"Die Winde, die Wogen alle
Lagen in tiefer Ruh,
Einem Klagelied aus der Halle
Hört ich mit Tränen zu..."
(The winds and the waves all lay in deep peace. In tears I listened to a song of mourning from the hall.)
You could almost think of the sea and the cemetery as characters in Theodor Fontane's novel Irretrievable, so pervasive is their presence. Helmut Holk builds his dream home, Holkmas Castle, on a dune overlooking the Baltic Sea. From its pleasant Mediterranean-style roof garden, invisible to passersby, he can savor the sea as a personal possession.
Although Helmut revels in their new home, his wife Christine, an extremely conscientious mother, is stricken at moving away from the home where their youngest child is buried. The move underlines Christine's suspicion that her husband is too carefree, too easily healed from the family tragedy. For Helmut, happy playing gentleman farmer, deferring to Christine's moral and religious scruples is a comfortable habit that sometimes irritates. Helmut’s lightness has the virtue of life-affirming optimism. Christine’s seriousness contains the flaw of inflexibility. Viewed as a plot device this could be too schematic; but in a novel of character as Irretrievable is, it is revelatory.
As the waves erode the the shoreline, events shape a marriage. In this case, even self-knowledge and mutual understanding cannot contain the unseen erosion. Helmut tells his wife: "I see that I’ve failed to put you in a better temper or prevent you from brooding and being so serious all the time. I wonder if it’s my fault or yours.” Christine who is wryly aware of her lack of humor, replies “We are both to blame and I perhaps more than anybody else. You are easygoing and indecisive and changeable and I am sad and take life too seriously, even when it would be better to take it less seriously. You’ve been unlucky in your choice, you need a wife who is better able to laugh.” Nevertheless they love each other and share a life with their two remaining children, a boy and a girl.
Where Christine's other life is the interior world of memory, Helmut has another existence as a sometime courtier to the Danish princess in Copenhagen. (Late 19th century Schleswig-Holstein owed its allegiance to the Danish crown.) Helmut reveres royalty but the Princess takes a more farsighted view: “”We poor princesses have very little left in any case and we have almost been pushed out of the world of reality already, so that if we lose our place in ballads and fairy-tales, I hardly know where we shall be able to go.” Helmut wants to be the rescuer of damsels in distress but it doesn’t work out as he imagines.
Where once separations in the marriage refreshed their mutual fondness, we watch as Helmut makes invidious comparisons with other women while Christine is preoccupied with building a new burial vault for their dead child and arranging the emotionally fraught departure of the other children to boarding school.
Modern readers will be less surprised by their divorce than by their reunion. Fontane had an uncommon empathy for his female characters, the best-known being Effie Briest. The narrator in Irretrievable tells us: “Holk, though a kind and excellent husband, was none the less a man of rather ordinary gifts and in any case markedly inferior to his wife, who was a far more talented woman.” Remarkable then, still remarkable now.
Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) came from a French Huguenot family in Prussia. His father was a pharmacist whose gambling led to the family's decline. Unable to afford a university education, Fontane became an apprentice pharmacist and a job brought him to Berlin. There he met Theodor Storm (Lake of the Bees) and other writers. Fontane began to write, publishing his first book in 1850 and his first novel in 1878. Fontane's place in German literature as the link between Goethe and Thomas Mann was celebrated by Mann in his Essays of Three Decades
Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane, translated from the German by Douglas Parmee, is published by New York Review Books: 2011.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior -Strandgade 30, 1901.
3. Lotte Zangermeister - Barque avec en tete de mat de Nida (Lithuania) , Berlin Photographic Archives.