Effi Briest

Tonight is book group night. My book group covers an eclectic range, and has introduced me to books which have become favourites (such as Life of Pi and Remains of the Day), forced me to read books which I had somehow neglected (Jane Austen’s Emma being one of the most embarrassing examples) and involved me in some hilarious discussions when we have realised that not one of us enjoyed the supposedly brilliant book we had just been reading. This time around, the novel in question is Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. We like to alternate between classics and newer works, and this late nineteenth-century offering is apparently a standard part of the literature curriculum in Germany. I can’t honestly say that I was that taken with it.

Of course, reading books in translation is a difficult thing, as it is nigh on impossible to know whether elements of style which you particularly love or loathe belong to the original author or to the translator (in this case translators, Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers). I found it languid, very hard going. I wondered at first whether the overwhelming sense of boredom I felt was deliberate, evocative of the heroine’s position in life, but I eventually concluded that this was not the case – I just found the style and the plot dull. We are tantalised occasionally with something interesting, but it always happens off camera (most notably, there is some wonderful ghost story to explore, but the book shies away from actually telling us what this story is). I don’t demand high-octane action, but I do like to be engaged by what’s going on in a book.

Effi Briest tells the story of its eponymous heroine, a young woman who gets married to a man at least twice her age (who happened to have been an admirer of her own mother many years back). The two of them move far from the home where she grew up and she finds little stimulation in her new position, eventually beginning an indiscretion which will come back to haunt her some five or six years later. Most of the time, the camera (as it were) focusses on her, and we get to ‘hear’ much of her inner turmoil. Sadly, this is expressed so vacuously most of the time that it irritates more than it illuminates. We do get the odd glimpse into her parents, her husband and her servants, but they are mostly cyphers. Her father does have a somewhat endearing verbal tic, declaring anything he does not want to talk about to be “too vast a subject”, but this is as deep as the characterisation tends to go.

In some ways, the book reminds me of A Doll’s House, wherein a woman breaks societal convention (in a much nobler way than having an affair) and suffers the consequences. In both, the heroine is confined by her marriage, and her husband is so bound up in what society expects and trying to do “the right thing” that his own actions and choices are pre-determined by others. Effi’s husband challenges his cuckolder to a duel, even though he doesn’t want to. He feels there is no other way. And Torvald in A Doll’s House is so bound up with what he expects from male and female roles that he fails to understand or react appropriately to anything in the third act of the play. It does not help matters that unlike A Doll’s House, where the sequence of events and revelations makes some sort of sense, the plot of Effi Briest seems to happen essentially at random. Effi’s lover is only able to make his first move due to an extended series of unfortunate hiccups one snowy evening (which defy all logic if you start to think about them), and her affair is only brought to light due to a combination of her own stupidity (though her maid does comment on this) and a truly contrived accident.

What the novel does do is to paint a picture of the society in which Effi and those around her lived, complete with its rules, customs and expectations. This is always interesting, but was the only real point of interest I found in reading it. I know I should like it, but I don’t. In the realm of classics, give me Wilkie Collins, Henry Fielding or Jane Austen. In the real of foreign novels, I tend to get on best with Russian writers (though have yet to tackle either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky). I’m sure the novel is a marvellous achievement, but it just wasn’t to my taste. It will be most interesting to see what everyone else made of it.

  1. It all sounds very annoying and a bit grim, as well as reminding me a bit of a book I never want to see again – All He Ever Wanted, by Anita Shreve. I wrote about it once. I wonder if there are any cheerful books about late 19th Century marriages…

  2. Happy marriages make less interesting literature?

    We all decided that it was interesting getting a glimpse of the society of the time (particularly as the rise of Bismarck is happening at the periphery of the story), but it was blooming hard work to read. Oh, and that the best character is Rollo the dog!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: