crazy

EFFI BRIEST BY THEODOR FONTANE

Throughout my life, the one constant, vis-à-vis relationships, has been that I have always seemed to end up with crazy women. That has both its drawbacks, of course, and its benefits. I say crazy but maybe it would be better to say high-spirited or eccentric; in any case, I absolutely have a type. For a long time I thought that it was simply a coincidence that every person I dated was a little cuckoo, but then I realised that the things that I like, the things I am most drawn to – the spontaneity, the large personality, the artistic impulse, etc – are the consequence of a mind that does not move along the same tracks that most people’s minds do. That was an important epiphany for me, because I knew, then, that if I had to have those things of which I am so fond, those unusual qualities, I had to accept the other side too, the less stable side.

This does not mean, of course, that all eccentric women will be attractive to me, nor does it mean that all of them will possess the kind of qualities I have so often fallen for. There can and will be exceptions to all theories or ideas about humanity. One such exception was an ex of mine; she was crazy, oh absolutely, but she was also dour and lazy and unaffectionate. It’s a relationship that continues to baffle me, long after it has ceased to exist. Whatever did I see in…not her, but us [for relationships are not, of course, about individuals, but the complex interplay of two people]? We were chronically ill-suited. Was I really so attracted to her that I compromised on everything else? Perhaps. It’s a really strange situation, being with someone who you want to like, but whose entire approach is anathema to you. I was in a constant state of frustration. She must have felt the same way, I am sure. It’s like trying to waltz with someone who wants to do the mazurka.

In any case, although the two personality types involved are not the same, I was put in mind of this old relationship of mine recently when reading Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. Even more than those found in Anna Karenina [Anna and Karenin] and Madame Bovary [Emma and Charles], the central relationship in the novel, between Effi and Innstetten, is, from the very beginning, so obviously, so absolutely wrong for both parties. First of all, there is, of course, the age difference; I have never been with someone decades my junior, because, well, it would be illegal; but, setting that aside, although I can understand a man of forty or fifty being attracted to a girl of, say, twenty it has always struck me as weird that a man of such advanced age could believe that he has anything in common with someone from a completely different generation, that they could have anything to say to each other; I don’t know how, in this situation, these men could not feel a little bit ashamed, and more than a little bit ridiculous. Fontane does not at all indicate that Innstetten does feel ridiculous, but the couple do have so little in common. This is made abundantly clear when, for the Honeymoon, he takes Effi around lots of art galleries and churches, things that she has no idea about, nor real interest in. However, a lack of shared interests is not the only problem, the differences between the couple play out in many ways; for example, the first day after the honeymoon he rises early and she sleeps in. It may seem mundane, and it is, but it is part of showing that they are simply not right for each other.

Effi appears to be frequently disliked by readers, certainly based on the reviews that I have encountered. However, I loved her. It perhaps comes back to my type, for she is, well, a little unconventional. She is seventeen at the beginning of the novel, and we first meet her playing outside with her friends, while dressed in some kind of a sailor suit. One could see this opening scene as the author accentuating her youth, her childishness, and that is undeniably the case, but I feel as though there is more to it than that; Fontane, in my opinion, wanted to say something about Effi’s personality, not merely her age. Later, her mother calls her something like a child of nature and that description gives depth to one’s understanding of the opening of the novel; Effi is, to use a popular phrase, a free-spirit; she has peculiar ideas, and her emotional and intellectual responses are frequently contradictory, often within the space of a single paragraph. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the kind of characters you come across in Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. I have, in my reviews of his work, called Dostoevsky’s characters, his women in particular, profoundly bipolar, and while that phrase is maybe too strong for Effi she is certainly prone to mood swings.

While the youthful and highly-strung Effi is not like the mature and passionate Anna Karenina, Innstetten is much like her husband Karenin, in that he doesn’t appear to be equipped to deal with what he has got. Like Karenin, Innstetten may love his wife, but he is a failure as a lover. He is too conventional, too reserved to romance or court Effi in a way that would lead to a genuine intimacy between them. Indeed, he tends to treat her as a child, as someone who ought to be given the opportunity to make decisions, and exhibit maturity, where possible, but who ought not to be indulged when showing her immaturity. So, for example, he asks Effi’s opinion about which of the local resident families and households they ought to patronise, and yet when she has a turbulent night’s sleep because she thinks she hears strange, unnerving noises, which she is told is the wind sweeping the bottom of the curtains across the floor, he is resistant to do the small thing it would take to ease her anxiety [i.e. taking up the hem of the curtains].

Those strange, unnerving noises are particularly significant because they are the first suggestion of something sinister in a novel that becomes progressively eerie and odd. As already mentioned, Effi, who hears these noises soon after moving into her new home, is initially told that it is the wind and the curtains. However, they are subsequently attributed to a ghost. Effi, in fact, sees the ghost more than once; the first time it rushes past her bed and out the bedroom door and the second time it looks over her shoulder. Add to this, the story of the severed head, the frequent allusions to death, the old lady and the black hen, and Effi repeatedly, almost randomly on occasions, declaring that he feels afraid, and Effi Briest starts to resemble a Gothic novel. What is most fascinating about all this is how Fontane uses the Gothic to reveal aspects of his character’s personalities. For example, when Effi tells Innstetten about the ghost he does not deny its presence in the house, but rather gives the impression of wanting to convince her of its existence.

It is at this point that one starts to doubt one’s initial impressions of the husband. At first he seemed nice but dull, yet eventually his behaviour struck me as troubling and I came to regard him as a cold manipulator. It becomes clear that he uses the idea of the ghost to unsettle Effi, to keep her on her toes, so to speak. This is actually a torture technique, although I doubt Fontane was aware of this; the idea is that if you can prevent someone from thinking rationally, if you disturb their sleep and their peace of mind, then they will become more pliant. More than once Innstetten reminds Effi of the ghost, but he does so in very clever ways, so that it seems, on the surface, as though he is being supportive. For example, at one point he says, ‘don’t be afraid, it won’t come back,’ when Effi herself had not even mentioned the subject. Here, it seems Innstetten is bringing up the subject, is trying to keep Effi afraid, as a way of controlling her. He says it won’t come back, but is really suggesting that it will, is actually bringing it back by mentioning it. He engages in this kind of passive-aggressive bullying frequently. he makes apparently innocuous remarks, little sly digs, that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. And yet, and yet, just when I was convinced of his villainy, I began, towards the very end of the book, to feel sympathy for him. Ultimately, Innstetten is a man lacking imagination and ambition, not in the way that one would ordinarily understand those words, but in terms of appreciating and getting the most out of his life and making himself truly happy.

If the critical essays, and the introduction to this edition, are anything to go by, much is made of Fontane’s subtlety as a writer. Deservedly so. There are times when the author holds back almost to the point of baffling the reader, or this one anyway, in a way I have only come across elsewhere in the work of Henry James. Before I read the book I was aware of Effi’s reputation as an adulteress, and yet it does not, until it actually happens, seem inevitable that she will play her husband false. Indeed, unlike most novels of this sort, I had no inkling at all as to who she would do the dirty with. Not only that, but the cheating, the cheating that we have access to at least, is so minor in form that you wonder whether it can be called cheating at all. It was only with the revelation of the letters, something like seven years after the events, that I became of the opinion that it went beyond a bit of flirting and hand-kissing. I really liked how Fontane dealt with all that. The way that he treats Effi’s ‘affair’ is to allow the reader to imagine all kinds of things by revealing only a little.

However, despite providing plenty of evidence of Fontane’s subtle touch, my one [relatively small] gripe with the novel is that it is, at times, also woefully heavy-handed. The characters are, mostly in the first half, constantly psychologically sizing each other up, and engaging in conversations about each other’s motivations and behaviours. You are seductive, Innstetten tells Effi, while she goes on to explain how he is ashamed of husbandly affection, that he deems it unrespectable. Likewise, the scene where Crampas calls Innstetten a pedagogue, and Effi replies with something along the lines of, do you think he is trying to teach me? Like, duh. The thing is, this is the opposite of what I wrote about in the previous paragraph, in that this kind of stuff gives the reader nothing to do, allows us no opportunity for thinking for ourselves. In fact, it was often the case that I would already have come to the same conclusion as the characters before they voice it, so them doing so seems like overkill. The Japanese writer Kenaburo Oe does the same thing in his work, and I find it maddening.

Having said that, it wasn’t enough to ruin my experience of the book. I found Effi Briest an engaging and moving read; I could, in fact, keep writing about it, but I have just noticed the word count. 2000. Oh dear, no one will read all this. And what about Rollo? I haven’t even mentioned him. Fucking hell. Rollo. That dog broke my heart.

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WAR AND WAR BY LASZLO KRASZNAHORKAI

I no longer want to write reviews, said [P], as he stared at the computer screen, which showed his face in a sinister light, for, aside from the glow of the computer screen, the room was in total darkness, and yet his fingers still tapped at the keys, almost despite himself, one could say almost mechanically [if the mechanism was malfunctioning in some way]; and although one could possibly describe this typing as a force of habit, that wasn’t really the case in this instance, it would be more accurate to say that it was a compulsion, was more that he genuinely could not help himself, maybe because deep down he felt that his discovery, by which we mean the message, was so important that he had to share it, and – although of course there were probably millions, even billions, of people he could have shared this discovery with, and numerous other ways that he could have shared it – he was going to share it with the readers of his website books, yo, perhaps because he was too lazy to spread the message of this discovery in any other way, and he was even going to put this message in a review, despite declaring that he no longer wanted to write reviews, but isn’t that the way that life works, he thought to himself, that one finds oneself doing all kinds of things one would rather not do, as though somehow one lacks the strength or the means to stop? Of course he would stop, eventually everything would stop for [P], as it does for everyone, one day, and he knew that his stopping, his end, would come after completing and posting the review, that review which contained within it his message, that he would himself make sure that he stopped directly after finishing this review, and so, he said aloud to himself, he should probably put maximum effort into this review, it being his last, especially considering the important nature of the message, even though he wasn’t really sure what this message was, what the content of this message was going to be, only that it was important, and that it was linked in some way to a book, a book he had just read, and which he had very much enjoyed, despite the reservations he had before starting it, and the reservations he still had during the first 50 pages, reservations that were linked to the author’s style, which is often described as difficult, but which [P] didn’t find difficult, so it absolutely wasn’t the difficulty that bugged him initially, it was the fact that he thought the author’s style an imitation of Thomas Bernhard’s style, yes that certainly bothered him immensely, because he found it lazy and borderline unethical, and he was adamant that he didn’t want to read something that was just a lazy rip-off of something else, even though he loved that something else, but eventually he began to notice subtle differences between Krasznahorkai’s style and Bernhard’s, and those subtle differences were enough to satisfy him in the end, were enough to allow him to read the book, to really enjoy the book very much.

Yeah, he was a strange one, she said to the police officer sitting directly opposite, he kept up a constant stream of babble, she explained, about God knows what, about some review he was going to write, and about how he would stop after writing it, and how this review would contain a message or something, she didn’t know what kind of message, although it was in some way linked to a book he had just read, the book he had just read was called War & War, thought the officer, who had searched the missing person’s apartment, the missing person being [P], who couldn’t be found, whose family had called the police, because he wasn’t answering his phone or replying to text messages, although that wasn’t necessarily unusual, they said, but for some reason they had an inkling, a vague sense that something was wrong, and so here he was, running around after some crazy person, speaking to a checkout girl who may have been the last person to see him or talk to him, although strictly speaking one couldn’t say she talked to him, rather that she listened to him, if you could call it that, for she didn’t seem to listen much either, and that book, War & War, what was the significance of that, he wondered, for he had leafed through it, and it struck him as confusing, but not dangerous, although it was written by a Hungarian, and Hungarians are invariably weird, or so he imagined, the officer being full of vaguely offensive ideas about Eastern Europeans that he couldn’t really account for, and the plot did appear to involve another crazy man, called Korin, who was obsessed with some kind of manuscript that he believed he ought to preserve for eternity on the internet, and so obviously there were some parallels, and perhaps he’d find more, as he had been instructed to read the whole book by his boss, and what a fucking chore that was going to be, for him who only ever read erotic novels, not police procedural ones as one would imagine he would, because they were so unlike his life, which involved no erotic elements, his wife being a damp squib in that respect, and so he didn’t mention anything about where he was going, asked the officer to the clearly stupid checkout girl, who he kind of wanted to fuck.

AN EXTRACT FROM [P]’S DIARY:

When I started to think seriously about writing, when it became for me something other than scribbling to pass the time, I became obsessed with the idea of a new way of writing. I figured if I couldn’t come up with a straightforward, naturalist, novel better than, say, Anna Karenina, and, despite my self-confidence, I had enough self-awareness to think I probably couldn’t, then I had to discover a new form; that this was the only way that continuing to write would make any sense to me. I’m still engaged in that pursuit years later, still adrift, still not really any closer to the shore. You have no idea how much it bugs me. Anyway, I think this is why I like prose stylists so much. One of the prose stylists I most admire is Thomas Bernhard. With Bernhard one can see the strings, so to speak, one can identify influences, but he managed to manipulate those influences into a new way of writing. Everyone with even a passing interest in his work knows about the long sentences, but I particularly like his use of italics. Bernhard will italicise certain, mostly banal, words and the effect, in combination with repetition, is quite astonishing. For example, if he was discussing a bucket he’d write something like:

‘It was just an ordinary bucket, it was no taller than average, had no distinguishing marks, it was, in fact, brand new, but he knew that he must have this bucket, that no other bucket would do.’

That no other bucket makes the sentence funny, or I should say, more accurately, that the italics make it funny. I wrote it, and even now, as I read it back, I’m chuckling to myself. Bernhard’s use of italics, or emphasis, is genius. He really was the most extraordinary writer. And I know other people agree with me because whenever an author wants to communicate a kind of unhinged atmosphere they rip him off, they step on the marks left by his shoes as he blazed his trail. Indeed, his style has become almost an accepted technique. And, the thing is, I can’t get with that. It annoys me, especially as the writers who do/have done this are often so critically lauded, so gushed over for, what essentially amounts to, theft or, at the very least, lazy imitation. Krasznahorkai is just such a writer, at first glance anyway. I really grappled with the first 50 pages of War & War for that very reason. I picked it up, put it down, sighed a lot, tore at my hair, re-read passages. Yeah, I’m really that crazy. And the craziest thing about it is that I was enjoying the book, I liked it, it was engaging, but I figured that as I love Bernhard I was always going to enjoy it, but that a kind of shag-happy, gormless, enjoyment isn’t enough. So, all present and correct were the long sentences, the italics, the repetition, the suicide, the nutso character at the heart of the story, and even, and this really got on my tits, the circular thought processes. In Bernhard’s novel Correction the central character is obsessed with refining his practices and his thoughts, and the prose unfolds in such a way as to give this impression. There is, quite clearly, a correcting process going on. And War & War is written in the same way.

So, what is it that got me beyond the first 50 pages? Well, the more I read, the more I noticed subtle differences in style, and while the leaps may not be major, they were enough to satisfy me. First of all, I really liked how Krasznahorkai was capable of moments of great beauty, was not afraid of sentimentality. Now, there’s no way you’d get that in Bernhard. When a writer apes Bernhard’s style they tend to stick with the cantankerous-hateful axis. There was a line about a stewardess’ smile that particularly touched me, and it touched me as part of an accumulative effect, as part of the repetition. Using Bernhard’s style, yes, but using it in a way that produces something different, something new. I also want to make mention of Krasznahorkai’s shifting perspectives. I really don’t know how to explain to you what I mean by that, you’d have to read it, but within these blocks of text the speaker shifts from one to another seamlessly. Maybe Krasznahorkai nicked that from someone else, but it certainly isn’t Bernhard and it really impressed me.

Tell me about War & War, said the boss of the police officer who was investigating [P]’s disappearance, even though he really didn’t want to know, he was asking only because it was his job to ask, because the book was really their only lead, as [P] had just finished reading it, had started to write about it, and had spoken to the girl in the supermarket about that very book on the day of his disappearance, has it told you anything, he asked, while firmly believing that it couldn’t tell him shit, that the crazy kid had probably just picked up some bird somewhere and was shacked up with her, or, if you wanted to be dramatic about it, had maybe done himself in, that was entirely possible, the way that young people are these days it wouldn’t surprise him at all, they all seem to be in a hurry to do themselves in, had hardly been born, had only just exited the womb, when they started thinking about doing themselves in, it’s about a madman, said the officer, and he explained how this madman, who is called Korin, is obsessed with a mysterious manuscript, and how he moves to America, to New York, because he thinks it is the capital, the centre, of the world, in order to transcribe this manuscript onto the internet, one imagines because they don’t have computers in Hungary, and how he meets there a Hungarian interpreter who is a complete arsehole, and ends up living with him, and it is during this time that he explains the contents of the manuscript to the interpreter’s girlfriend, the contents of the manuscript being the story of four people who appear to travel through time, who turn up at various times in history, usually when something is being destroyed or built, like Hadrian’s wall, and it is all very confusing, said the officer, who was more used to reading erotic fiction, not these bloody ridiculous foreign books, and he was therefore quite happy to have finished it, and would not be reading any more that’s for sure, not even if another mad idiot disappeared, and, no, he doesn’t think the book in question tells us anything about the man who has disappeared, only that he had weird taste in books, although it might be worth mentioning that the man in the book, this Korin, is intent on killing himself, at which point the officer’s boss’ ears pricked up, because he just knew that suicide would figure in this somewhere, those crazy kids, and what about the diary and what about the girl in the supermarket, did they tell us anything, to which the officer said: no, he doesn’t think they reveal anything important, that the diary left behind by [P] was probably even crazier than the Hungarian book, although it did feature more sex, the diary that is, than the Hungarian book, which was a bonus, yet surprisingly the sex was one of the things that [P] did not like about War & War, even though it was infrequent and not particularly explicit, and this started him, [P] that is, on a long rant about the English writer Martin Amis, who apparently [P] saw echoes of in War & War, specifically in the way that Krasznahorkai wrote about sex and the way that he wrote about drugs and contemporary culture, which, [P] told the girl in the supermarket, almost shouted at her in fact, he found to be wholly unconvincing.

He didn’t mention Martin Amis to me, but he did keep saying the book was just like Don Delillo, said the new witness, who had come forward after the poster campaign and local TV news feature, and he was pretty insistent, the witness claimed, that there were also significant similarities between the book and 2666 by Roberto Bolano, specifically the Part about the Murders, that part of Bolano’s novel that many readers complain about, but which [P] liked best, and although the witness hadn’t asked him about those similarities [P] had told him anyway, because, said the witness, [P] seemingly couldn’t shut up, and so went on and told the witness that both Krasznahorkai and Bolano’s novels trade in an atmosphere of paranoia, of unrelenting unease, both novels are concerned with violence and power and the disintegration, or maybe even the non-existence, of values, both novels are, to a certain extent, apocalyptic, although Krasznahorkai’s novel probably has more of a religious bent, none of which made much sense to the witness, who admitted without embarrassment that he didn’t read anything other than a newspaper, and even after telling the clearly crazy man this, the crazy man would not stop speaking, even though he was essentially speaking only to himself, which, said the witness, seemed to suit him down to the ground, and so the crazy man, that one who has apparently disappeared, then told the fisherman, for the witness was a fisherman, a man who liked to fish, that he had a message, a really important message, that he needed to share with the world, and that he had intended to put this message in a review, the review, said the police officer who was interviewing the witness, was uploaded onto a website called books, yo but they had been unable to ascertain just which part of it constituted a message, and the fisherman nodded, even though he had never heard of books, yo, and said that the crazy man sat down by the bank of the river, the river that the fisherman was fishing from, and took off his shoes  and socks and rolled up his jeans and dipped his feet in the water, even though it was winter, and the water was freezing cold, and then proceeded to share his message, the truly important message, [P] had stressed, and at this mention of the message being shared with the fisherman the police officer raised his eyebrows and gripped his pen tightly, for he was taking notes, and told the fisherman to continue, but the fisherman said that he couldn’t tell the message, that he could only show it, and that he would need a computer, for the crazy man had made him memorise a web address, which motivated the now quite excited policeman to fetch a laptop, to open it and turn it on and log in, at which point he turned the screen towards the fisherman and with a wave of his hand invited him to input the web address, and the fisherman did just that, and was utterly bewildered by what he saw on the screen, and utterly mesmerised, and the police officer was so impatient to view what was on the screen that he snatched the laptop away, and as he did so he came face to face with the message, the truly important message that had something to do with a book called War & War, a weird book written by a Hungarian, and which had played some part, at least, in the disappearance of that crazy kid, and this is what he saw:

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THE OBSCENE BIRD OF NIGHT BY JOSE DONOSO

There is a lot of nonsense spoken and written about The Obscene Bird of Night, the worst kind of nonsense: pretentious nonsense. Just check out the wiki page for it:

“In the novel, the intellectual/spatial manifestation of the Imbunche is the self-imposed alienation from the outside world, i.e. an adoption of the ideal of the physical Imbunche in terms of space, with the purpose of taking away the power that others have over the individual and choosing a life of non-existence. This auto-segregation is achieved by fortifying one’s living space.”

Anyone who is inspired to pick up the book after reading that needs to take a serious look at themselves.

The thing is, this book is so near impenetrable, is, for the most part, so incomprehensible, that reading a clear and confident interpretation of it is like someone telling you they have seen Jesus on a taco.

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No one can tell them that what they think they see isn’t there, of course, but, y’know, one ought to take it with a pinch of salt.

The plot, such as it is, contains two distinct strands. The first is centred around a young orphan girl, Iris, who lives in a mansion/casa populated by a strange group of old nuns and a deaf mute, Mudito. The girl becomes pregnant as a consequence of her involvement with a man wearing a papier mache head. The nuns seem to believe, due to Iris’ assumed virginity, that the forthcoming child is the second coming, will result in the birth of their saviour, while Mudito [one of a few possible fathers] and the owner of the mansion/casa, Jeronimo Azcoitia [also a possible father], see the child as a potential heir. Surrounding this apparently simple tale, like gaudy wrapping paper, is enough eroticised horror and gonzo weirdness to give David Cronenberg a stiffy.

The second story takes place, one assumes, prior to these events, and involves a terribly deformed child who is deliberately isolated from normal society and brought up in a community of other freaks. His father, Jeronimo Azcoitia, is the one who makes this decision, and fashions this community, so that his son will never experience the feeling of being abnormal or inferior; so that, as the most freakish of the freaks, and the ruler of the house, he will still be exceptional and understand what it means to be aristocratic. His plan works to such an extent that when Jeronimo visits the casa to see his son he is viewed with fear and suspicion. Eventually Boy, which is the term by which the son is referred, leaves the casa and ventures into the outside world, but so dislikes the experience that he asks a doctor to perform an operation to wipe his memory of it. Wonderful satire, no?

Look, this novel doesn’t make sense, you won’t work it out. That’s something that one must become accustomed to in order to enjoy the grotesque and macabre carnival that Donoso sets up in your brain. There are multiple narrators, or the same narrator shifting through multiple personalities. Getting your head around, and keeping up with, everything that goes on is like trying to unfasten a girl’s bra when drunk out of your mind.

The real point of interest for me was that apparently Donoso wrote this novel once, then had a mental breakdown and rewrote it. This division between pre-breakdown and post-breakdown is clearly apparent when one considers the two main stories in the book. Boy’s tale, roughly in the centre of the novel, is a remnant of the work he produced originally and is the only section written in a linear, straightforward manner. It is, for me at least, also the most engaging and enjoyable portion of the book. So, why then, when I perceive so many faults, do i rate the book so highly? Because The Obscene Bird of Night is a visceral experience, is so batshit crazy as to be utterly thrilling.