Friday, 6 June 2014

Roses Amongst Weeds

It’s all there in the description.  These facts speak to us, now that we have learned their language.  The differences between Innstetten and the von Briests - his seriousness against their light-heartedness, their cultivated inertia against his prosaic careerism - are precisely elucidated for us; while dull Kessin, a provincial town that squeezes the spirit out of Effi’s lively soul, is described with unforgiving accuracy.  There they all are!  We remember the words we have recently written; see an old Saxony castle collapse under the demolition men; and watch a new government building rise out of its ruins; a dull rectangle built in stone and brick, with a folk dance of decoration over its lintels and in its friezes.  A porch, a huge mouth smothered in a walrus moustache, waits patiently to ingest us.  We ruminate on our decision.  To enter or no…  Then…shouting; a young girl yells out a vulgar comment; a crumpled man talks politics…  An old woman, slim and attractive and dressed in a short red dress, walks past us and tells him to shut up - she stamps her high heels: alles ist scheisse -; a mob surrounds us… There is a false note; solecisms slide into the sentences; phrases become incomprehensible, and we find ourselves stumbling through paragraphs searching for words to grasp.  Professor Roy Pascal has started to speak a different dialect.  He is talking of an outmoded Junker class struggling to survive in a new Germany.  Our hand grabs a nettle, and we yell out in pain.

Her girlish charm is the exact counterpart of the charm of her parents, she shares their simplicity and affableness, like them she is oblivious of intellectual and moral problems.  But, at their age and in their rural seclusion, they are safe, while she, thrown into the large world, is not able to contend with it, not even to maintain herself.  Effi is not an exception, not a peculiar case; her own fate mirrors the whole class to which she belongs, the rural Junker nobility to which Fontane was so attached, and which he recognised to be so out of date, so inadequate to modern tasks…  
The moral crisis of the Junker comes into evidence more explicitly in the character of Innstetten.

So right.  Perfect even, until we are introduced to Effi.  Then wrong.  It’s not even close, we argue and insist, until it is we who look absurd - obsessed with a metaphor over which no one person is allowed a monopoly.  Nevertheless, we continue to exert our rights… The von Briests are the old sovereign states - with their music and art and philosophy - who lack the will to keep these “frivolous” pursuits safe from Bismarck’s Germany, whose representative in the novel is Innstetten.  Professor Pascal has made the mistake of conflating the two families, when he should make a distinction between them; Effi’s husband an official of the state who by transcending his Junker origins brings that class into crisis.  

The career of a high official has obliterated the virtues that can flourish among the rural squirearchy.  Innstetten has suppressed all spontaneity, he serves the powers that be who determine his success.  Hardworking, able, conscientious and honourable in the confines of the class-code, he is a conformist through and through. 

So true!  Yet this assessment contains an error that spoils the line of reasoning, and thus prevents it from reaching its logical conclusion: the reference to “class-code” like a rusty bathtub on a railway track; our train braking just in time…  It is not his class that is at issue, but Innstetten’s status as an official of the German state; it is this role that causes all the problems.  The engineers remove the tub, and the train goes on its way…  Or in the language of a government memo: Innstetten is an obedient servant of the state bureaucracy, and he sacrifices his class to it.  He is a new German, not an old Junker.  He is the bureaucrat who will destroy everything, including himself, to serve the institutions to which he has dedicated his life.  

But I have been here before. So I will drop you off at the next stop…  Wait! Wait! What about Fontane’s letters?  Oh yes.  At least one letter appears to support the critical consensus, and Professor Pascal uses it to buttress his case.

This country gentry - and I must almost say, without exception - is not at all concerned with truth, knowledge, general human progress, but merely with its own profit, its privileged position and the satisfaction of its conceit.

There is certainly evidence in the novel to support this statement.  However, Effi is a larger figure than a class type.  She is more than a “light” and “frivolous” woman, who lacks all drive and has no passion - the professor’s description of her character.  There is a delicacy to her soul that given the right conditions - if she had married a man like Niemeyer and lived in Weimar -, might have matured into an artistic sensibility.  Instead, she lives in Kessin where,

her life is dreary.  The people of her own class are narrow, illiberal, orthodox and puritanical, and view her charm and liveliness with distrust; the townsfolk are too old-fashioned and quaint to make companions for her.

Effi has too large a soul to live comfortably in a prosaic and provincial merchant town.  She needs either the entertainments of a large city like Berlin or the easy-going naturalness of her parents’ estate, where her dreaminess and love of fun can exist in perfect freedom.  She is an artist who needs a sympathetic audience.  And just like an artist she can easily fall victim to the pleasures of a metropolis…  She needs so much luck in order to survive!1

The artist is more subtle than the man; the explicit remarks of a personal letter transformed into the nuanced and complex characterisation of the novel, which has its own patterns of argument that are largely independent of Fontane’s conscious mind.   This correspondence is being used the wrong way round.  Instead of enriching the book Professor Pascal is using them to reduce it to their own crude simplicities.  Oh dear.

You want to get off now?  Yes, I’ve been waiting here forever; and you know, my friend, I have many more people to see and papers to read.  OK, but…  I have just one more observation…

When the offer comes Effi is playing hide-and-seek with her playfellows; as she goes to receive it the other girls call to her: ‘Effi, come’, thinking she is hiding.  Fontane said later that it was this incident in the anecdote he heard that fascinated him and made him write the story.

This is wonderful.  But what does it mean?  Does it mean anything?  No!  Is the answer we wish to give.  We want to say that it has no meaning at all.  That it is nothing more than a moment of inspiration, produced by a marvellous incongruity, which contains within itself a terrible irony.  And yet the question will not go away: but what does it mean?  We cannot resist such an importunate demand, and so we invent our own story…  

There is a game.  It is simple, and every child plays it.  One day this game it is cut off in mid-play, but the children do not know this, and think it is still going on; Effi expected to reappear just as she has always done before.  The future effortlessly follows the past, the present the well trodden road that connects them.

But Effi is gone for good.  Her game has ended.  She is a child no longer, although externally nothing has altered.  She appears the same as ever.  Is this what Fontane intuited?  The child who is no longer a child is also the old squirearchy whose existence has come to an end, although outwardly it appears healthy and intact: the von Briests seem vigorous, while Innstetten resembles an aristocrat; although underneath he has evolved into a different species entirely - into a German official.  

It is the mystery of human life.  We go on living in an environment where we think nothing fundamental has changed, because externally everything looks like it always did; think of a marriage where love has been replaced by habit and routine.  No spirit left, there is only meaningless activity whose meaninglessness goes unnoticed.  Our lives a succession of fairy tales of which we are unaware.  Inhabiting our little universes we insulate them from the large attacks of time (the small incursions - the minor details - we do see, and either absorb or repel), so as to live inside an illusion of continuity and sameness.  These fantasies survive until the day our universe collapses - the death of a relative, the loss of a job, the discovery of infidelity, strips reality of habit and custom to reveal its strange and often ugly nakedness.  We witness the corrosion of age.  Our life, we suddenly realise, has dried up long ago.  It’s like a plant that hasn't been watered for years…  The illusion shattered, we are made aware of reality in all its flux and uncertainty.  The world has changed completely, and we had not noticed this at all.  How could this have happened?  How did we miss it?  We have been blind men who thought they could see.  Children who didn’t know when their game had finished.

(Review: Effi Briest and The German Novel)

1.   For a brilliant interview which captures this sense of how luck is needed for a non-conformist character to succeed in life see Alan Macfarlane’s interview with Geoffrey Hawthorne.





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