Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Effi Briest: The German Emma Bovary, But Less Interesting

I had really high hopes for this book -- a classic book, in translation, and a German classic no less! I really want to read more German books in translation (of course I don't read the language well enough to read the originals.) Sadly, there just aren't that many German books translated into English -- I guess the proliferation of American and British books just makes it that much harder to get attention from the English-reading public.

Anyway. I had heard about this book years ago and this felt like the right time, as I'm now living in Germany and Persephone Books reprinted Effi Briest last year, though they don't often publish books written by men. I'd heard it was sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. Well, to be honest, it is and it isn't. This review includes spoilers, so stop now if you don't want to know what happens.

The book begins with Effi Briest, seventeen and unmarried, still very much a schoolgirl. She's basically playing in the yard one day when she receives a proposal of marriage from a civil servant, Geert Instettan, a man more than twice her age who was once in love with her mother.  No, that's not creepy AT ALL. (Of course he was about her mother's age and obviously too young, as Madame von Briest married a much older man).

Anyway, she's very young and he's basically middle-aged and serious. They move off to town on the Baltic coast (which actually sounds lovely) and after giving birth to a daughter, Effi becomes bored. Her head is turned by a military officer named Crampas and they have an affair, which is basically them going on rides and walks together in the dunes. Eventually, her husband is transferred to Berlin so the affair ends. Years later, Effi is visiting a spa for her health and her husband finds a bundle of letters from Crampas and the inevitable happens. Naturally it ends badly for Effi.

Somehow this book disappointed me. I suppose I was expecting it to be more like Emma Bovary, whom I found a fascinating train wreck, but this book just dragged. I don't know if it was the translation or the writing style, but it took me nearly a month to finish this book which is just over 300 pages. Effi was certainly a sympathetic character, but I really didn't get a sense of great passion for Crampas. It was all very matter-of-fact -- I was expecting more scandal or dramatic tension, I guess. Even the ending wasn't terribly dramatic. I haven't read much German literature but I do remember that the writings of Goethe caused such a sensation that young people were literally committing suicide after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther (which I did try to read a few years ago and just could not get through). 

I haven't given up on German literature yet -- I do have a copy of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks that looks interesting, though quite long. And recently I got completely hooked on the TV series Babylon Berlin which is set in 1929 -- I do love the time period between the wars, and I'm curious to learn more about the German perspective. It's based on a series of books and some of them have been translated into English, so I'll try to get my hands on a copy. (It's streaming in the U.S. on Netflix and it's really good, I highly recommend it). Can anyone recommend any other German books available in translation?

I'm counting this as my Classic By a New To Me Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge.


  1. Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy's Literary Life blogs have been doing German Literature months for the past several years, you might find some information there. Good Luck!

    1. Thank you, I'll take a look! I'm always looking for good books in translation!

  2. You are right, there seem to be very few German books in translation. I read 'All Quiet on the Western Front' at school, and remember it was very moving. Elizabeth von Arnim was an English woman who married a German Count, and her books are set in Germany. Elizabeth and her German Garden is the most famous. If you like Jerome K Jerome, his 'Three Men on the Bummel' is a comic account of a bicycle tour of Germany in the early 20th century. It is quiet percipient in some areas.

    1. I loved Three Men in a Bummel! I've also read Diary of a Pilgrimage which is also funny. I particularly loved that one because they take a journey from London to Oberammergau, and part of it is the same route that I took with my sister from London to Berlin years ago.

  3. Have you read Hans Fallada's books? I've only read Alone in Berlin which is a great and tense read, but dark. I want to read more though.

    1. My library has it and I did check it out once but I think I wasn't in the right mood for it. It did look rather dark. I've also read Stasiland which is accounts of people living in East Berlin after the wall went up. It was chilling.

  4. I did not read the spoilers for Effi Briest, so it seems you've challenged me to try it!
    I haven't read Madame Bovary, quite deliberately, it seems. Yet my husband and I watched the UK version this past week. I'm not sure if it was BBC or not. In any case, I thought the production was well done. Still not sure if I'll read it or not, though.
    German in translation books:
    Perhaps you've already read Demian and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I loved both of them and could read them over and over. Both these novels spoke directly to me, both are about sensitive young men coming of age, and I loved them at age 21 and at age 60+. Simply wonderful and fairly quick reads.

    I'm a fan of Bernhard Schlink's books. You probably know the novel most well-known in the U.S.--The Reader. His other books have made me think deeply about the legacy left to subsequent generations of young Germans after WWII. I especially like Homecoming, but I've read everything he's written.

    I have read several novel by Hans Fallada, and several by Heinrich Boll. As far as Boll goes, I've most appreciated the novels he wrote in the years immediately after WWII, from 1946-1952.

    I do like Gunter Grass, especially his autobiographical work that includes his service in the military in WWII. He was 17, and was in the SS at the time the war ended. Although in the SS, he did not work in concentration camps.

    Julia Franck is excellent.

    I could go on, but I do wish you the joy of reading German literature. There's nothing like it, that's for sure.


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