Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
Welcome to the finest German novel of the 19th Century. In 1919 Thomas Mann said that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them.
This was my fourth reading. It is, in fact, the only novel I have read during my teens, my twenties, my thirties and now my forties. I will, no doubt, read it again, because as simple as the plot may seem, and, as discretely as the author may tell it, this is a tale with layer upon layer of hidden meaning. There is no doubt that I share Thomas Mann’s regard of this novel.
It is a tale in the tradition of 19th century adulteresses – a German Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, if you ...view middle of the document...
And it is this personality which brings her into danger and, ultimately, triggers her downfall.
Fontane spells this out in allegories involving the natural world. So, for instance, when she arrives in Kessin, the first thing she notices as she enters her new home is the threatening presence of a shark and a crocodile in the hall. These water creatures are above her. Symbolically she is under water. There is a danger of her drowning here. On an early outing to the sea, she encounters a seal, which she romantically believes to be a mermaid. But it is these “innocent” picnics by the sea with Crampas that sow the seeds of the coming seduction.
The climax of the water allegory is the scene where the seawater rises from below and turns the land into a swamp. Effi is about to be pulled under. Ah, but they make a detour and disaster is averted …… But Fontane once again uses the mirroring technique to tell the whole story. At the beginning of her life in Kessin, Effi must travel with Innstetten on the mandatory visits to the local aristocracy. Once these visits are completed she complains to Innstetten, “All that time alone in the coach and you never touched me once”. So what does Crampas do that night in the sleigh:...