Isn’t that a terrific title for a novel about a marriage going bad? Especially, I think, for a novel published in 1891, when I would have expected something wordier. The German is Unwiederbringlich which, if you break down the German phonemes, is literally “un-back-bring-able.” What a great language!
Sadly for me my German isn’t good enough to read Theodor Fontane’s novels in the original so the publication of this NYRB edition of Irretrievable is a big thrill. As was the article about Fontane in the March 7 issue of The New Yorker (you may not be able to see it without being a subscriber to the magazine).
Of course, this being a Fontane novel, the “thrill” is muted. This writer is all about the finer shades of behavior and psychology. As Daniel Mendelson pointed out in that New Yorker piece, much of the story is simply told in dialogue. It does feel somewhat stiff, I have to say. The novel is set in 1859, among German aristocrats, and some of it takes place at the Danish court, which may explain a certain ponderousness. And a lot of 19th century fiction is talky. If Trollope, for instance, moves too slowly for you, Fontane will not do the trick. On the other hand if you relish Trollope’s comprehensive sympathy with human frailty, Irretrievable will wring your heart.
The story opens in a castle by the sea. Count Helmut Holk, not content to live in his family’s medieval castle, has built a classical temple on the sand dunes. Fontane tells us squarely that the beautiful countess Christine has never liked the new castle or been happy there. But when Holk quotes a poem about such a castle, she replies, “Where did you unearth that quotation, Helmut?” Then she tells him where it comes from, who wrote it, and that it has a sad ending.
Not a good way to begin. Don’t we all know couples like this, who can’t resist chipping away at each other? Christine is smarter than Helmut, and motivated by a strict piety. Helmut is easy-going, not perhaps terribly bright, handsome, appealing. They are fond of each other, and Christine has the grace, early in the book, to apologize to Helmut for her earnestness: “‘You’ve been unlucky in your choice, you need a wife who is better able to laugh. I try now and then… but I’m never quite successful.’” How can you not feel for a woman whose self-knowledge is so unsparing?
Once Fontane has established the tension in the relationship he sends Helmut to Copenhagen where he is a courtier to a Danish princess. Helmut is intrigued by three different women: his landlady, her beautiful daughter, and the dashing lady-in-waiting Ebba von Rosenberg, who toys with him like a bored child with a large dim dog. Letters home to Christine are curt, then dwindle in frequency and finally Helmut comes to think of his wife’s virtue as oppressive. The title tells us where the novel is going but its inevitability is leavened by a special poignancy at the end.