Theodor Fontane’s great novel Effi Briest (1895) tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who is persuaded to marry a man more than twice her age—the principled, unimaginative Baron von Innstetten, a senior civil servant in a remote town on the Baltic Sea. Though kind and well-meaning, Innstetten is hardly an ideal husband; his many years of bachelordom have dulled his sexual passions, while his career often means leaving Effi on her own to care for the couple’s newborn daughter. Lonely and unfulfilled, Effi is eventually seduced by the womanizing Major Crampas, an old acquaintance of Innstetten. Their brief affair—so trivial that Fontane never describes it—is not discovered by Innstetten until many years later, when he stumbles on an old batch of love letters. Shocked, he immediately informs his friend Wüllersdorf of the affair and his obligation to defend his honor. Against both Wüllersdorf’s advice and his own reservations (“I feel no hate, much less any thirst for revenge”), a duel is arranged wherein Innstetten kills Crampas. He then divorces Effi and takes custody of their daughter.
Though the reader’s sympathy is always with the life-giving Effi, the pages in which Innstetten reflects on the antiquated social conventions that led him to kill Crampas and divorce his wife are deeply moving. “I don’t want blood on my hands for the sake of the happiness that’s been taken from me, but that, let’s call it that social something which tyrannizes us, takes no account of charm, or love, or time limits,” he tells Wüllersdorf. “I’ve no choice. I must.” In the end, Innstetten realizes that it would have been better if he’d simply burned the letters and never told anyone about the affair. Another life would have been possible—not necessarily a happier one, but a life in which Effi was still his wife, and Crampas still alive. “There are so many lives that aren’t real lives,” he sadly reflects, “so many marriages that aren’t real marriages…happiness would have gone, but I wouldn’t have had to live with that eye with its questioning look and its silent, gentle reproof.”
Few words in any novel have haunted me as much as these. They rise from the page like steam, as surely Fontane meant them to; his novels often hinge on the speech of a character that lifts itself from the page and seems to address the reader directly. (Fontane, who spent time in London, was steeped in Shakespeare.) And something about Innstetten’s words gets to the heart of the elegiac nature of fiction itself, that unique ability it has of revealing to us the contingencies of our existence. Since life is all anticipation and recollection, we resort to narrative to make sense of it. In this respect fiction is quite real; our lives are lived in what the Spanish novelist Javier Marías calls “the realm of what might be or what might have been,” which is the realm of fiction. No matter how real our lives may seem to us, no matter how tangible, they always have an imaginary, shadowy side to them. We are always haunted by fiction’s questioning look and its silent, gentle reproof.