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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Effi Briest, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary

1/ France had Madame Bovary, Russia had Anna Karenina, Germany had Effi Briest
However, if Flaubert dissects his Emma and contemptuously puts on display all of her sentimentalism, shallowness and philistinism, and Tolstoy can now and then be harsh towards his Anna, Theodor Fontane openly loves his heroine. Effi therefore is a lot more likeable, even lovable. Anna and Emma we can see clearly, thoroughly, but they're characters that evoke lots of strong emotions, characters that readers, at least I, have to struggle with, on a personal level. With Effi, it's different. Fontane writes of her innocence and rich imagination, of her vivacity and love of life, of her free spirit, and above all, of her youth- she's still a half-child; then he writes of her loneliness, fear, doubt, and pain, making us love her and care for her as though for a real person. 

2/ Effi Briest is a rather well-rounded character. However, like Emma at Bookaroundthecorner and Himadri/ Argumentativeoldgit, I have a problem with the novel: Fontane always refrains and leaves things unwritten. Not all writers spell out everything. Jane Austen writes enough. Flaubert keeps it subtle. Henry James prefers to hint, and suggest. I myself have praised Henry James's subtlety: the jumps in The Portrait of a Lady (and 2nd post) and the things that are left unsaid, as well as defending the ellipses in the novel as not simply "disguising a deficiency". But Fontane refrains too much. It's not just that the sex in Effi Briest isn't described, which is fine (even if the 1st time the affair's consummated is easy to miss), but the whole affair isn't there, and most importantly, Fontane keeps Effi at arm's length instead of bringing her close to the readers and entering her mind, and except for a few small observations now and then such as Effi blushing when Crampas appears or her husband vaguely noticing something different or Effi overreacting to Roswitha's familiarity with Kruse, he withholds from us her thoughts and feelings. That reduces the emotional impact. 
At the moment, I'm on chapter 21, when Innstetten has just been promoted and Effi's about to go to Berlin to find an apartment. Hopefully Fontane would describe more once her life takes a tragic turn. 

11 comments:

  1. But how much of a character's actions and consciousness should a narrator present? That is always a critical decision for an author. Your thoughtful consideration of the issue reminds me of my interest in Ernest Hemingway's "iceberg aesthetic" -- showing 1/8 but keeping 7/8 hidden beneath the surface -- because it challenges me as a reader; I often prefer to do the "work" and do not want to be spoon-fed by narrators and authors. Does that make sense?

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    1. I know what you mean.
      George Eliot is one who did that all the time, spoon-feeding the readers: http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/10/delete-remove-leave-out-sentimental.html
      In the post above I wrote that myself, that not all writers spell out everything, and linked to some of my own posts about Henry James's tendency to suggest and hint at things instead of writing down everything. I admire that in Henry James, so it's not like in my opinion writers should be absolutely clear and obvious. My point is that Fontane does too much refraining, avoiding, evading, sometimes there's an admirable touch, sometimes I feel like there's nothing there because Fontane is so detached and just keeps his character at arm's length.

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  2. Fontane is not withholding Effi's thoughts and feelings. He doesn't know them. What, you think he's telepathic?

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    1. What, he's not?
      I expected to him to be like Tolstoy or Flaubert, that's why.

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  3. Di, I will have to revisit James one of these days soon. As I recall, he was very clear about setting the stage, establishing the mood, and providing clear characterizations without intruding too often with a narrator's subjectivity. In my view, Hemingway became the master of that approach.

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    1. I wouldn't know. Haven't read Hemingway.
      But I agree, Henry James rarely intrudes. Which is a good thing.

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  4. Fontane is like Flaubert and Tolstoy, only moreso, even more focused on the specific scene. He's moving towards the narrator as movie camera.

    Often Flaubert describes not a scene but an ongoing activity. Look at his scenes, though, especially ones where a character is not alone - Emma's wedding, for example - and see how little there is in the way of "thoughts and feelings." The camera has turned on.

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    1. But what about the character's thoughts and feelings? There's hardly anything in the scenes after the sex. He's too far away, I feel. There are some bits, like I wrote in the post, but not quite enough.
      I've been thinking of rereading Madame Bovary, but the book may make me more misanthropic, which I already am at the moment.

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  5. What about them? I don't get it. What book do you think Fontane is writing? Maybe he is writing a different book.

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    1. All right, I accept that Fontane's close to Flaubert, "being the camera". Tolstoy's different, he describes scenes, but also slips into the characters' minds often.
      But between Fontane and Flaubert, though I might have to go back to Flaubert to clarify what I really mean, Fontane's not on a par with Flaubert, at least I feel like something's not quite enough, he should go further, dig deeper, etc.
      Not that I'm reading Effi Briest and deliberately asking why it's not Madame Bovary. I want to know, for example, Effi's state of mind right after the affair's consummated, because it's important, even if the affair doesn't matter much to her and would soon be forgotten, it would have consequences, and I want to know what she thinks and how she feels. There's some of it, but there should be more.

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    2. But then I may change my mind later. As with, say, Henry James.

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