German Literature Month – ‘Effi Briest’ Read-Along (Part One)

A while back I got a message from Lizzy Siddal, one of the hosts of German Literature Month, asking if I’d read Effi Briest, as she had ‘secret plans’.  Of course, that has turned out to be a read-along of what is arguably the most well-known and popular German classic.  I’d previously read two of Thedor Fontane’s works, Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable) and Frau Jenny Treibel (Really? You really want a translation?) – and loved them -, so I was looking forward to cracking open my Hamburger Lesehefte edition and joining in the fun.  The only problem is going to be rationing the reading out over the allotted time…

The novel starts with a detailed description of the Briest house (read mansion) and an even more thorough portrait of the heroine herself.  Effi is a seventeen-year-old, mischievous, playful girl, an attractive young woman who teases one of her friends about her fervent desire for marriage.  It comes then as a surprise to the modern reader to see her engaged in a matter of pages to Geert von Innstetten, a thirty-eight-year-old baron whom Effi first meets at the same time we do – a few hours before the betrothal…

Of course, back in the nineteenth century, this kind of age gap was fairly common (it was the successful career men who could afford to support a family that had the pick of the beautiful young women), and the aristocracy have always been known for putting social mobility over love in arranging suitable (and often quick) marriages.  Even so, the fact that Innstetten is himself the former lover of Effi’s mother does it make it that touch more intriguing!

On marrying the Baron, Effi is taken out of her comfort zone, both literally and metaphorically, as she is forced to leave her idyllic family home to move to the Baltic Coast, far from friends and family, surrounded only by cold, disinterested landed gentry.  Once the honeymoon is over, she begins to discover that her husband, while kind and gentlemanly, is slightly self-centred and has little time for the romantic side of marriage, leaving her to her own devices far too often.  For a high-spirited woman like Effi, this probably does not bode well for a long and happy married life.

This alone would probably give our young heroine pause for thought, but she has one more slight problem to contend with.  You see, the house she and her husband share is an old, ramshackle building, much of which is unused.  One night, when Innstetten is away, Effi is startled by what she thinks is a figure gliding through her bedroom – and the day after, she hears stories about the death of a Chinaman who used to live in the town…
You don’t need to be psychic to realise that things are unlikely to end well in Effi Briest.  The young couple are patently unsuited to each other, Effi’s need for adventure clashing with Innstetten’s attention to what other people think, and the slightest catalyst (perhaps in the form of the dashing Major Crampas?) could bring things crashing down around their ears.

But what kind of novel will Effi Briest turn out to be?  After fifteen chapters, I’m still not 100% certain.  Is it a Jane Eyre, with a former wife hidden in the attic?  Is it a new The Mysteries of Udolpho, with villains around every corner?  Or is it another Anna Karenina, where Effi will eventually succumb to the temptation of marital infidelity?  While I have my suspicions, it really could go any way…

One thing I did pick up on though was Effi’s repeated comments about her youth and about other people (e.g. Innstetten, Niemeyer the priest) dying before her.  That looks suspiciously like tempting fate to me…  Am I right?  Well, I’m sure things will be a bit clearer by this time next week – happy reading 🙂

6 thoughts on “German Literature Month – ‘Effi Briest’ Read-Along (Part One)

  1. Very nice review. It's interesting to read the thoughts of someone who hasn't read it before.
    It has a gothic feel, doesn't it. I totally didn't get that the first time. Wonder why.
    You can add the link to the LInky now, If you'd like.
    So others can see who wrote something.
    But Ill' add you to the page.


  2. Caroline – Thanks 🙂 It's rare that I'm a rookie when it comes to classics, but this year is the first when I've really made an effort with G-Lit. I think that now (having read the second slice) the Gothic feel has disappeared. If I hadn't stopped at Chapter 15, I probably wouldn't have remembered it either!

    Gary – It is tough! I'm up to p.186 now (of about 250), and I'm planning to leave the rest until next weekend! Not sure that I'll last that long though…


  3. I read the first part of the review, but then stopped reading it because I was scared of spoilers. I want to join in the read-along next week and so will read your full post then. Happy Reading!

    I love the background image of your blog. It makes me remember Louis Armstrong's song 'What a Wonderful World'.


  4. Vishy – It is something to be wary of – I think my next post will come with 'please look away now' warnings 🙂

    And I love this background too – one of the main reasons why I haven't moved to WordPress 😉

    Willa – It is a wonderful book, and it only gets better…


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