, in fact, she doesn’t even have words to describe the peril that the Baron poses to her.

Fontane’s novel represents the height of German realism, but, in fact, many of its effects seem slightly hallucinatory, even, phantasmagoric. This is also a characteristic of Fontane closely attuning his narrative to the symbolic structures governing the story. The ghost haunting the mansion where Effi finds herself marooned is that of Chinese immigrant, a stranger in a strange land who conceived a misguided love for a local woman and perished as a result. This apparition establishes an essential equation in the novel’s pitiless calculus: Love = Death. Similarly, the Chinese ghost rustling through the curtains in the closed upstairs corridors of the grim manor house is an outsider, someone like Effi, doomed by isolation from the world that he once knew. But these kinds of fantastic details are rooted in a densely imagined matrix of seemingly insignficant events: Fontane points out that amateur theatrical productions, for instance, little plays presented by Crampas and his literary friends, are an incubator for adultery, surely a very acute observation about a reality of small-town life.

In one scene, Effi is alone in her bedroom in the haunted house. Instetten is away on business, confident that instilling fear in his child-wife will keep her subservient. The ghost appears in Effi’s bed, brushing past her, and, as she sits up terrified, the door to her room spring open:

Aber eben dieser Moment hoechster Angst war auch der ihrer Befreiung denn statt etwas Schrecklichem kam jetzt Rollo auf sie zu, suchte mit seinem Kopf nach ihrer Hand und legte sich , als er diese gefunden, auf den von ihrem Bett ausgebreitete Teppich nieder. Effi selber aber hatte mit der anderen Hand dreimal auf den Knopf der Klingel gedrueckt, und keine halbe Minute, so war Johanna da, barfuessig, den Rock ueber dem Arm und ein grosses kariertes Tuch ueber Kopf und Schulter geschlagen.

(But this moment of her greatest fear was also her liberation from that terror
because, instead of something horrible, it was Rollo (the Newfoundland dog) that approached her, searching with his head for her hand, and when he had found her, he laid himself down on a carpet spread out in front of her bed. For her part, Effi used her other hand to ring three times, pushing down on the button, and not a half minute later, Johanna was there, barefoot, a skirt slung over her arm and a large plaid cloth thrown over her head and shoulders.)
(my translation)

I cite this passage as an example of Fontane’s cinematic realism. The big dog’s gesture of advancing its muzzle toward Effi’s extended hand is precisely observed as is the beast’s complacent settling down onto the floor once Rollo understands that his mistress is not endangered. Effi remains panicked and rings the buzzer, activating a bell to summon Johanna not once but three times. She uses her “other hand” to press on the button, presumably still extending the hand that the Rollo has sniffed (or licked) in the direction of the watchdog that has come to comfort her. Then, Fontane provides us with a comically detailed description of Johanna’s deshabille: bare feet, a skirt slung over her arm and “the large plaid cloth” covering her head and shoulders. It is this latter detail that particularly interests me. The German term for “plaid” or “checkered” is “karierte” – a word that I didn’t know and had to look up in a dictionary. Fontane’s writing is intensely deliberate. Every word serves a purpose and every effect contributes to the whole. It is a meaningful question, therefore, to ask why Fontane insists on this specific pictorial detail: why does he tell us that the large cloth covering Johanna’s head and shoulders is “plaid?”

I conjecture several answers to this question: first, and most importantly, the novel is almost entirely presented through free indirect third-person narrative that embodies Effi’s point of view and this detail, the “checkered cloth,” is anchored in her perspective – it is exactly the kind of thing that Effi would notice. Less than fifteen pages in the entire novel represent some point of view foreign to Effi – there are five or six pages involving Instetten’s deliberations on the duel that are narrated from his perspective, a dialogue between the two maids involving Effi that she doesn’t observe, the duel itself – here the narration is laconic to the vanishing point – and a final posthumous page involving some dialogue between the heroine’s aged parents after Effi’s death. Throughout the book, Fontane exercises scrupulous discipline presenting descriptions and events always as experienced by Effi and interpeted through her sensibility. Effi’s essentially female point-of-view is conveyed by the detail as to the patterning on the cloth – she notices this and it is significant to her. The description of Johanna’s discomfiture also conveys something to us about the young woman’s imagination – implicit in the description is a sense that the dignified Johanna appears in a state of comical disarray: she brings garments (the skirt) in case she has to get dressed and is not about to traipse through the house without covering her hair – one imagines that she wears some kind of bonnet or scarf as she works – although her feet are bare. Although she is frightened, Effi is amused by the maid’s disheveled appearance. Johanna has been her adversary, a competitor for the role of mistress of the house, and Effi is pleased (and amused), I think, to see her distraught and only half-dressed when she is called to her aid.

But why is the cloth covering Johanna said to be “plaid?” This detail illustrates Fontane’s extreme subtlety and finesse in implying meaning. On several occasions, Fontane tells us that Effi’s favorite novelist is Sir Walter Scott. When she sends a servant to a lending library, Effi specifically tells her to borrow novels by Scott. Later, Effi suffers some kind of hysterical malady while visiting her mother who has come to Berlin to consult with a specialist for her own ailments. Effi’s illness seems symptomatic of unhappiness and, probably, sexual frustration and is linked, as well, with her homesickness. The quack treating her notes that Effi has a novel by Scott on her bedstand, reading that he only reluctantly endorses suggesting that “travel narratives” would be better. When Instetten first shows Effi around the neighborhood upon her exile to Kessin, he notes that a Scotsman, Macpherson, lives in a nearby house, across the garden from his decaying manor. Macpherson is said to be “withered” (“verhutzelte”), a disreputable specimen “of which neither Sir Walter Scott nor his clan would particularly proud.” Plaid-patterned garments are part of a pattern of imagery connecting Effi’s unhappy marriage with the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Effi is romantic as shown by the books that she chooses to read – she inclines toward doomed love, murders, omens, portents, and, of course, ghostly apparitions. In a figurative sense, Effi seems similar to Scott’s “Bride of Lammermoor” (1819), Lucy, the doomed maiden forced into an unhappy marriage who murders the bridegroom on her wedding night. (In fact, elements of “Bride of Lammermoor” are evident in Fontane’s plot, particularly the “Schloon,” a perilous, hidden snare similar to the quicksand that swallows Edgar in Scott’s novel.) Effi notices Johanna’s plaid shawl because this detail connects her plight with the heroine’s of novels by Walter Scott. Plaid garments, “tartan,” are associated with Scottish clans and Fontane’s cites this detail, I think, to suggest that Effi’s plight may be imagined as similar to that of Lucy in “The Bride of Lammermoor” or, of course, Lucia in Donizetti’s“Lucia de Lammermoor.” This is conjectural and, for all I know, the term “karierte” (“plaid” or “checkered”) may have other specific associations to native-speaking north Germans. But the point of this explication is that Fontane’s attention to details and rigorous engineering of effects in the novel authorizes (indeed, compels) a reader to interpret every feature in the novel – nothing is accidental and everything is intended.

Fontane’s most audacious stylistic device is his use of elision and duration to convey emphasis and symbolic meaning. This is another aspect of “Effi Briest’s” intricate design. Parts of the narrative proceed in slow-motion – every detail is explicitly narrated and we read these events in real time: our reading time is roughly equivalent to the duration of the event that is described. But, in other parts, of the novel, long periods of time pass in a parenthetical statement. When Effi visits Berlin, a happy experience for her, the novel’s pace slows down and we learn in detail what she sees and how she experiences those things – the account expands to several chapters. Unhappy or uneventful parts of Effi’s life pass in the blink of an eye – in one sentence, we are surprised to learn that three years has passed without any event being narrated as occurring in that time. Even more remarkably, seven years passes in one sentence. (German critics who calculate such things observe that the novel narrates events spanning twelve years.)

At some point, during one of these periods of time that Fontane has not bothered to tell us about, Effi received and, apparently, wrote affectionate letters to Crampas. We are not shown her writing these letters and don’t get any distinct image of her participating in this correspondence, an exchange of letters that proves decisive and fatal to her. Fontane doesn’t sample the letters; we have no idea exactly what is contained within that correspondence. These details are not provided because ultimately it doesn’t matter. When Instetten discovers the letters, his first concern relates to an obscure doctrine in the etiquette of dueling – that is, the rule of “Verjaehrung,” a principle like a statute of limitations: when is an affront to honor simply to stale to require recompense through a duel? While pondering this point, Instetten grasps that the letters have no actual significance: he has discovered them when his marriage to Effi is happy and, of course, wasn’t aware of the flirtation when it actually occurred – at that time, presumably, he was too busy with professional concerns to pay much attention to his young wife. Therefore, the flirtation evidenced by the letters has had no actual adverse consequence to him – he has literally suffered no harm since what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Fontane establishes this by not narrating the exchange of letters and by relegating their writing to some part of the story that he hasn’t even bothered to tell us. With this audacious device, Fontane shows us something that he never states directly: the letters have no meaning at all. No affair resulted from them. They are a nullity not even worth the ink and paper necessary to show Effi and Crampas writing (and delivering) these letters. Effi is destroyed by something that is nothing at all.

Fontane makes this point with even more lacerating effect in his distribution of focus and emphasis in the chapters involving the duel between Crampas and Instetten. After Instetten concludes that the duel is unavoidable, he travels to Kessin to accomplish the thing – he is preceded by his second who has negotiatied the duel’s logistics. Everything proceeds in accord with good protocol under the most stringent deadlines – for instance, Instetten is obliged to issue his challenge to Crampas within twenty-four hours of discovering the offence. (This is particularly ironic since the offence itself actually occurred six and a half years before it’s accidently discovery.) With swift and moronic dispatch, the duel is completed. Fontane wastes
very few words on these proceedings:

...alles erledigte sich rasch; und die Schuesse fielen. Crampas stuerzte.
(It was all settled quickly. Shots were fired and Crampas fell.)

When rushing toward disaster, everyone seems anxious to move at top speed. Two pages after this episode, two maids quarrel over the duel and its dire consequences. One of the maids, Johanna, is loyal to Instetten; she was a servant to his family before Effi’s marriage. The other maid, Roswitha, is Effi’s partisan. The two women compete for Instetten’s attention, quarrel, and engage in recriminations with one another. Fontane devotes more than three pages to this domestic bickering. The author’s allocation of resources makes his point vividly clear: the dispute between the maids has meaning, involves real issues, and a legitimate controversy. By contrast, the duel is completely meaningless, fought for no reason, and can not be justified in any way.
In many ways, I think Fontane is the peer of Flaubert and, in some ways, Effi Briest is a better novel, both more convincing and audacious, than Madame Bovary. So why isn’t Fontane better known in the English-speaking world? (I observe that in 2013, two novels by Fontane were published in translation by The New York Review of Books as part of series reprinting unjustly neglected works. But I doubt that these books will be bestsellers.) To use the German word, why does Fontane have little or no Wirkungsgeschichte in English? Accidents of history seem to me primarily responsible. It’s my thesis that it takes between ten and twenty years for a work acknowledged as a masterpiece in its home language to become widely known in translation. Consider Laszlo Kraznahorkai’s “Satantango,” published in Hungarian in 1985. If it had not been for Bela Tarr’s films based on Krazhnahorkai’s novels, it is unlikely that anyone, other than Eastern European specialists, woudl have heard of that writer. Even so, Satantango was not published in English until 2012 – that is, twenty-seven years after the novel was first available in Hungarian. Admittedly, Kraznahorkai, writing in a little-known language in an obscure country (and whose prose is notably difficult) may represent a special case. But consider Roberto Bolano’s undisputed masterpiece The Savage Detectives. Bolano’s book was published in Spanish 1998, but not translated into English until 2007. Critics first took note of the novel beginning around 2010. By that point, Bolano was long dead – he perished in 2003 – and the book that is probably his magnum opus (with 2666) was twelve years old. These two examples are modern, that is, occurring in an age that prides itself on electronic interconnectivity.

The first modern translation of Effi Briest is a Penguin classic printed in 1996 – this is twelve years after Fassbinder’s film adaptation should have ignited, at least, some passing interest in the novel. (Fassbinder’s film was successful in Germany but, abroad, is one of his least-known pictures.) As far as I can determine, Effi Briest was first translated into English in 1914 in an abridged version as part of a series entitled “The German Classics: Masterpieces of the 19th Century”, a rather daunting and expensive-looking series of books – they have hand-colored frontispieces showing German cities and silver-point illustrations – issued by The German Society of New York. The date of this translation tells the story: 1914. During World War One what American would dare be seen reading a novel written by a Prussian “Hun”? German history and its world wars, accordingly, accounts for Effi Briest’s oblivion in the English-speaking world.

Viewed in retrospect, there is something a little uncanny about Effi Briest. Fontane’s novel is narrated against a background of Prussian militarism. In the first ten pages of the book, the military lineage of several of the characters is established and there are discussions of troop deployments, cavalry garrisons, and soldiers awarded the Iron Cross. The war with France is a recent memory, frequently referenced by characters and school-children celebrate “Sedantag” (the day of the Prussian victory at Sedan) as a holiday. Men are characterized by their present and former military rank – for instance, “Major” Crampas. In Berlin, Effi and her mother are squired about town by a gallant young hussar, Effi’s cousin, a member of the Alexander Regiment. The women are duly impressed by a lavish 360 degree cyclorama showing a Prussian victory over the French, again the Battle of Sedan.

In this martial context, Fontane’s novel pivots on several themes. In the terms of Effi’s short life, an ancient entanglement drags her toward catastrophe. The characters seems to sleepwalk into calamity. Instetten imagines himself as the adult in his relationship with Effi, but when issues of honor arise, he becomes more childishly irrational than his bride. The pervasive atmosphere in the book is that of scarcely understood and abstract concepts compelling people to act against their best interests. When Instetten takes center-stage in the book’s mise-en-scene, he occupies Effi’s world – that is, he has lost his agency and feels himself to be in the grip of quasi-supernatural forces. Fontane’s novel is about a deep and abiding childishness, a devotion of meaningless principles that urges action that everyone knows to to be disastrous, but, which, seemingly can not be avoided. Provincial life, and, indeed, the polite society in Berlin is so dull and stultifying that the characters seem to yearn for some sort of tempest, a passion or an agony that will rescue them from the fatal boredom that typifies their lives.

So, what does this sound like to you? Without knowing it, Fontane has written an allegory about the origins of World War One.

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