Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.

I've been meaning to read Effi Briest for such a long time I actually can't believe I've finally read it. I found it a few years ago now in Barter Books and it was the comparison with Madame Bovary on that back cover that first attracted me. It was written by the German author Theodor Fontane and first published in 1896, and it is based (and this is not meant to be unkind) on a tried-and-tested model: an unsuitable marriage that results in adultery and ends in tragedy, like Madame Bovary, and also Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878) or George Sand's Indiana (1832) to name a few.

'Tried-and-tested' the model may be, but I'd say Fontane really makes this his own. He tells the story of Effi Briest, a young woman (aged seventeen) marries a man over twenty years her senior - Baron Geert von Innstetten, a marriage which will greatly improve her social status. Like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Indiana Delmare before her, it is a doomed marriage: she has great energy, enthusiasm, and a wild imagination not suited to be left for long periods as she is whilst her husband works (he is a politician). Largely isolated, her imagination runs wild and she begins to believe the house his haunted by a Chinese man who died having had an affair; Innstetten does little to reassure her. After the birth of their daughter Annie, an associate of Innstetten, Major Crampas, comes into the picture. He has the reputation of being a womaniser, yet despite this and indeed what can be described as a dark omen in a conversation with her lady's maid Roswitha as well as the ghost, Effi has an affair. She almost gets away with it too, but ultimately she is found out and becomes a complete outcast.

It's a very moving story in which we learn not only what happens when marriage goes wrong in 19th Century Germany, but also on an ideal marriage, what it ought to be, and the sacrifices young Effi is supposed to make. Innstetten is not a bad man, he is like Bovary, kind, hardworking, but not passionate enough for a young woman like Effi. The two of them seem to lack any real choice, duty dictates to both of them and in a way they are victims of the stifling society that expects too much from too little. But, as one would expect from this era, it is the woman, it is Effi, who is the real victim of this drama.

Comments

  1. In the earlier L'Adultera / Woman Taken in Adultery, Fontane's approach to the story is less tried-and-tested. Worth reading, as is much Fontane, possibly all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll certainly be looking out for more Fontane after this. I'd never heard of him before this, just happened to see the book and liked the sound of it.

      I'll look out for L'Adultera, thanks for that tip!

      Delete
  2. Never heard of him, ah. You might find this post interesting, then.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for that, Tom.

      I must read more Fontane, and more German literature come to that. I don't seem to get too much beyond France when it comes to European. It's not to do with taste, I must add, more needing to be shaken out my comfort zone!

      Delete
  3. I've just read Effi Briest as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I've just seen. You're not showing up in my feedly for some reason.

      I agree with what you said about Fontane refraining too much, the affair is easy to miss, but yes, she's a great character!

      Delete
  4. Sounds neat! Going on the list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent, hope you like it when you get to it :)

      Delete
  5. For some reason, this sounds better than Madame Bovary, which I didn't really enjoy. I'll have to keep my eyes open for a copy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Madame Bovary is the greater novel, but if the likeability of the characters is important to you, go for Effi Briest. Unlike Tolstoy and Flaubert, Fontane loves his heroine without reservation.

      Delete
    2. We must talk sometime, because I've been looking for someone to help me appreciate Madame Bovary. I so want to like it, but I felt it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that I couldn't totally put my finger on. No pressure or expectation but here's a link to my review and if you have any enlightening comments, I'd certainly appreciate them! :-) http://cleoclassical.blogspot.ca/2014/05/madame-bovary-by-gustave-flaubert.html

      Delete
    3. Mario Vargas Llosa counts as someone, yes? The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1975) is as good as it gets.

      Or Francis Steegmuller's Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait.

      Delete
    4. Thanks for the recommendations, Tom. I'll check them out. I see that Llosa doesn't go for shock value at all, does he? ;-)

      Delete
    5. "The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy." That's Flaubert, from a letter.

      Delete
    6. Nabokov's another.
      I've just read Effi Briest, and will soon finish reading The Awakening, so the plan is that a Madame Bovary re-read is next.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Book Tag.

20 Books of Summer.