Effi Briest

by Theodor Fontane

I read some Fontane at university, and probably at school as well.  I remember reading Irrungen Wirrungen, a novella about a love affair between a well-to-do young student and a shop girl, which ends sadly.

I’m not quite sure what led me to get a copy of Effi Briest.  Perhaps it was the fact that it is often compared with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, both of which, like Fontane’s novel, were published in the second half of the nineteenth century and deal with marriage and female adultery.  I have read Flaubert’s novel a couple of times, in French and in Lydia Davis’ excellent translation.  I must have read Tolstoy’s novel too, though it was some time ago and I only retain a vague recollection of the story and characters.

Effi Briest completely bowled me over.  This book is now firmly one of my ‘all time greats’.  Why?  For one thing, the use of language, and especially dialogue, is completely effortless and natural.  The characters could be having their conversations today.  German is like any language in that its usage changes over time.  Dialogue in novels can often appear stilted, even when read by contemporaries.  But Fontane’s dialogue feels real – and through it, his characters are real and accessible.

The characters are also real in the sense that they all have their flaws.  Effi herself is in many ways a likeable character.  She is energetic, often described as “childlike” and yet possesses a capacity for mature self-analysis.  Despite her extreme youth (she is seventeen when she marries a man more than twice her age, and barely twenty at the time of her affair) she is honest with herself.  She shows real remorse and shame at her behaviour.  Effi’s parents are ineffectual and yet endearing; they have a caring relationship with each other and are a worthy example of a good marriage.  Baron von Innstetten demonstrates, in everything he does, the importance of proper and seemly behaviour, status and rank in the Prussian world-view; and yet he learns, too late, that compassion and forgiveness are even more important.  The ancillary characters are believable and likeable.  Even Crampas, though clearly without a conscience, is not portrayed as a villain.  The servants are human beings with their own lives and stories, and not just accessories to the ‘main’ story.

I could read this novel again and again – and I probably shall.  Effi appeals to me more than Emma Bovary, though it is hard to say why.  Perhaps it is because she sees the danger of her relationship with Crampas from the very start, and tries not to be led into temptation.  She is not innocent – but she has a pure heart.  My reading of Emma Bovary, on the other hand, is that she is foolish and, at the same time, scheming.

Another parallel between the two books is the central role played by a pharmacist.  In Flaubert’s book, the pharmacist is a despicable character who helps to secure Emma’s husband’s ruin.  Fontana’s pharmacist, Gieshübel, is universally liked, an affable, gallant, somewhat old-fashioned man who dotes on Effi and shows her great kindness.  I wonder whether Fontane deliberately introduced a kindly pharmacist in an allusion to Flaubert’s story?