At least 20 years ago, in Cambridge, I received a gift of a book from a dear friend. The book was an English translation of Theodor Fontane’s novel, Effi Briest (1894), a masterpiece of the 19th century German realist tradition. We spoke on phone recently, exchanging lockdown news, and he was delighted to hear that Effi Briest was the first book I re-read when lockdown started. We fell into reminiscing why, and when, he had presented it to me.

Was it before he gave me Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or after? Was it before or after I had spent the spring of 1996 in Berlin, my first in that grand city, and we went to Lübeck together to pay homage to Mann’s world?

We failed to pin anything down apart from agreeing that the gift must have been triggered by my declaration of love for Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and my friend’s astonishment that I, well-read and a lover of German culture, hadn’t even heard of this important German author and his much-loved heroine, Effi, who could give Gustave’s Emma a run for her money.

Effi and Emma suffer from the same problem: attractive young women stuck in provincial European towns, married to boring husbands, with Paris and Berlin offering them glimpses of another life: of dances, dinner parties, coquetry, perfume, department stores, boulevards, billet-doux… Enter the proverbial cad, the seductive but unprincipled lover, who sweeps them off their feet. These affairs have disastrous consequences. Our effervescent heroines languish. They die enveloped in disgrace. Moral of the story: don’t allow yourself to get bored! – a great message for universal lockdown!

I’ve always been fascinated by Europe’s famous male novelists who exercised their narrative powers through these lovely and (often fatally) bored heroines. Re-reading Effi Briest, in a flash I remembered why, indeed, Effi trumps the sulky Emma Bovary. From when we first see her, 17 , full of vitality, in her blue and white striped sailor’s smock clinched with a wide red leather belt, we know: Effi is fun! The descriptive sharpness of Fontane’s pen brings her alive as arch, delightful, somewhat amoral. Spoilt darling of doting parents, she agrees unhesitatingly to marry the far older Baron Instetten, her mother’s one-time beau.

Effi marries not for “love”– she intuits already the frequently awkward consequences of this emotion – but for luxury and excitement. Alas! Married life in small-town Kassin on the Baltic coast stifles her. Thankfully, Instetten’s subsequent promotion takes them to brilliant Berlin, capital of Prussia. Here, just as everything is going smoothly, the past intrudes. Instetten discovers love letters to Effi from the unscrupulous Major Crampas, one of their Kassin circle. Although the affair was long-concluded, social protocols ineluctably take over. Effi’s charmed world collapses as the story reaches its implacable yet absurd end.

Reading a favourite novel after ages is like a chance meeting with an old love. We celebrate what we valued about our connection. And sometimes we say: thank heavens we moved on. That’s my current feeling about Madame Bovary. But the gap between our enjoyment then and now mirrors our evolved self in different ways. Re-reading Effi Briest two decades after my first encounter, I savoured fresh nuances: the Orientalist fantasies propping up its world of Protestant Prussian rectitude, from the “Sultan”, the bride Effi ridiculously imagines Instetten as being, to the “Chinaman” who haunts her through a half-told tale of illicit love.

A renewed love affair

As with that submerged story, Effi’s seduction by Crampas is tantalisingly suggested rather than revealed. The use of flashback confirms Fontane’s absolute mastery of narrative art. Lockdown has given me the gift of time to renew my love affair with these dimensions of the classic realist novel. As Late Antique theorists clarified, res fictae (fictive things) are made up stories that seem nevertheless possible. Through Fontane’s double-edged evocation of a charmed yet doomed Effi, I’ve rediscovered that delicious experience of lying on a sofa, immersed in cultures and times far from one’s own but utterly believable, and that, through my subsequent relationships with places and with people I’ve loved, became part of my life.

Like William Wordsworth, we find ourselves all too often on the couch these days, “in vacant or in pensive mood”. Thankfully, though, there are epiphanies. The Wordsworthian “bliss of solitude” can reveal, as it did to his fellow poet John Donne, literature’s capacity to “make a little room/ our everywhere”.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature at King’s College London, and the winner of the Infosys Humanities Prize (2017) and an Alexander von Humboldt Prize (2018).

Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.