And yet even this seaside town has its attractions. Giles MacDonogh’s description of Kessin suggesting an idea that had never occurred to me:
It is not just the nobility that Fontane portrays. Kessin is Swinemünde, where Fontane himself grew up, and the novelist presents an affectionate tableau of provincial life in a Prussian seaside town. The old apothecary, Gieshübler, is a portrait of Fontane's father.
Unless “affectionate” has widened its meaning since I last looked it up in the dictionary this seems an unusual way to describe a town that so clearly bores and depresses the heroine. What Fontane has actually done is to capture the atmosphere of the place, and then give it a lustre by populating it with a small number of interesting characters whom he brilliantly imagines. Our task is to carefully abstract the individuals from their setting; and when we do so an idea pops out - Effi Briest may reflect the author’s own feelings on the town where he was brought up; a place too provincial for an artist as good as himself.
The other conclusion, which advertises the piece under the column’s title, and which suggests Effi’s fate is not authentic, makes the mistake of judging a fictional character by comparing it to real life types.1 It is the error of substituting the real character in a novel for an imaginary creation from the world at large - the Society Lady who lives in exile on the French riviera is an abstraction only; a figment of our intellect. The particularity of the heroine is thereby lost, and an important part of her personality is not perceived; the peculiarities of her being in danger of disappearing along with the culture that formed it.2
To understand Effi we have to understand her eccentricity and listen to her own wise words about it, ably summed up by the good doctor Wiesike.
‘We have to respect this, this isn't just a whim; people who have this illness have a very acute sense, they know with remarkable certainty what will help and what won’t. And what Frau Effi said about ticket-collectors and waiters is actually quite right, no air anywhere is beneficial enough to outweigh the annoyance of life in a hotel - if, that is, one really does find it annoying. So we shall let her stay here; it may not be the best thing, but it’s certainly not the worst.’
This and the previous paragraph, where Effi explains why she doesn't want to go to Menton, contains echoes of her disastrous honeymoon, when Innstetten took her around Italy and literally wore out her spirit through his relentless didacticism. Somehow, it still exists, and has resurfaced on her return to the family home. It is this spirit that makes her stubborn, because she knows what is best for it, even if it kills her. Better to die looking at the stars than live without seeing them… Effi cannot be saved. She has a mystic sense of place, which seems linked to her aestheticism, and which she values above everything else. It is why Professor Roy Pascal’s judgement is so unfair: “the affectionate lightness of her character”.3 These two critics, both in their different ways, underestimate the odd sensibility of this woman, who cares far more than is usual for the feelings of the mind. She is not simply a weak woman prone to lapses of taste and propriety. She is an artist denied her studio.
Effi Briest is no ordinary person. This is her tragedy. She is thrown into a world that is both too modern and too provincial for her to live in successfully. The spirit of the times and the spirit of Kessin crushes her own. Only her parents’ home can restore her, but the freedom it provides has its dangers too; and in the end it is this liberty that kills her, allowing her to lose herself in mystic revelry too long into the night; when she catches a fatal chill. Free spirits are fragile things, and yet they can be so stubborn and independent. It is this contradiction that so often wrecks their lives. To compare Effi to her inspiration - Elizabeth von Plotho - is to ignore her artistic soul, and the dangers to which it is prone. Not surprising in a society that has made a fetish of creativity. Today even the kids are lauded as artists. It is like giving a loaded gun to a five year old. Click. Click. Bang!
(Review: Effi Briest)
1. Of course we could argue that a distinction is only being made between the fictional creation and a living person. This is certainly one reading of the phrase. But the piece, whose meaning is emphasised by its sub-heading, does seem to imply that Effi isn’t quite the real thing. That she is a romantic figure of fiction only.
2. See my Spirits and Symbols. To properly understand late 19th century Europe we must grasp its strange beliefs. It was an extremely religious society. Nationalism. Socialism. Reaction. Arts-for-Arts-Sake. All these (and many many more) were sects of the central religion of the age - Secularism. And although we can partly explain these sociologically, sociology cannot explain them in their entirety. Ideas and culture have a life of their own, which we must try to understand if we wish to comprehend such complicated characters as Effi Briest.
3. The German Novel.