This is where I get nervous. Putting one of my desert island book choices out on the interweb for many and various to digest, discuss and dissect, hopefully not dismantle, deconstruct and destroy. But I am here to defend if the worst should happen and for now, to answer the questions I sent out to all readalong participants last week. And that feels weird too! Nonetheless, here I go ….
Q1: Welcome to the 1st German Literature Month Readalong! Had you heard of Theodor Fontane and Effi Briest before now? What enticed you to readalong with us?
Effi Briest was a German A-level set text so I first read her when I was 18 – 35 years ago. Heavens, how did that happen? I’ve reread Fontane’s masterpiece 3 times since then and it’s the German novel I have no hesitation in recommending to everyone. Hence this choice for a readalong. Besides there’s no justice in a world where Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are more (in)famous.
I’m not reading in the original German although I still have my Ullstein German edition, which is now slightly foxed with damp patches and a slightly musty smell. It was damaged in a flash flood the day before I left Germany for Scotland. (Let’s not talk about omens of the wet weather I’ve experienced since then!) While I had to throw out many other volumes, I managed, with the aid of a hairdryer, to salvage Effi. (Yes, we’re on first names terms …..)
But I digress – this time round I am reading the lovely black Penguins classics edition, translated by Helen Chambers and Hugh Rorrison. It’s reading well,. Not as a modern novel but preserving the mood and style of a C19th novel.
Q3: Is the novel living up to your expectations?
How can it not? This read, my 5th, will tie Effi as the most reread novel of my life. (On a par with To Kill A Mockingbird.)
Q4: What do you make of Effi Briest and Baron von Innstetten. What motivates them? What do you make of their
I can remember exactly how I reacted when I first read Effi. I was only a few months older than she at the time. And nowhere near as childish. I’d certainly given up swings. But then I was a child of the C20th, not the C19th. The word duty didn’t figure in my vocabulary. But Effi, a child of nature, adventurous and a little bit wild, does understand what is expected of her and is trying / will try so hard to conform to the expectations of her time and society. And while Innstetten is 21 years older than her, he’s a man in his prime. 38 isn’t decrepit, is it?
Baron von Innstetten is a Prussian public servant, a man of principle. And he’s still carrying a flame for his old love, Effi’s mother. She’s well and truly off-bounds. So, if he can’t have the mother, he’ll settle for the daughter, who’s still young enough to mould into his ideal wife. Or so he thinks.
As for the match, at the time it is made, there may be misgivings but there’s no reason to doubt that Effi and Innstetten won’t be able to find their way to a mutual understanding and a marriage based on affection, if not passion.
Q5: How are you reacting to Effi’s parents?
Now that’s a biggie (and it gets bigger as the novel continues). I’m quite fond of Effi’s dad, who I think understands what’s going on but finds life “just too big a question” to face head on. I know quite a few older men whose modus operandi is to avoid any unpleasantness. Effi’s mother, on the other hand, knows exactly what’s she’s doing. She’s handing her daughter to an ex-flame and living vicariously through her. Though there’s no malice. Geert von Innstetten is a good man with excellent prospects. Still quite a catch. Yet, she knows her daughter’s nature and you have to wonder why she’s in such a rush to marry Effi off. Like everyone in the novel, she’s a product of her time.
Q6: Are there any secondary characters to whom you are particularly drawn? Any to whom you are adverse?
How can I not love Rollo? Or Gieshubler, the hunchback who takes Effi under his wing and ensures she doesn’t feel abandoned when Innstetten is too busy making his career.
It’s difficult to condemn anyone in this novel. Fontane was a very understanding author. As in real life, all his characters have good and bad points. So there are no obvious bad guys. Although I do not like Marietta Tripelli – a social butterfly, whose influence on Effi is very unsettling.
Q7: Effi Briest was originally serialised in 6 parts. I’m assuming that its 36 chapters were published in 6 monthly parts of 6 chapters each and the novel so far seems to bear this out. How does the mood of the first part (chapters 1-6) contrast with that of the second (chapters 7-12)?
The mood darkens from the moment Effi steps over the threshold of her marital home: the eerie hall with its dead animals, the unfurnished first storey and the ghostly noise from the long swishing curtains. The uncanny nature of the Chinaman. Most unfathomable to me is the reluctance of Innstetten and the maid Johanna to accommodate Effi’s fears. Effi is still “half a child at this point” and the adults really should know better.
Q8: We finished our first reading at the end of chapter 15 or the middle of part 3. Where is Effi in terms of her psychological development and how does this bode for the future?
Effi is now 19 and a mother. A woman. In the final scene, Innstetten finds her seductive but he’s not comfortable with it. Enter Crampas ……