I am participating in the readalong of Theodore Fontaine’s Effi Briest as part of German Literature Month. Here are my reactions to the first 15 chapters. Questions posed by Lizzy.
Q1: Welcome to the 1st German Literature Month Readalong! Had you heard of Theodor Fontane and Effi Briest before now? What enticed you to readalong with us?
This is my first readalong; normally I’m not much of a group joiner, and prefer to read what I want when I want. But I enjoy the blogs of the two organisers Caroline and Lizzy, so thought I would give it a try just this once. I’d never heard of Theodor Fontaine or Effi Briest either, so it’s all new territory for me!
Q2: Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?
I’m reading the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers. I haven’t read the introduction yet – I prefer to introduce myself to the book, and go back to read the official introduction at the end. One thing I do like about this edition is that there are informative notes at the end, but no footnotes in the text itself. I hate when fiction is footnoted – it makes it feel dry and academic, and interrupts the flow (I know I could ignore them, but I always have the instinct to follow them to see what I’m missing). This way is great – I can read and enjoy without interruption, but the information is there if I need it.
Q3: Is the novel living up to your expectations?
So far it’s exceeding my expectations. I don’t generally read the classics very much, as I prefer contemporary fiction. I was keen to give this one a try after hearing what people said about it, but still I wouldn’t say my expectations were sky-high. I’ve really enjoyed it so far, and found myself being drawn into the story right from the beginning.
Q4: What do you make of Effi Briest and Baron von Innstetten. What motivates them? What do you make of their match?
Effi and Innstetten seem to be exact opposites, corresponding more or less to the two sides of human nature – the free and natural versus the socially controlled. Effi is presented as an innocent child from the very start, playing in the garden with her friends before being called inside to be informed of her engagement. Innstetten is a buttoned-down bureacrat, who behaves very correctly but shows no trace of passion or spontaneity. When he seems on the point of saying something real, he checks himself and says “Let’s drop the subject. I must watch what I say in future.” What motivates him is social advancement; what motivates Effi is fun and adventure. There is also the huge age gap; Innstetten is Effi’s mother’s old flame. It seems like a disastrous match.
Q5: How are you reacting to Effi’s parents?
I get the impression that they are trying to do the right thing. Marrying your teenage daughter off to a man twice her age may seem shocking today, but I think that in the context of the day, it would be seen as a good match for Effi. They are presented as loving parents, close to Effi and not authoritarian at all. They themselves are far from a perfect match as a couple, and I get the impression that they have learned to co-exist reasonably happily by reaching a truce. I think they imagine that Effi will reach a similar kind of understanding with Innstetten one day. I thought it was interesting how Effi’s mother tried gently to prepare her for marriage by making her more realistic – Effi had wanted to take a “beautiful and poetic” red lantern and Japanese screen to her new home, but her mother said “In life we must be cautious”.
Q6: Are there any secondary characters to whom you are particularly drawn? Any to whom you are adverse?
Gieshubler is a very sympathetic character, more or less the only person in Kessin who seems genuine and humane – most of them are concerned with social advancement.
Q7: Effi Briest was originally serialised in 6 parts. I’m assuming that its 36 chapters were published in 6 monthly parts of 6 chapters each and the novel so far seems to bear this out. How does the mood of the first part (chapters 1-6) contrast with that of the second (chapters 7-12)?
The first part is a time of innocence, in idyllic Hohen-Cremmen. Then it’s the honeymoon and the initial arrival in Kessin, when Effi is still enthusiastic. But chapter 7 begins with Effi encountering the cold light of day in an unfriendly house, with her husband absent. Innstetten’s absence is a foreshadowing of how Effi’s life in Kessin will be, and it’s when he’s absent for longer periods that she starts to see the ghost of the Chinaman and get truly terrified.
Q8: We finished our first reading at the end of chapter 15 or the middle of part 3. Where is Effi in terms of her psychological development and how does this bode for the future?
We’ve seen Effi’s increasing loneliness and nervousness, and have seen signs of her growing disappointment with Innstetten (for example when they’re travelling together and she complains that he just smoked his cigar and ignored her the whole time, “frosty as a snowman”). Nevertheless she still trusts and respects Innstetten, and feels that if she’s unhappy it’s her fault rather than his, and she needs to try to be better, to live up to his high standards and be worthy of him. It’s an interesting point in her development, and a good point at which to draw week 1 of the readalong to a close.
Thanks to Lizzy for the questions and Caroline for being joint-organiser! Look forward to the rest of German Literature Month. If you’re participating, please leave me a comment. Did you have any different reactions to the first 15 chapters?
Read my posts for the other parts of the readalong: