On the back of Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest there is a quote by Thomas Mann who says that it is one of the five greatest novels ever written. (It doesn't mention the names of other four). There must be something to this claim but I found it to be pretty standard and conventional fare - a typical nineteenth century realist soap opera. Having said that, I do feel that Fontane's obscurity, at least in the English speaking world, is definitely undeserved. I hadn't heard of him until I saw Fassbinder's beautiful film adaptation a couple of years back. I had wanted to read it ever since but it was difficult to even find a copy. In both his style and his sensibility he belongs to the same group as Chekhov and Turgenev. I gather from the introduction to the penguin edition that he is not so obscure in Germany where he is part of standard school curriculum.
The plot of Effi Briest is again modeled on the standard "adultery in fiction" template. At the beginning of the novel we meet Effi, a seventeen year old girl who is charming, effervescent and full of life and excitement so much so that her mother worries about her future when she sees her so happy and joyful! She is soon married off to a successful and good looking man named Baron Geert Von Instetten who is twice her age. He had courted Effi's mother in his youth but was rejected because elder Frau Briest preferred a more successful suitor. Soon after marriage Baron takes Effi to a remote sea-side town on the outskirts of the German empire. Effi finds her new abode lonely and spooky. She thinks the house is haunted by the ghost of "chinaman" who died in the nearby village. She is also alienated from the local society people - she feels irritated by their stupidity, snobbery and provincialism. She even gets tagged as an atheist! After some time, a daughter is born but things don't get any better. In between all this she meets a young womanizer Major Crampas and fails to resist his advances. She doesn't love him and she feels more irritation because she has to hide the affair from everybody. So when Instetten is promoted and transferred to Berlin she heaves a sigh of relief. A few years pass but then Instetten accidentally discovers her letters which she foolishly had kept in the house. He knows that it has been too long and doesn't really feel angry or jealous but since it is what he has to do, he challenges Crampas for a duel and kills him. He then divorces Effi and takes the custody of her daughter. Her parents also reject her, thinking on the same principles of honour and social respectability which take precedence over every other thing.
So far the story proceeds in an extremely low-key style. In fact if you are not paying attention you may even miss some key plot point, like the duel for instance. One of the main characters in the novel is dispatched with barely a couple of lines without any melodramatic fanfare. But then the last section changes the tone a little and it also makes up for the absence of gloom and despair in the beginning, something which has become inextricably associated in my mind with German literature in general. Basically after a few years, Effi obtains permission for a visit from her little daughter, now aged ten. The child is trained by her father to parrot whatever she is told to say, a nightmare of conformity. She barely speaks, and when Effi asks her whether she'll come again, she replies: "Yes, if I'm allowed." Shall they walk in the park together? "Yes, if I'm allowed." "Or we could go to Schilling and eat ice cream, pineapple or vanilla—that used to be my favorite." "Yes, if I'm allowed." This is the final straw for Effi who so far had passively accepted whatever befell her. She breaks down, and from this moment her melancholia in the form of an incipient consumption slowly eats away at her soul until she dies. She is accepted by her parents before her death (and even reunited with her dog) but they still think is it was their fault and whether they gave her too much freedom. She also requests that her maiden name be put on her grave because she didn't honour her married name. One irony after another. Fassbinder is much more ruthless (characteristically so), very unlike in the book which is more subtle but it is equally effective and equally enraging.
I find all the talk about how something is "relevant" to us after all these years extremely boring but can't help but point out the same in the context of this book. The aristocrats and their ritualistic social behavior may have become a thing of history and feminist ideas commonplace but the basic underlying assumption that a woman has to "marry up" is still there. It is assumed that a woman has to find a man who is intellectually (and financially and in age) superior to her. The more degrees she has the smaller her pool of eligible men gets. Because of this there is an inherent inequality in the relationship - the woman has to always look up with respect and more often than not, it is not reciprocated from the other side. In the novel Baron takes a pedagogic interest in Effi. He takes her to a tour of Rome and Venice and lectures her on art history. She feels intimidated with his erudition and knowledge and feels that she has no "principles" of her own. It gets worse when she suffers from hallucinations and fears the ghost in the cellar, which the Baron rejects in an off-handed manner - as ravings of an intellectually inferior mind. It also underscores how her subjectivity is denied to her by the patriarchal figure, at the root of which there is the same problem of lack of respect accorded to her intellectual abilities. Related to this there is also an interesting point that the author of the introductory preface makes. She says that in the novel Fontane is also criticising the Prussian society which saw education and intellectualism (and self-discipline, rigour and self-denial that went with it) as supreme virtues, the very mark of a German identity. Instetten definitely embodies all of these while Effi is pure nature itself, or at least she was before marriage. It is this mingling of two opposite temperaments that led to the eventual tragedy.
I actually prefer the Fassbinder film much more than the novel itself. One main reason is that Fontane is a little too discreet and a little too soft in his critique and it made me feel very impatient, specially in the tedious middle section of the book. He was of course himself a member of the aristocracy and on top of that he was in his seventies when he wrote it. Fassbinder on the other hand is characteristically brutal, ruthless and unsparing in his criticisms and the way he captures the far-too-many ironies in the story. At the same time, he is also too full of compassion and so aware of romantic potentialities of the situations and the characters that it makes the basic story even more poignant. The film is also extremely inventive. Fassbinder uses exact quotations and descriptions from the novel. In most of the scenes an off-screen narrator just reads from the novel devoid of any emotion. He even reads the dialogues, the letters and the monologues from the novel. It makes the film feel static in the beginning but soon it gets you in its own deeply melancholic mood and you never realize the film is so long. Hannah Schygulla is specially luminous in the main role, as are the other regular members of the Fassbinder repertory. Sometimes the inventive staging and framing feel too much but those moments are much too rare. It is really a gem of a film. Fassbinder made quite a few masterpieces, it is definitely one of them. I also love the title of the film:"Fontane Effi Briest or Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It." A detailed article on the film here. A contemporary review from the new york times here.