Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Fifty fifty: that was how it panned out. Half of us liked the novel, Effi Brest, the other half was rather disappointed.

I like a reflective novel. I enjoy being left with something to think about, something to ponder. To have the text throw up questions and for myself, the reader, to find my own answers. And I have no objection at all to lack of events. Not for me searing, screaming action every step of the way. Fontane pares then pares again. But there comes a time when Less is More become Less is Less: I do want emotion. And perhaps in Effi Briest some of those events left to the reader’s imagination (sometimes later clarified) are perhaps a little too obscure, too coy, even so bland as to escape the reader's notice until the end of the book!

Effi, the heroine, is a charming, impetuous, beautiful young woman. Married too young, to a man too mature. The only thing she and her husband have in common is ambition: both for their own versions of status and power. They have a child: Effi is left alone much of the time and too much is expected of her. Her husband is kind but not demonstrative. Her loneliness leads her into the arms of a passionate man, and, eventually, this and the demands of Society results in a cruel fate.

Some of us felt that Effi was little more than a cipher. That none of the characters developed. I’m not sure I agree. In tune with some others, I think Effi is a character that grows on the reader. As the novel progresses we get to know her better and as the other characters develop we also come to feel sympathy for her. We also appreciate her husband for his good points, in spite of his controlling character. Ultimately, perhaps, we have a real sympathy for him.

Symbolism is strong in this work, we are told, but for the modern readers much of it is lost. Just as the uneducated visitor would miss the classic symbolism and allegorical associations of the 18th century landscape garden, such as that at Stowe, so too does the modern reader miss the Victorian symbolism so prevalent in this most classic of novels. The symbolism of flowers, colours, myths and monsters is not what it was.

And then this is a highly Victorian moral tale: infidelity can lead to the break-up of families, to heartbreak and decline. Ambition and the pursuit of position above all else can be an empty cup. Insistence on honour and status is meaningless compared to forgiveness and the closeness of family. Women, married too young, have not yet had time to develop their character. And women – certainly at the time this novel was written – were at the mercy physically, mentally, and economically, of their men.

Even the characters are imbued with this morality: the old, the disfigured, the poor and unattractive – these are the characters in the book that are the most worthy. Gieshubler, the chemist, Roswitha the servant, the old doctor, Rummschuttel, all display the sort of discretion and kindness that is to be expected of the fortunate. In contrast, those in positions of superiority are not magnanimous but sometimes vindictive and cold.

The novel reminded me here and there of Anna Karenina. But Anna Karenina has dramatic scenes, passion, heart. Whereas at pivotal points in Effi’s life, Fontane gives us barely a hint of emotion: her marriage, the birth of her child, a lover, a death, a separation. I found the lack of that emotion described at such passionate moments, odd.

Nevertheless I did enjoy the novel. There is much to absorb and some very fine writing. But don’t expect action and don’t wait for emotion. Take it on holiday and read it when you have relaxed enough to have readjusted to a slower pace.


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