Effi Briest (Penguin Classics) - Theodor Fontane

This review refers to Douglas Parmee's translation.

This book starts with the 17-year-old Effi being engaged to marry a man twenty years older. Actually, it starts with Effi joking about the penalty for adultery being drowning and carrying out a playful mock water-burial. If that isn't foreshadowing, I've never seen foreshadowing -- I'm mortally certain that in the course of this book Effi Briest will commit adultery and wind up dead. This sort of heavyhandedness is constantly repeated throughout the book. However, not all of Fontane's use of "symbolism" is bad; one aspect of the book that strikes every reader, and which I think is genuinely effective, is the ghost story, the old scandal that literally haunts Effi's house, and which her husband Innstetten exploits to "educate" her on the necessity of staying within bounds; it all adds to the oppressiveness of the first year of her marriage.

The aristocratic Prussian society that Effi Briest lives in is pretty awful, not just in my mind, but evidently in the author's. Though Effi may become its victim, she fully participates in its values, too. It's prim about physical matters, with Effi blushing at "delicate hints" of allusions to "a forthcoming event" (her pregnancy). It's fervently orthodox in religious matters, but hypocritically so, with people who privately disbelieve being among the loudest to call for the punishment of dissenters. Effi has no particular religious sentiments, but shares this public propriety. Knowledge of and adherence to morals is universally assumed, no matter whether this corresponds to reality or not; when Effi speaks of her self-doubts to her mother or husband, they're shocked and try to hush her. Above all, the social circles of the "better class of people" are a stew of envious gossip and scandal. Since Innstetten's career depends on his reputation, he's intensely focused on keeping up appearances on his own part and also on his wife's, and even though he's really fond of her, Effi's own needs come second to this.

In short, this is dangerous territory for young, inexperienced, frivolous, frank Effi. Anyone would have difficulty navigating the minefield of public opinion, and for her it will be impossible. All the ambiguous messages and hypocritical behavior around her give her little external guidance for her conduct, and since she has no internal resources to speak of at her age, she will drift into committing a transgression. It's interesting that Fontane depicts her brief affair as not particularly important to her emotional life: her fear of being found out is much more of a concern. Likewise, Innstetten is driven to harsh actions against his inclinations because of his desire to uphold standards that he believes in without actually "feeling" their necessity. As his friend Wüllersdorf puts it, "All that high-falutin' talk about "God's jugement" is nonsense, of course, and we don't want any of that, yet our own cult of honour on the other hand is idolatry. But we must submit to it, as long as the idol stands." It's this point of view that makes hypocrisy easy: if promoting standards is an end in itself, then denouncing other people works toward that end and quietly sinning oneself seems to do little harm as long as one is sufficiently secret.

This novel does a good job of depicting the subtle undermining of aristocratic Prussian life, no matter how loudly the respectable people proclaim their allegiance to traditional values and praise the greatness of their nation and class. The book is also particularly good at characterization, with lots of memorable, believable minor characters: the servants Joanna and Rosawitha, the apothecary Gieshübler, Frau von Padden, Wüllersdorf, Effi's mother and father, and more.

If I have one major complaint about this novel, it's the author's indecent insistence about driving Effi to her death (with a "consumption" which he tries to make sound more like lack of will to live than tuberculosis). I've already mentioned the constant foreshadowing of the events to come. Furthermore, there is practically no circumstance which doesn't somehow contribute to the fatality: for instance, Effi's love of outdoor exercise is set up as the means for how she gets together with her seducer. This overdetermination may find some explanation, though not excuse, in the quote from Fontane that the back cover of my German edition highlights: "Ja, die arme Effi ! Vielleicht ist es nur so gelungen, weil ich das Ganze träumerisch und fast wie mit einem Psychographen geschrieben habe." (Yes, poor Effi! Perhaps it only turned out that way because I wrote the whole thing as if in a dream, almost as spirit-writing.) Effi's death is the goal that drives the plot. The considerations become even more unflattering for Fontane when we learn that the real woman whose adultery inspired him to write, Elisabeth Baroness von Plotho, after divorcing her husband, so far from having nothing to do but die, instead devoted herself to a career in nursing and lived to 99.

I read this book in German, and also part of Parmee's translation, which strikes me as a reasonably good one, with only occasional awkwardnesses (but I noticed a few outright mistakes!); it's appropriate to Fontane's unornamented style, and good at the dialogue.