Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

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Translated by Mike Mitchell

Reviewed by Harriet

The great German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) apparently said that if you had to reduce your library to six novels, Effi Briest should be one of them. Leaving aside the fact that that’s a rather scary thought,  it raises the question of why this novel is not better known. Or perhaps it’s just not better known to me – I certainly had not heard of it before I saw that Oxford World’s Classics was bringing out a new translation. But when I read that it was ‘one of the great novels of marital relations together with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina’, I knew I had to read it.

First published in 1895, Effi Briest tells the story of a young girl, the eponymous Effi, who is married off at just sixteen to Baron Innstetten, a forty-four year old bureaucrat who had once hoped to marry her mother. Although this is very definitely an arranged marriage – you get the feeling that Frau Briest rather regrets having turned him down and likes the idea of he daughter being a sort of substitute – Effi is not at all unhappy about it. She’s rather excited to have found such an apparently suitable husband, one who measures up to the description she gives her friend Hertha, who worries in case he’s not the right man for her:

‘You don’t understand, Hertha. Every man’s the right one. Of course he has to belong to the nobility, have a position and be presentable’.

This makes Effi sound very shallow, but she’s really not. She’s still a child, proud of being the first of her circle to get engaged, and perhaps inwardly a little nervous in case she hasn’t done the right thing. She loves the idea of having a home of her own, nice clothes and plenty of money to spend. And Instetten is completely charmed by her, so it looks as if all will be well.  But soon after the wedding the couple move to a rented house in Kessen, a remote town on the Baltic coast, where Effi feels very cut off, as Instetten is often away on business and she doesn’t take to many of the local inhabitants. She’s also nervous, having discovered that the house is supposedly haunted. So, bored and lonely, she welcomes the friendship of the dashing and intelligent Major Crampas, who shares her love of poetry and literature. He has a reputation as a womaniser, and of course she thinks she will be able to resist, and of course in the end she doesn’t. Guilty and unhappy, she is relieved when Instetter is transferred to Berlin, and for many years the marriage settles down and she is happy with her husband and little daughter. But then by pure chance Instetter happens on a bundle of old letters, and the find blows everything apart.

It’s interesting to think of this novel as part of that trio of great ‘marriage novels’. Of course all three are different, but Bovary and Karenina end very badly indeed, with lots of angst and tragedy, and of course both of them take their own lives.  This novel really differs in its tone. Yes, Effi’s marriage ends after the discovery of the letters, she spends time alone (I don’t want to say too much about the ending) and yes there’s some sadness. But the whole thing has a much lighter feel, without ever being flippant about what are of course very serious matters. I think what contributes a lot to this is the creation of Effi herself – it’s hard to think of a more attractive and loveable heroine.  The helpful introduction to this edition (by Ritchie Robertson) describes her as ‘a fresh, lively, imaginative,  playful, spontaneous person, thrust into a situation she can hardly cope with’, and that really sums her up well. She has a lot of respect and even affection for Instetter, but he’s nearly thirty years older and doesn’t really understand her at all.

In fact Instetten is an interesting character himself. It would have been easy to make him a monstrous marital tyrant, but he actually isn’t. He’s kind and gentle with his child bride (though there’s a hint that he embroiders the story of the ghostly Chinaman to keep her charmingly nervous), and even when he makes his fatal discovery and acts on it in ways we can hardly condone, he’s given some very interesting passages of self-examination. Essentially he is a product of his time, his breeding and his conditioning, and cannot act in any other way, much as he may regret it on a deeper level – ‘I’ve made a mess of my life’, he says towards the end of the book.

So all in all, this is a tremendously interesting and enjoyable novel. It presents a fascinating picture of life in late-nineteenth-century Prussia. There are some great characters – Effi’s parents, her loyal maid Roswitha (who really deserves a novel all to herself), Crampas, of course, whose thoughts and motivations are made interestingly plain but whose deepest feelings are only hinted at, even Effi’s loyal dog Rollo… Well, you get the general idea.

I’d barely heard of Theodor Fontane before I read this, but he clearly was an important novelist and I’m delighted to have been introduced to him. This is an great new edition, with a helpfully wide-ranging introduction and notes, and the translation by Mike Mitchell is excellent – I never had the sense that I was even reading a translation, which is high praise from someone as fussy as I am. So – highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest, translated by Mike Mitchell, with an introduction and notes by Ritchie Robertson (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 978-0199675647, 255pp., paperback

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