Friday, October 02, 2009

Thoughts on Effi Briest

We've had Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest (translated into English by Douglas Parmée) for a while (Aimée brought it into the marriage), but I admit that it was the vague notion I had acquired that it was one of Beckett's favorite novels that moved it onto my ever-shifting pile of maybe-imminent reads. With such knowledge, however sketchy, you feel, ah, yes, now that's an unbeatable stamp of approval, eh? Quality, excellence, seems guaranteed. But of course it doesn't tell you much. Nor did I really expect it to. Does Beckett's own writing tell you anything about what Effi Briest might be like? It seems unlikely, doesn't it? Anyway, in the event, it does not. I read the novel last week, and Effi Briest is a fairly straightforward, enjoyable, 19th century novel, which also functions as a lightly ironic condemnation of certain 19th century German mores. (It's called the most famous German novel of the 19th century, and I realize that it's the only one I can name.)

In my cursory search on the book, I've noticed that Madame Bovary often gets mentioned as a point of comparison, in part so that the differences can be touched on. One is this: Fontane is nothing like as pleased with himself as Flaubert is in his attack on bourgeois values. Another is that Effi is not the figure of fun for Fontane that Emma is for Flaubert. Emma has gotten her head filled with all sorts of silly notions from the silly books she reads, and she suffers. Effi suffers too, and she is not without responsibility, but ultimately she is simply too young and innocent to be thrown into the adult world the way she is. Fontane's narration seems to hold conservative society, and its emphasis on honor and propriety, more responsible for her fate.

I mentioned above that the book is "lightly ironic". It was this lightness that carried the book for me. I admit that, the Beckett imprimatur notwithstanding, I approached the novel with some hesitation. As I began reading the book, I resisted the beginning of the narrative, the recounting of details, the introduction of characters. But I was gradually won over by this lightness and by the narrator's voice, which is by turns reticent and amused. This reticence is most evident in the plot, in which major events--including the very affair that is Effi's undoing--are barely recounted, if at all, and can only really be inferred via later references. At times this reticence led to some confusion, as I found myself wondering what had happened, and wondering why all the fuss over virtually nothing. (The latter sometimes happens when we read books depicting a society very different from our own, doesn't it?--we have a hard time understanding what all the characters are on about, why it matters so much, whatever it might be. An example: the play in Mansfield Park; I know I had a hard time understanding what could be so immoral about that; I simply had to accept it as such for the sake of the book.) The point is I spent some time deciding whether my confusion about the affair in question stemmed from a question of different values or from authorial reticence (itself perhaps a function of the former? a question I'd be better able to answer if I knew the first thing about 19th century German literature). I resolved the question in favor of reticence, a reticence that I think helps elevate the book above its apparently melodramatic material.

Speaking of melodrama, the day I finished reading the novel, I discovered that Fassbinder had directed a movie version of Effi Briest. I knew that Fassbinder played a bit with melodrama, so I thought his movie would be fun. Well, we rented it last Friday and fun is not the first word I would use to describe the film. The film was slower moving, and a bit more heavy-handed in its critique of society, and yet this very heavy-handedness seemed to work well in the translation to film. The film is like a series of awkward-seeming, and beautifully composed (in black-and-white), tableaux--characters often seem to be literally waiting for cues before they begin a scene. The characters seemed more stiff to me than they did in the book, but then I have little doubt that Fassbinder, being German, would have had a better handle on the German society being depicted than I would.


R J Keefe said...

No, "fun" is not the word for Fassbinder's adaptation (one of quite a few).

As for the play in "Mansfield Park," I was prepared for the immorality argument by my mother's constant harping, during childhood, on the frequency with which actors divorced and remarried their costars.

"Effi Briest" is one of the great reads, and, I'm ashamed to say, the only German one that I'm familiar with.

Richard said...

Hi R.J., thanks for commenting.

You're right, in Mansfield Park we are prepared by the mother's warnings, but the problem itself remained a mystery, at least to me.

Amateur Reader said...

If you're interested, much of the Fontane available in English is similarly good.

L'Adultera \ The Woman Taken in Adultery is especially interesting up against Effi Briest. Schach von Wuthenow \ A Man of Honor is melodrama at its best.

Richard said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I read a wee little bit about Fontane's writing, and the other books did indeed sound worthy.