Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Book Notes: Effi Briest (1894)

Effi Briest is Theodor Fontaine's greatest novel and German readers swear it's one of the best of all time. Tomas Mann talked about it being one of the six novels he found indispensable. I don't know if I would go so far myself, but it's certainly a fine work of art, and not many novels are.

The story is about a young girl married off by her family to an older Landrat in Bismark's Germany, shut up in his house and bored out of her mind. Things end badly.

The situation in which a young girl married off to a much older man by her family strikes us as barbaric; but it's been the norm in most parts of the world throughout history. I thought of a ten year old girl in Yemen who became a national heroine last year when she made her way to a courtroom and demanded a divorce. Of course, there are several characters in Shakespeare who could understand the situation- given from a father to a father figure with love playing no part in the transaction. We have friends whose marriage was arranged, and they live in true wedded bliss; but they weren't children at the time.

Effi is still just a child at age seventeen- she believes in ghosts and folk tales, believes the spirit of a 'Chinaman' is haunting the couple's home in Kessel. She is, however, more intelligent than her husband, who comes off as a Bismarkian martinet; and she's not a romantic drip of an adultress like Emma Bovary- Flaubert's novel is brilliant, but I can't be the only reader for whom, if Emma hadn't poisoned herself, by a hundred pages in, I'd have rather done it.

The Landrat husband Innstetten is ascending the ladder of the Prussian state following the unification of Germany. However, Landrat is a low-level political office. He is stuffy and pompous, but a good 'match' for Effi socially. He reminds one of the old cliche that Germans have to have all the pencils on their desk perfectly aligned. There is a sense here that his stuffiness and headmaster arrogance have become totally transparent; the German Empire is already in decline. Authoritarian Realpolitik cannot compete with the irrationality of eros. The nineteenth century is already over.

Effi is miserable living in Kessel with the provincial prigs and her paternalistic husband. The affair she has seems inevitable somehow; it's hard to blame her really. Much of her struggle seems to be about avoiding being subsumed by this married persona that her parents feel is best for her. I suspect that the ''betrayal'' of adultery is often a matter of a person's weak willed inability to commit the greater betrayal of a clean break. It would be hard to blame Effi if she had left her husband instead of the reverse. In the end, her parents disown her- they'd rather have the married persona than the unmarried daughter. Innstetten kills the lover in a duel that seems superfluous.

One of the things I've always found fascinating about patriarchal societies is that a man can be a King, a general, head of the Royal Navy, or the greatest mind of his generation; but if his wife sleeps with someone else, he is automatically reduced to the status of cuckold. It is amazing that a culture can invest so much power in men in such a way that power is so remarkably fragile. Effi's affair was brief, fleeting, and long over; but Innstetten can't just forget it and keep walking. It is hard to see him as a ''blood and iron'' Prussian. And yet his duty compels him beyond his humanity.

In a way, Effi has a 'happy ending' because she dies Effi Briest and not Effi Innstetten; but the reader is left with the feeling that she could never have lived happily as Effi Innstetten in the Germany of the time.

Note: here is the trailer to the newest film of Effi Briest. The great German filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder made a film of Effi Briest back in 1974.


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