After an aborted attempt to read Calamity in Kent (part of the British Crime Classics series), I recalculated Spin #17 and settled on Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. My copy was published by Persephone Books a few years ago and comes with a translator’s note alerting the reader to the fact that the novel has been abridged to “bring it into the framework of the present edition”.
“In order to preserve the central characters and their dilemma as far as possible in their entirety, I have had to reduce the scope of some of the minor characters.”
Since I do not have an unabridged version to compare, I don’t know how much the abridgment impacts the reading experience. That being said, I did not feel any obvious discontinuities while reading it.
The book has been compared to other well know stories of young 19th century women caught in unhappy marriages who end up committing adultery and suffer the inevitable social consequences. Think Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
Effi Briest is set in late 19th century Germany and takes as its protagonist a young 17 year old girl who willingly accepts a marriage proposal from a man more that twice her age. Ironically, he also courted her mother 20 years earlier but was passed over by her for Effi’s father. In the intervening years, the suitor, Geert Instetten, became a successful bureaucrat deemed to be a very good catch.
After a brief honeymoon, the newlyweds settle down in a possibly haunted house in a small, quiet village on the Balkan Sea. There is little to stimulate the interest of a gay young woman in this household–least of all her passionless husband. She meets a dashing, married military captain and is swept into a brief love affair which is discovered by her husband 7 years after the fact. As Fontane is lauded as one of the fathers of Prussian realism, there is no fairy tale ending, but the author shows great compassion for his characters as he brings the tale to its inevitable conclusion.
I am going to try to incorporate some standardization in the way I rate books and have come up with five broad categories to consider when thinking about the books I have read. The categories are slightly different for fiction and nonfiction. This is a work in progress so the categories and the way I use them will undoubtedly evolve over time.
The major characters are well-drawn and I felt that their motivations and actions were consistent with the author’s character development. Effi is the character who is most changed throughout the course of the novel–from a carefree child to a reclusive divorcee within the span of 10 years. But it is all very believable and I would have to give Fontane a 4.5 out of 5 for Characterization.
As noted above, from the 21st century vantage point, the plot is not groundbreaking, but it may have seemed much more original and fresh at the time it was written. Regardless of originality, the plot is well executed and even has a few surprises that are well grounded in the cultural and political situation in Germany at the time. Plot gets 4 out of 5.
The book is written in a realist style and is very accessible. There is not a lot of beautiful language, but there is a deft use of metaphor and foreshadowing and even the most benign conversation or action ends up being meaningful. Some of the most important action takes place off the page and is only confirmed several chapters later. Writing style gets 3.5 out of 5.
Effi Briest is set in a time and place that was not familiar to me and I learned a lot about society and culture in 19th Century Germany. There seemed to be a budding material prosperity, but the social strictures and customs were still highly regimented and sometimes very harsh. The book is also an interesting character study of a marriage between unequal partners and the tragic outcome it produces. There is a lot here, and a second reading would no doubt prove fruitful. Four out of 5 for Thought Provoking.
I did enjoy the book and am glad I read it. However, I did not anxiously look forward to picking it up. My experience of the book would definitely benefit from another reading, but I am pretty sure I will not be motivated to do so. Three out of 5 for Pure Enjoyment.
Overall, I can see the literary value of Fontane’s masterpiece and I feel I got a lot out of reading it. Overall rating is 4 out of 5.