Effi Briest

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By Arlenice Almeida da Silva

Commentary on Theodor Fontane's last novel.

In 2013 it was translated in Brazil, for the first time, Effi Briest, the last novel by Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Indirectly, the Brazilian reader already knew the author through a vast field, a 1995 novel by Günter Grass, in which Theodor Fontane himself is made a character in a happy intertwining of history, literature and imagination, in which Grass weaves a plot that mixes Fontane's ethical and aesthetic impasses with the dilemmas of a reunited Germany. With Effi Briest character and work meet, allowing the reader to verify to what extent Fontane is, in German territory, at the same time a great realist and an admirable storyteller.

Theodor Fontane experimented with various genres before dedicating himself to the novel. Born in 1819, in Neurupiin, in the province of Brandenburg, of Huguenot descent, he started working as a pharmacist like his father, but soon abandoned the trade, turning to journalism in which he stood out in London, in the Deutsch-English Correspondence, between 1855 and 1858.

Self-taught, his stay in London allowed him to come into contact with English painting and the theatre, in particular with Shakespeare, whose work Fontane translated. Such in-depth and rigorous studies opened the field of the arts to him, in which he began to act through critical activity. When he returned to Berlin, he worked for almost twenty years as a theatrical columnist for the Vossische Zeitung, stimulating the cultural daily life of the city, in which he is respected as a reporter, critic and poet, although he remains little recognized in the official spheres of the intelligentsia.

As a poet, he is the author of Balladen, from 1861, narrative poems that revolve around popular legends and historical motifs, with a moralistic conclusion; and also fromWanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg” (Pilgrimages through Brandenburg), in five volumes, from 1862, a mixture of a travel guide and a description of the landscape; writings, in short, that served him as a preparatory exercise for the novel genre, to which he would dedicate himself in his sixties.

The documentary source of the novel Effi Briest is journalistic and historical: the initial plan was conceived after the report that Fontane heard of the true events, known as the “Ardenne case”, which involved Elisabeth Freiin von Plotho and her husband Armand Léon von Ardenne in a conflict composed of adultery, duel , death and divorce. The subject mobilized several writers at the time, as shown by afterword by Gotthard Erler, among them Friedrich Spielhagen who also wrote the novel about the case Zum Zeitvertreib (To spend time).

By sticking to what really happened, fiction leaves literary models behind and articulates itself in advance with journalistic writing, that is, with the assumption that there is an element of truth that discourse establishes when enunciated in an instantaneous actuality. . Which explains why Fontane, a journalist and novelist like Sue, Dumas or Balzac, allowed the narrative to be read first as a serial., between October 1894 and March 1895, in Deutsche Rundschau, and only edited at the end of 1895 in book format; It is worth mentioning that in the following year, in 1896, the novel reached five reprints, the only success in Fontane's lifetime.

Familiarity with what supposedly happened, however, allowed Fontane to go beyond the known, introducing suspicions, explanatory hypotheses, destabilizing the fact in multiple perceptions, always moved by the desire to reach a truth and not as a mimetic exercise of a given objectivity; the author thus penetrates the universe of fiction, releasing in the narrative the imaginary and what in it overflows with underground and mysterious.

Now, among the favorite enigmatic subjects, that of the feminine pursues Fontane in several novels: ellernklipp (1882) L'adultera (1882) Graf Petofy (1884) Cecile (1887) Frau Jenny Treibel (1892) Unwiederbringlich (1892), and finally Effi Briest (1894). In this series, the women are noble, petty bourgeois, proletarian, urban or provincial; In it, however, we find the topos of the feminine almost always presented in imprecise contours, like sketches, which combine affectivity with instability or with some kind of betrayal, along the lines of the Ardenne case. Fontane, when enunciating a discourse on the feminine, does not, however, act as a simple moralist, since he intentionally modulates his narratives based on different points of view, all of them woven into a complex web of multiple causalities.

Em Effi Briest we have a unique feminine discourse, Effi is a woman who does not love, nor is she capable of assuming true passion. What interests the author here is, therefore, not the emergence of a passion, but its impossibility, experienced as the genesis of unhappiness, of unavoidable suffering, which in its most acute moments resembles that of the biblical Job; however, it is a pain that is not said, except indirectly, through allusions and silences. This muting that runs through the entire novel refers directly to Fontane's style: a contained, sober writing, of Protestant, Huguenot and Lutheran origin, which is responsible for the uniqueness of the work. Gunter Grass, in a vast field, sees in Fontane a “discrete observer”: a “person who writes concisely about what is big and largely about what is small” (Grass, 1998, p.601).

The "unfortunate Effi" is the daughter of the landed gentry, in Hohen-Cremmen, the little girl dressed in a sailor's collar, caught from the first lines, running, jumping and playing recklessly in her garden and who marries, a few pages later, at seventeen. years, with the much older Baron Instetten, provincial councilor at Kessin, in East Pomerania, especially out of ambition and respect for parents.

Effi is presented, on the one hand, as an indomitable force of nature, almost mythical like the fairy Melusine, in her mother's words, "a daughter of the breezes" (Torch of the Luft), on the other hand, as a paradoxical and enigmatic character, given that in her “there was a mixture of grace and petulance, her laughing brown eyes betrayed a great natural intelligence, a lot of will to live and a profound kindness” (Fontane, 2013, p.11). The indetermination is also historical, as we are in old Prussia, in decline, and in transition to modern Bismarckian Germany. Here, as in Fontane's other novels, we see the two poles of German history oscillate, the nostalgically idealized old Prussia and modern Germany, still seen with reserve and suspicion.

The format of the novel is mixed. On the one hand, the epic description predominates, full of details, whether about Berlin society or about the Kessin province, plus the sober characterization of the characters, carried out mainly through dialogues; on the other hand, there is concentration of the plot on the character of Effi and significant use of the intimate form of the letter, which allows the novel to also carry out dramatic intentions.

In fact, as Peter-Klaus Schuster has maintained, there is a tenuous balance in Fontane's writing that is, above all, pictorial, as his observations denounce a visual sensitivity developed in contact mainly with the English painting of Turner, Reynolds, Hogarth, and specifically with the pre-Raphaelites, such as Millais, Collins, Hughes or Rossetti, whose female figures are preserved, half literary, half realistic, wrapped in religiosity and eroticism. (Schuster, 1978, p.40).

the chinese

On marrying Geert von Instteten, Effi goes to live at his house in Kessin; she abandons the familiar and pleasant atmosphere and goes to a bleak, desolate and boring landscape. Before her appears an exotic, strong Germany, made up of a mixture of Slavs, Germans and occasional foreigners, like a Chinese servant who had lived there and was buried in a nearby cemetery. Effi doesn't understand any particularity of the region, everything is dismal to her and, in the face of estrangement, she cowers alone in her fear. The house is, above all, haunted, brutally decorated with heavy, antique furniture or exotic objects; the vestibule ceiling displays, as if suspended in the air, a shark and a crocodile.

In this sinister house, Effi lives in fear, which is encouraged by her husband, servants and other residents of the region, who always frighten her with the story of the Chinese. Briefly, he had been the servant of a wealthy merchant, Thomsen, who had lived in the same house as Instetten and had probably fallen madly in love with his master's granddaughter. The fact is that when she is forced to succumb to a marriage of convenience, the bride disappears on her wedding night and, days later, the Chinese man is found dead.

 Following the German tradition, mainly the fantastic tales of ETA Hoffmann or Adelbert von Chamisso, Fontane grafts onto the supposed rationality of the genre, hints of the supernatural, suggesting relationships between the fantastic and the erotic. Estrangement is explored in the presentation of several irreconcilable opposites, which multiply in the narrative web, such as, for example, the house, which is presented at the same time as cozy and sinister (es ist sondebarerweise gemütlich und unheimlich simultaneously) (Fontane, 2013, p.139).

It is in these terms that the motif of the uncanny appears in Fontane's prudish writing (Unheimliche), anticipating the meaning that Freud, in 1919, would name “disquieting sensation”, based on literary and linguistic references, especially in the short story “The Sandman, by ETA Hoffmann. Freud's suggestion is that in the term unheimlich there would be a relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar; for what appears there “is not something new or alien, but something long familiar to the psyche, and which should have remained hidden, but has appeared.” In other words, the unsettling is easily and often “reached when the boundary between fantasy and reality is erased, when something real comes across to us that until then we saw as fantastic, when a symbol takes on the full function and meaning of what is symbolized. (Freud, 2010, p. 360-364)”.

The story of the Chinese, narrated equally through omissions and allusions, from various voices throughout the work, establishes a parallel with Effi's fate. The motto for Unheimlich whether as the unsettling or the sinister, it activates archaic elements, and, in Effi's case, the primitive fear of the dead, allowing the reader to foresee what is at stake in what is silenced, that is, the disturbing and uncontrollable force of sexuality that in the novel is summoned from the deep zones of desire. Apparently Effi's fear is of her husband, of her authority; fear that manifests itself, indirectly, as fear of the Chinese.

Effi wants to move out of the gloomy house, the “damn house with the Chinaman upstairs”, with the blue coat, who walks in the dead of night, enters her room, brushes her bed, scaring even Rollo the dog. Now, her husband simultaneously mocks and encourages her fear, humiliating her with the argument of his social inferiority, since “hauntings are a privilege like family trees” (Fontane, 2013, p.111) and fear is “proper to people insignificant”. Instetten, with his “propensity to sow mist and restlessness and then laugh at human credulity” seeks to disguise the mediocrity of the house, giving it an exotic connotation, showing it enchanted or enchanted.

Thus, Effi's fear is always treated by her husband in a puerile way, since she never “lose her maliciously childish air”, not even when she becomes pregnant, because, certainly, a child would be for her an “adorable toy”. As an “educator”, however, he represses his concerns, ordering the distance from everything that is strange: “beware of what is different, or what is called different”, (...) [because] what seems seductive, it costs us our own happiness” (Idem, p.119). Unlike Emma Bovary, an adult woman, Effi is almost always presented as a child, and, like Otilie in elective activities, by Goethe, always shrouded in some mystery.

Fear is above all – a diagnosis dear to Fontane – Effi's gradual discovery of control mechanisms that ramify in all directions and that are recognizable especially in the social management of erotic relationships, in which there is little room for excesses, deviations, i.e. for whatever liberation the desire brings about. Fear that is enunciated, exemplarily, by the singer Tripelli, when describing society: “we are stalked to the right and to the left, from the front and from behind. You will still experience this situation” (Idem, p.130).

The swing

Effi had been brought up with relative freedom, her broad temper unchecked by her parents; she was an only child, spoiled, nothing had been severely reproached, but her character is contradictory, undefined, a dilemma for the author: sometimes she is temperamental, kind, gentle, naive and natural; at other times, she is flippant, reckless, superficial, and without moral fiber. Hence the importance of the swing, an allegorical element used by Fontane, built austerely with board, rope and poles, on which Effi swayed wildly while standing in the garden of her parents' house. On that swing, gazing out at the vast and infinite horizons, she had known no sense of responsibility.

When her parents made the mistake of proposing her marriage to Instetten, she did not resist or react, but accepted the proposal, seeing in it, on the one hand, the chance to fulfill her mother's desire for social ascension, which she unexpectedly takes as yours, and at the same time to conquer even more freedom. Evidently the marriage to Instetten, the “man of duty” (Pflichtmenschen) and convenience, which, in general, only attracted fear and aversion, would prevent both things and could only end in a tragic outcome (Horváth, 2004, p.48).

On the swing, on the move, Effi is always in danger, whether in the frequent falls that occurred in childhood, without major consequences; be married, on the sleigh ride in the snow, with Crampas, when the fall will be irreparable. The swing motif, therefore, refers to the movements of air and light, as the heroine's impulse towards freedom, in which Fontane sees a strong inclination towards adventure and to take pleasure in danger, that is, in his own terms, "freedom". in what was good” (Fontane, 2013, p.197) and not just freedom in what is reasonable, hostage to convenience.

Freedom in the field of the interdict is explored by Fontane in a sober but not naive way, in which one has access to the disruptive imaginary, through which a few moments of sensitive autonomy of female discourse escape, whether in the superficial and light terms of Effi – “wanted love, affection, honor, shine and fun” –, or in her mother's stern and repressive terms: “she lets herself go willingly, and when the tide is right, she herself is fine. Struggle and resistance are not her forte” (Fontane, 2013, p. 293).

In the children's swing, which turns into a rocking chair in Kessin's haunted house, Effi's desire is manifested as the presence of unavoidable sexuality which, even elided and without expansion – just as a derisory desire – is the gap through which Fontane introduces suggestions of femininity or eroticism, understood as a happy mobilization of the being, or simply, as an expansion of the being. Effi's intimacy is never invaded by the author, nor is there a description of her fantasies or dreams, although we know that they are intense and frequent. Her intimacy, on the contrary, is presented timidly, in the Puritan way, through indirect figurations of nature, such as winds and waters.

As Andrea Horváth shows, if Flaubert dives directly into Emma's sensations and feelings, Fontane, on the contrary, only paints them through the external appearance of events, leaving the reader with an allusion to internal motives. This is how Effi's sexuality, according to conventions, is only externalized as the object of seduction of mature and virile men, before whom the normative ideal model of the prudish and morally correct woman must operate; if Effi's desire cannot be described, nor observed, having to remain underground, it is because the balance sought by the text presupposes that such impulses should be known beforehand and morally controlled.

The work's architecture is, however, complex: on the one hand, the repressive and male narrator predominates, who insists on presenting the case negatively, as a commonplace amorous illusion; as yet another vulgar seduction of the already known Crampas, 44 years old, military commander in the Kessin region, who already had a history of dueling for treason with married women. On the other hand, through the motif of the swing, pleasure and guilt are intertwined: “when she opened her eyes again”, says the narrator, after the episode of the sleigh in the snow, Effi suffers tremendously.

The novel is thus effected through a cold aesthetic distance, in which the central events are described quickly, in passing, presented as non-essential, almost at random, in an intentionally careless way. For example, Effi leaves her lover Crampas' letters and notes in a drawer, “tied with a red thread, with three or four turns and a knot instead of a bow”; years later, exactly six and a half years, Instetten finds them, “all yellow with age”. Through such devices, Fontane seeks to provoke in the reader an empty, enigmatic, non-moralistic place, in which a fair judgment of Effi's fate would be possible.

At the same time, however, the sober style indicates, more and more, the defense of correct, resigned, and, above all, scathing reality, whose access is given only by the theme of honor, and which reaches unprecedented colors as in the letter from the mother, Mrs. . Briest to Effi, in which transparent cruelty is taken for honesty, in her words: “we like to put our cards on the table and we want to pronounce our condemnation of your act in front of everyone”, as a result of which you will now “live alone” , since both the world in which he lived and “the paternal home will be closed” (Fontane, 2013, p. 346). In what is convenient and elegant, the principle of duty prevails over that of happiness; what is expected of a betrayed honor is the convenient and necessary attitude to repair the error according to convenience. “Everything is terribly correct”, ironizes Günter Grass in a vast field..

When Fontane brutally shifts the focus of the narrative from Effi to Instetten, from desire to the feeling of honor, understood as fidelity to oneself and to the principles, received and accepted by the State and the duties that result therefrom, the narrative is taken over by the theme of moral determination (die Gesinnung entscheidt). While Effi rests in Schwalbach and Ems, arbitrarily, without her consent, the error is repaired according to convenience and order is restored, despite the fact that her future is brutally sacrificed.

At this moment, however, the narrator Fontane is, above all, ironic: at the same time glorifying and accusing the Prussian spirit; according to Joseph Rovan, “each statement leads to its opposite”, at the same time affirming Prussian values ​​and criticizing the society of his time in tones of satire, because his novels, insists Rovan, do not tire of praising, discreetly, the virtues of old Prussia: modesty, courage, simplicity, fidelity, as clearly and rigorously formulated by the Kantian morality of duty.

If the themes of guilt and honor could indicate in the ending of the novel a conservative commitment to the values ​​of the past, by assuming an ironic, intentionally weak ending, Fontane puts these same values ​​under suspicion, especially in the powerful, irreconcilable lamentations that he enunciates, such as: “she left the table too soon”; or “many things happened; but in fact, you haven't lost anything” (Fontane, 2013, p. 397), phrases in which the work itself triggers, paradoxically, a subversive content that makes the writer's neutral attempts unfeasible. In these gaps opened by Fontane's silences, the disturbing and rebellious presence of Effi's sexuality lurks, in explosion, summarizing in a disconnected way, now in supplication, now in outburst, the whole story that the sensible author had sought to order in thirty-five chapters.

In the most acute moment of her pain, faced with her daughter's indifference, Effi rages: “What's too much is too much. A careerist is what he is, nothing more. Honor, honor, honor... and then he killed the poor man, whom I didn't even love and had already forgotten, because I didn't love him. It was all stupidity and then blood and murder. And I'm guilty. And now he sends me the girl because he cannot refuse the request of the minister's wife, and before he sends her here he trains her like a parrot and teaches her to say “if you can”. I'm disgusted by what I've done; but I am even more disgusted by your virtue. Out with you. I need to live, but this may not last forever” (Fontane, 2013, p.371).

The “Away with you” of the mortally wounded girl-maiden is the rebellious, authentic, disturbing cry, against everything and everyone, that not even Effi’s silent death can silence. A vituperation or subversive order that echoes within the society that closes its doors, whose contrast with the final edifying solution makes his anger even more eloquent. By cultivating allusions and ellipses, opposing them to dramatic scenes, Fontane's writing tensions the novel devices with an aura of intensity, in which the fragile edifice of order threatens to collapse at all times.

Effi's marginalization and death clearly demonstrate that the comparison with Emma Bovary is imperative; even respecting the differences that are significant: Effi is a Prussian Emma. In both cases, the woman's social situation is similar, that is, the minimum space available for women to live an unconventional personality and sexuality fatally leads them to adultery and death.

They become adulteresses, as there is no other destiny for them, as for the servants, their intimate and only companions, other than the marginality of society and its norms. As Andrea Horváth suggests, without a social place for them, they are left with the same dreams and fantasies with which they began their journey: a cruel circle in which they fatally succumb to banal seducers like Crampas and Rodolfo: Ema out of sentimentality, Effi out of curiosity ( Horváth, 2004, p.80).

Emma is the heroine of dissatisfaction, who pursues her misguided dreams in an environment with no horizon. Effi, heroine of fear, as she inhabits an environment saturated with power, controlled by everything and everyone. They are, therefore, passive heroines, on the one hand ambitious and superficial; on the other hand, dissatisfied victims who embody a powerful source of opposition to bourgeois mores.

Fontane's pictorial realism, which the penetrating observer would look at without judging, trying to be fair to all sides, leads, with the spectral presence of these inadequate women, to irreconcilable edges. Besides, marginality is present in writing, as Fontane, like Flaubert, looks at the world from the outside, marginally. Fontane is still one of the last novelists who try to understand all the motives of society, granting it some legitimacy, or, on the aesthetic level, some order and beauty, in the pre-Raphaelite way; Flaubert contemptuously grants this world neither legitimacy nor beauty.

Amendment, mentioned by Grass, that Samuel Beckett, heir and radical critic of the tradition of the Romanesque in the one-act play, the last recording, he will consolidate: “my eyes got tired of looking so much when I went back to reading Effi, an page a day, and again in tears. Effi – pause . – I would have been happy with her on the Baltic Sea among pines and dunes – pause – No?” (Grass,1998, p.185).

* Arlenice Almeida da Silva is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at Unifesp.

Bibliographic references

FONTANE, Theodor Effi Briest, Trans. Mário Luiz Frungillo, São Paulo: Estação Liberdade, 2013 (https://amzn.to/3YIbFGF).

GRASS, Gunter. a vast field. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1998 (https://amzn.to/47GHpQO).

SCHUSTER, Peter-Klaus, Theodor Fontane: Effi Briest- ein Leben nach christlichen Bildern. Tübigen: Niemeyer, 1978 (https://amzn.to/3OFoeOo)

FREUD, Sigmund, the disturbing, In: Complete works, v.14, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010 (https://amzn.to/3E7ruwY).

HORVÁTH, Andrea, Geschlechterverhältnis in Flauberts Madame Bovary und Fontanes Effi Briest. In: Workshop, 3, Debrecen; Kossuth Egytem Kiado, 2004. (In this link)

ROVAN, Joseph, “Pour saluer Fontane” In: Effi Briest, Paris: Gallimard, 1981

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