Irretrievable (New York Review Books Classics) - Theodor Fontane Sometimes I’ve read books whose characters or stories resonate so powerfully with me that I feel as if the author was writing about me. Croaker in Glen Cook’s Black Company series is one of my favorite characters in SF because he and I are “soul mates”; if I were ever to meet him (a la Harold Shea in The Compleat Enchanter - oh, how I wish), I’m sure we’d get along famously. And then there are W. Somerset Maugham’s Larry and Philip, from The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage, respectively. Both reflect me in ways that made already great novels even better. Then there are books that mirror me or my life in ways that are less comfortable, in fact, downright squirm-in-my-seat inducing. Into this latter category falls Theodor Fontane’s Irretrievable (a translation of the German, Unwiederbringlich). The story is of Helmut Holk and Christine Arne, whose marriage comes apart. After twenty+ years, their relationship has devolved into one of passive-aggressive sparring and nasty little digs against each other. And they see it happening but they can’t seem to help themselves.

In a word – my marriage (though it lasted considerably less than 20 years and fortunately had no children). Helmut Holk’s personality bears a too close and uncomplimentary resemblance to my own, a bit too careless and unserious, prone to deflecting real intimacy for the safety of – say – a book or inordinate numbers of cats (in Helmut’s case it tends toward antiquarianism or experimental farms). And Christine’s bears a resemblance to the ex’s: More serious, more about the future, and more aware of the consequences of one’s actions. Neither are perfect, and Christine’s nature puts as many obstacles in the way of intimacy as Helmut’s, and it was wrenching for me to read about it and relive my own experience.

On top of that Fontane has the gall to be a brilliant writer (and his translator, Douglas Parmée, is a brilliant medium for bringing him to an English audience). He has a spare, elegant style that rarely interferes with your enjoyment of the story. But you have to be careful because some of the most important events can slide by almost without comment. For example, there’s the ultimate act that irretrievably shatters the Holks’ marriage:

As he came upstairs, Ebba was standing in her open door and the lights were still burning. Holk felt some doubt whether she had merely been waiting for all the guests to depart, or for him to return. “Good night,” she said and with a mock-solemn bow seemed to be on the point of going back into her room. But Holk seized her by the hand and said: “No, Ebba, you mustn’t go like that. You must listen to me.” And following her into her room he gazed at her with eyes full of a turmoil of passion.

But she gently released herself from his grasp and, alluding to the conversation of a few minutes ago, said: “Well, Helmut, what role are you playing now? Paris or Aegisthus? You heard that Pentz has volunteered for one of them.”

And she laughed.

But her laugh only increased Holk’s confusion, which she continued to enjoy for a moment and then, half-pityingly, she said: “Helmut, you really are more German than the Germans….It took ten years to conquer Troy. That seems to be your idea, too….”

{Chapter 27}

An hour later there was a knock at the door. Holk started up; but Ebba, less afraid of being discovered than of appearing ridiculous by anxiously trying to avoid discovery, went quickly to the door and opened it.
(pp. 200-201)

He also has tremendous, and sympathetic, insight into the minds of his characters. For example, Helmut recognizes Christine’s virtues but resents them and lashes out at her in self-righteous anger:

After he had read the letter, Holk felt somewhat sentimental. It contained so much affection that it revived memories of past happiness. She was still the best of them all. What was the beautiful Brigitte by comparison? Yes, and what was Ebba, even, by comparison? Ebba was like a rocket that you followed with an “Ahhh…!” of astonishment as long as it continued to shoot upwards but when it was all over, it was nothing but a firework after all, something completely artificial. Christine, on the other hand, was like the simple, clear light of day. Immersed in this feeling, he quickly read through the letter again, only to find that his pleasure had quire evaporated, all the pleasant impressions had gone, leaving only one, or predominately one, thing behind: the tone of self-righteousness. And once more his thoughts took their familiar turn: “Oh, these virtuous women! Always sublime, always serving the Truth; and I suppose then even think so themselves. But without wishing to deceive anyone, they deceive themselves. Only one thing is quite certain: their excellence is appalling.” (pp. 137-138)

There are scenes like this throughout the novel, in particular, between Helmut and Christine when he rushes back from his tryst with Ebba and foolishly demands a divorce from Christine, or Christine’s reflections on Helmut’s personality in letters to her brother.

In the end, Christine reconciles to Helmut (who, IMO, hasn’t learned anything from his actions) and remarries him against her better judgment but the marriage is only “peaceful,” there is no “happiness,” and the pressure to keep up appearances drives her to suicide.

I will certainly seek out more works by this author, and strongly recommend that you do too.

PS – In my case, there was no “ultimate act” that broke the marriage and, happily, my ex’s fate was not that of Christine’s (see spoiler). Like Helmut, though, there are times when I miss my life-that-could-of-been and wish I could go back and do things differently. Unlike Helmut, I like to think I’ve learned something and am wise enough to understand that some things are truly “unwiederbringlich,” however.