So relieved last week to find not a bad word spoken about my desert island book. Onwards to week 2 with questions posed by my German Literature Month co-host Caroline of Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat.
What strikes you most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?
There’s a whole essay to be written on the things I like. I’ll limit myself to 2.
1) Fontane’s discretion. No point in dwelling on the detail of Effi’s affair because the affair simply isn’t important: the reasons for it are and, as we will see next week, so too the consequences.
2) Fontane’s poetic realism – a blend of verisimilitude with poetic and literary flourishes. Not a word is wasted. Everything has significance beyond its face value, be it a symbolic or a foreshadowing effect, and that’s the reason why the novel is holding up well – or even better – 5th time around. For example: This reread I took the time to look up the poems used by Effi and Crampas to spar with each other in chapter 18. What do these poems say about the characters who quote them? What do they reveal about the future?
Do you think Fontane likes Effi? Whose side is he on?
Fontane understands and loves his heroine. That doesn’t preclude him understanding and being fond of his other characters and that includes Innstetten. His ire, if that is not too strong a word, is reserved for the values of society in general, and the self-congratulatory, if not downright smug views of German aristocracy, in particular.
While Fontane may love his heroine, he’s not blind to her faults. Did anyone else find her conversation with Roswitha about Kruse in chapter 21 sticking in their throats?
What do you make of the story of the Chinese and the haunted house. How would you interpret it? And what about Crampas’ interpretation?
This subplot has puzzled me before and I was determined to understand it this time round. Not sure, I’m there yet but
as an unhappy love story it does foreshadow elements of Effi’s life. I accept part of Crampas’s interpretation i.e that Innstetten uses it to differentiate himself from the crowd of nameless, faceless bureaucrats. I do not accept that it is a control mechanism. That’s a lie that Crampas uses to poison Effi’s mind against her husband.
Descriptions are an important part in Effi Briest. How do you like them and how important do you think they are for the novel?
I’m not a great fan of slow, descriptive passages which drag on and on. Fortunately there’s none of that in Effi Briest. Fontane is in total control. Descriptions of the houses and the natural landscape are so integrated with the plot, they feel natural. They also reward repeated reading. As I stated above, not a single detail is wasted. For example, the windows of Hohen-Cremmen are wreathed with Virginia Creeper, a plant that clings to the walls of the building, a mirror of Effi’s attitude to her childhood home. Another example is the water symbolism that runs throughout the novel which I discussed at length in a previous post
. Used as allegory, symbolism and even as a means to drive the plot forward, without them the novel wouldn’t be half so satisfying.
It struck me while I was reading this novel how Fontane pairs descriptions of cozy and scary. Did you notice this as well and if so, what did
you make of this?
I’m not sure there’s anything scary in Effi Briest, although the gothic elements certainly scare Effi and could be interpreted as the outer reflection of the tumult within herself.
What do you think of Crampas?
Oh, he’s much more genial than Innstetten. A charming conversationalist. But he’s a cynical, manipulative womaniser. Chapter 18 “He was clever and knew enough about women not to disturb things that were taking their natural course, a course with which experience had made him all too familiar.” No wonder his wife is a sour puss, married to someone for whom she’s a peripheral. She’s the woman he made her. On minor point in his favour, he did make an effort to wave Effi off.
Fontane chose to describe more than one Christmas in this novel, what do you think Christmas signifies?
Well, Christmas is certainly not a time of good cheer in the safety of the family home for Effi! The 1st Christmas (chapter 12) is a quiet time in Kessin with her husband, looking forward to motherhood, even though she’s still looking back and extremely homesick for Hohen-Cremen. The second Christmas (chapter 19) is much more relaxed. Effi too spoke and laughed a lot, but none of it came from her innermost soul. She felt depressed and didn’t know who to hold responsible for it, herself or Innstetten. Then there is the ill-fated excursion to the head forrester’s house, where Effi both meets a precocious mirror of her former self and begins the transformation that will colour her future.
What kind of mother is Effi?
The kind of mother she is expected to be. Hands off, which doesn’t mean she has no feelings for her daughter.
Where will the novel go from here? What do you think will happen next?
I know the answer to this, so will not say. I am interested how first time readers answer this because everything has been foreshadowed in ways that I’ve not picked up on before now. A couple of textual references to demonstrate (which first time readers should only look up if they don’t mind spoilers) : Conversation between Gieshubler and Crampas: chapter 16, p 94; Conversation between Roswitha and Effi: chapter 21 p 129.
Other readalong posts: