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Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

November 21, 2011 19 comments

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. 1894

I’ve read Effi Briest for the German Lit Month but I didn’t follow the readalong and answer the questions; I wanted to write a review.

Effi Briest was published in 1894 and is Fontane’s last book. At the beginning of the novel, Effi is 17. She lives with her parents and is chatting animatedly with her friends in the garden. She’s telling them that she’s just met Innstetten who used to be in love with her mother but wasn’t rich enough to marry her at the time. Instetten is 37, has never been married and is a Landrat, a civil servant. He’s currently appointed in Kessin, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Now Effi has to get prepared as he’s coming to their house. When she comes home, she discovers that Innstetten proposed and they’re engaged. She has met him for the first time the day before.

After a short trip to Berlin to organize the wedding, they are promptly married and Effi moves into Innstetten’s house in Kessin. The house is decorated in a bizarre fashion; Effi is uncomfortable. The upper floor is empty but for a drawing of a Chinaman, who’s supposed to be the ghost of the house. Innstetten makes it a good thing to have a ghost; it’s chic; like having a distinguished butler.

Kessin is a small town and Effi fails to make interesting acquaintances. The only one is an old man, Gieshübler. Innstetten is ambitious and often leaves her alone to travel for work or to attend receptions at the court. She’s left alone and lonely. She is soon expecting a baby and her little Annie is born on July 3rd, the summer after their wedding. Motherhood doesn’t bring more happiness and Effi is bored until the Crampas moves into town. Frau Crampas is a bear and won’t be the friend Effi needs. So only Crampas will get acquainted with the Innstettens. Crampas is over forty, a womanizer who quickly starts flirting with Effi.

I let you imagine what will happen.

We are here on the same path as with Madame Bovary: a young woman, with an ill-matched husband, bored, who falls into the hands of a skilled seducer. But Effi and Emma only have their initials in common. I have to say I prefer Effi to Emma. Emma is foolish and in a way makes her own bed. She’s also guiltier as she actually sleeps with Rodolphe. Effi is a lot more intelligent and insightful.

So it came about that she, who by nature was frank and open, accustomed herself more and more to play an underhand part. At times she was startled at the ease with which she could do it. Only in one respect she remained unchanged–she saw everything clearly and glossed nothing.

Some compare Effi to Anna Karenina; I don’t remember it well-enough to comment on that.

Effi is a pure victim of the German society. At the beginning of the book, she’s full of life, running, joking, playing with girl-friends. Her engagement switches her off. It’s the end of innocence, she has to be serious. But as Rimbaud pointed out “On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans”. Innstetten has the manners of a rigid teacher; it’s as if he whistled the end of playtime. Effi takes things as they come, she dutifully obeys her parents. She has her opinion about about marriage, though:

“Yes, I think so, too, mama. But just imagine–and I am almost ashamed to say it–I am not so very much in favor of what is called a model married life.”

“That is just like you. And now tell me, pray, what are you really in favor of?”

“I am–well, I am in favor of like and like and naturally also of tenderness and love. And if tenderness and love are out of the question, because, as papa says, love is after all only fiddle-faddle, which I, however, do not believe, well, then I am in favor of wealth and an aristocratic house, a really aristocratic one, to which Prince Frederick Charles will come for an elk or grouse hunt, or where the old Emperor will call and have a gracious word for every lady, even for the younger ones. And then when we are in Berlin I am for court balls and gala performances at the Opera, with seats always close by the grand central box.”

“Do you say that out of pure sauciness and caprice?”

“No, mama, I am fully in earnest. Love comes first, but right after love come splendor and honor, and then comes amusement–yes, amusement, always something new, always something to make me laugh or weep. The thing I cannot endure is ennui.”

Poor Effi, boredom is exactly what she’ll get as entertainment doesn’t agree with Innstetten. He’s a good but righteous man. He’s kind and amiable; he’s fond of his wife but he’s not a lover. He treats her as an enjoyable and precious object. He’s only interested in his career in the stupidest way. In a French novel, Innstetten would have taken his pretty young wife with him to attend parties, socialize and make himself known. She would have been an asset; they could have worked as a team. Here, he works hard to succeed, which leads him to leave Effi behind and he does get promoted on merit, which always takes more time than getting promoted through playing with politics.

The society seems military; people surrender to rigid social rules, there’s no space for individuality. Think that this story is contemporary to Jude The Obscure, What Maisie Knew or La Bête humaine. The novel is like a tragedy by Racine: duty and society are more important than happiness and individual needs. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that society; it’s so up tied; rigorous, it lacks warmth. Men and women are blindly obedient to duty and social conventions. In a way, Innstetten is also a victim of his education; he doesn’t act according to his heart but according to what he was taught to be right.

On the psychological side, there’s this thing about Innstetten being Frau von Briest’s ex-lover. I couldn’t help thinking of Freud. What are Innstetten’s motives in marrying Effi? Catching up with the daughter? Taking revenge? The old physician in Berlin claims that Effi looks exactly like her mother at her age. They barely knew each other when they got engaged; he didn’t love her. He just chose a wife the same way he would have chosen a horse or a dog, according to her breeding, upon her mother’s qualities. Why did Fontane add this detail at the beginning of the book? Effi Briest is a naturalist book; Zola is mentioned in the novel. Zola relies on heredity as a back bone of Les Rougon-Macquart. Does Fontane want to show that despite heredity, Effi IS NOT like her mother? The mother should have married Innstetten; they’re made in the same wood but he and Effi are an ill-matched couple.

Some things puzzled me in the novel. I didn’t quite understand the role of the Chinaman story. Is it to prove that women are weak creatures with poor nerves? Is it to illustrate Innstetten’s character? Is it “natural” for a German book, as part of the culture? The absence of gossip in Kessin also surprised me. Innstetten never knew. Why? Was it because people didn’t like him enough to tell him? Was it because people feared his reaction and protected Effi? Or is it because there was nothing to gossip about?

Fontane’s style is sometimes rigid too but with hints of his sense of humor, like here:

Innstetten actually wrote every day, as he had promised. The thing that made the receipt of his letters particularly pleasurable was the circumstance that he expected in return only one very short letter every week.

The dialogues can be very witty. But as soon as it comes to feelings love or bodily topics, he refrains. Was it dangerous to write about adultery at the time? Did he fear censorship? He’s a wonderful writer but full of restraint.

I’m used to reading foreign books but the culture here was unexpectedly far from my own. I come from a part of France with a strong German culture and for example, the descriptions of Christmases in Kessin reminded me of home. Is it because I’m not used to reading German literature? But I didn’t feel that alieness when I discovered Dutch literature in June. Really, I can’t nail the reason why I feel like this. I’m all brain with that book. It’s extremely well-written but really predictable. When you’ve read French classics, there’s a taste of déjà vu. I was wondering who would be the lover and had guessed the ending. I enjoyed reading it though, it’s an excellent book. Highly recommended.

Other reviews: Tom, from A Common Reader, Iris from Iris on books and participants following the rules of the readalong

 

 

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