German literature month readalong – part 2

It’s the second week of the Effi Briest readalong, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline as part of German Literature Month. Here are Caroline’s questions and my answers.

What strikes you most in this novel, what do like or dislike the most?

One thing I like about the novel is the gradual building of tension through little details. Everything is pointing in a certain direction and building a sense of inevitable disaster. This is not a novel that relies on twists and turns in the plot – the enjoyment comes from the thoroughness with which the story is told and the characters are drawn.

Do you think Fontane likes Effi? Whose side is he on?

I think Fontane definitely likes Effi and despises Innstetten. I think that Effi represents the way that free, childlike innocence and naturalness gets stamped on by men like Innstetten who are so concerned with rules and social correctness. As a reader I am certainly on Effi’s side, and it seems to me that the author intended this. She’s not perfect, of course, and her faults are discussed by some of the other characters, including her own parents. But overall she’s certainly a lot more likeable than Innstetten.

What do you make of the story of the Chinese and the haunted house. How would you interpret it? And what about Crampas’ interpretation?

I agree with Crampas’s interpretation. Clearly he has the ulterior motive of undermining Effi’s trust in her husband and making her more vulnerable to his advances, but still I think his interpretation fits with Innstetten’s character. From the very start of the marriage he is controlling and patronising, seeming to view Effi as some kind of project. Even on the honeymoon, where he takes her to a whole string of Italian art galleries, it feels as if he is trying to “improve” her. He treats Effi like a child, and she behaves like one with him in the early days, seeking his approval and trying to be “good”. To me it fits in with Innstetten’s character that he would manipulate Effi with ghost stories.

Descriptions are an important part in Effi Briest. How do you like them and how important do you think they are for the novel?

When I signed up for this readalong I was worried I would encounter long, boring descriptive passages, but this has not been the case. Every detail seems to be carefully chosen to create a specific effect. The house in Kessin is not extensively described, but the details we do get are very memorable and almost all spooky, for example the curtains in the upstairs room that swoosh on the floor and create the effect of feet shuffling around at night. It’s interesting to me that people are not given long physical descriptions, as they are in many novels of the same era. Most of the description is of places and events – with people, more attention is given to character and interaction.

What do you think of Crampas?

Whereas most of the characters in the novel are interesting and complex, Crampas seems very simple. He is what he appears to be – an ageing womaniser, quite charming on the surface but completely unreliable and uncaring. He manipulates Effi as much as Innstetten does, caring only about himself, not about the consequences for her. He can be kind and affectionate towards Effi, but I see this as just a tactic to part her from her husband and ultimately to seduce her.

What kind of mother is Effi?

I’ve been surprised at what a small role Effi’s child plays in the novel. I find it difficult to answer this question, because the child hardly ever appears. Fontane is selective about what he tells us in this novel, and it could well be that Effi has a lot of contact with the child “off-stage”. In the novel, though, she’s usually taken care of by Roswitha, and there are few depictions of mother-daughter time.

Where will the novel go from here? What do you think will happen next?

The back cover of my edition gives away more or less everything about the plot, so it’s not a surprise really. Maybe they think that with classic novels it doesn’t matter so much because people are aware of the plot already. Still, one thing I like about this novel is that it’s not about big surprises in the plot anyway. I think that even without reading the back cover, I’d have a good sense of where it was heading. But this inevitability doesn’t make me any less anxious to read on. I’m enjoying seeing how we get there and exactly what happens at the end, even though I know the general trajectory.

Read my posts for the other parts of the readalong:

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There are 8 comments

  1. It seems that those participating in this readalong either are on Instetten’s or on Crampas side which is shown in the answer to Crampas’ intepretation. I never doubted it for one moment, although, yes, it does maybe speed up things. Still I think, he treats Effi better than her husband who is so patronizing and condescending.
    Your last point is a good one and I wrote about this in my first post. Can you spoil a classic. I said, no but I think I meant something slightly different. The first reading should be a discovery and we don’t want to know everything in advance but the second reading can be even better, and this shows that ultimately a classic cannot be spoilt. I would have liked Anna Karenina more (and probably finished it by now) if I hadn’t known how it will end.

  2. Enjoyed reading your post, Andrew! I liked very much your comment that Fontane builds the tension with little details and tells the story with a thoroughness. I felt that Innstetten was not so bad, when I read the book, but I might have missed the subtle hints that Fontane gives or the translation that I read may not have been as good. Your thoughts on Effi as a mother were also quite interesting – now when I think about it, I realize that not much of mother-daughter time is depicted in the novel. It is sad that the back cover of the edition you read, gave away the story. I have discovered many classics without knowing their endings and have been pleasantly surprised and delighted when I discovered how they ended. So, it is always sad when the story summary on the back cover gives away the ending.

  3. Hi Caroline, it’s interesting about spoilers. I would have preferred not to know quite so much – I think they could have whetted my appetite without giving away everything. I don’t think Effi Briest is so well-known here in the UK that they could have assumed people would already know the outcome.

    Hi Vishy, good to hear your reaction. That’s the good thing about a readalong like this. People do react differently to different characters. It shows how much of a book is about what the reader puts in, not just the writer. We bring our own ideas and preoccupations to the characters, so maybe Innstetten reminds me of people I’ve met or attitudes I dislike, whereas for you he doesn’t have that resonance. As you say, it could also be a translation issue. I doubt that you missed the subtle hints, though – you strike me as quite a perceptive reader 🙂

    1. Unglaublich, ich habe Effi in der Schule lesen mfcssen und habe mich wortwf6rtlich durch das Buch durchgeque4lt- die Inszenierung und die iildvniuelden schauspielerischen Leistungen sind aber so fcberzeugend, dass ich mir das Buch demne4chst nochmal zur Hand nehmen und mit neuem Elan lesen werde.Allerdings muss ich zugeben, dass ich diese Art der Publikation mehr als positiv empfinde, da ich persf6nlich ansonsten schon rein aus finanziellen Grfcnden wirklich nicht in der Lage gewesen we4re, das Stfcck zu sehen.Theater ist ein Kulturgut, welches geff6rdert und erhalten werden muss, jedoch muss es auch allen Menschen zuge4nglich gemacht werden.Ein grodfes Lob nochmals an alle Schauspieler und auch alle Menschen hinter den Kulissen, die auch weiterhin tapfer in der angeblichen Todesfalle arbeiten und hoffentlich bald wieder hoffnungsvoll in die Zukunft blicken kf6nnen.

  4. Nice analysis. I think we all enjoyed this book.

    I agree with you about spoilers. My copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge gives away many things of the plot. It spoiled my friend’s reading when I lent her the book but not mine as I don’t read blurbs anymore, to avoid spoilers. 🙂

    The outcome was pretty predictable, though.

  5. Hey, that’s a good idea (not reading the blurbs, I mean). Not sure if I could manage it, though – it’s such an ingrained habit. I’ll try it with my next book anyway!

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