Oh, I’ve worked hard to like this book. All the initial signs were good: female protagonist, cold-hearted man, turn of the last century novel, Persephone reprint. But it took me a month to plough through it… and when a novel takes you four weeks to read but is only 320 pages long, well it’s not a sign of enjoyment.
But boy, I tried. I wanted to enjoy this book and it seemed so promising.
Effi Briest, 16, is a young girl from a privileged German family and she is full of romantic, naive ideas. Then this older guy comes along, Innstetten. He is 20 years older than her and was weirdly obsessed with her mother when they were teenagers, except Effi’s mother married someone else. Never having quite got over this rejection, Innstetten marries his sweetheart’s teenage daughter Effi instead. Which struck me as deeply unpleasant on two counts: less the age gap but more the emotional differences between a 16 year old and a 36 year old; and the fact this older guy was so hung up on a woman he married her daughter as second best. Move on, dude. Stop fixating.
It’s clear from day one that this marriage isn’t going to go well, and of course it doesn’t. Innstetten whisks his child bride off to a small village far away from her home and family and installs her in his gloomy home that is supposedly haunted. Once the honeymoon is over, Innstetten goes back to his work and leaves his lonely, frightened teenage wife to take care of the home: something she has no experience of. And of course, it’s not long before she has a baby… although this baby features bizarrely infrequently, which is also odd. It’s not a spoiler to say that lonely Effi ends up having an affair and being hauled over the coals by her cold, unfeeling husband who feels let down by her. Yes, HE feels let down by HER. Huh! (Men make me so angry sometimes, with their entitlement and false superiority. Urgh.)
The absolute problem with Effi Briest, the reason I found it so wholeheartedly unconvincing and un-engaging, is that its male author Theodor Fontane was 75 years old when he wrote it. How on earth is a 75-year-old man supposed to get inside the head of a 16-year-old girl? This explains the clunky dialogue, the lack of emotional insight from Effi’s perspective, the lack of understanding of how a teenager would react or feel when married to a much older man… It’s an utterly preposterous notion for a book. And more male arrogance, that a man that age would deign to think he could possibly understand a 16-year-old girl.
Yet Effi Briest the book is lauded and admired. It has received glowing reviews in its long history (it was initially published in 1896), is apparently still widely taught in German schools and has been turned into several films. Perhaps as a film, without the clunky dialogue, loss in translation and with a script rewritten by someone who is in tune with how a young girl would actually think, the story works better. But I found the book turgid and soulless to say the least.
I’m sorry. I wanted to like it. I want to like everything that Persephone publishes.
As an aside, I also feel sad that Persephone is reprinting a book by a man. I mean, it’s not up to me and they can do what they want. But Persephone is one of those publishing houses that its readers and fans feel like they own a little, and to me the USP of Persephone is that is republishes lovely, forgotten books by WOMEN authors. And men have hardly had a rum deal in the publishing - or anything else - stakes to date, it's not like we need a publishing house specialising in republishing books by forgotten MALE authors. So although I know they’ve had a small handful of men in their 122 strong back catalogue, I automatically start reading the men Persephones with a sense of ‘You’ve got to really work hard to prove yourself to me here, buddy.’ Sorry. Sorry...