Fontane’s Irretrievable (1891) is surprisingly modern – a marriage of long-standing breaks down when the couple stop listening to one another and their paths diverge. The fun-loving man lays his bad behaviour at the door of his wife’s unaccommodating piety. (Well, she was brought up by the Herrnhuter – a strict Protestant sect, roughly equivalent to the Plymouth Brethren). When he wants to do the honourable thing and marry the other woman, he gets a shock. Because she, Ebba von Rosenberg, turns out to be a thoroughly modern minx:
I refuse to accept any responsibility. I’m young and you’re no longer young and so it wasn’t for me to preach morality to you and, since I was bored, keep you anxiously on the path of virtue – that was none of my business, it was yours.
Ouch! And because this isn’t a 21st century comedy of errors, it’s all going to end in a very 19th century tragedy.
I’m giving nothing away there because the melancholy, foreshadowing and foreboding begin even before Count Helmut Holk and his wife, Christine, move into their new home. Their old one is run down and a maintenance nightmare and Helmut’s dream of a castle by the sea is inspired by an engraving hanging on the wall at his brother-in-law’s.
Hast du das Schloß gesehen?
Das hohe Schloß am Meer?
Golden und rosig wehen
Die Wolken drüber her –
(Have you seen the castle? It towers by the sea. The clouds above drift by, all golden and pink.)
He conveniently forgets the second verse:
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.)
This is just like Helmut who never sees beyond the moment. Until it is too late. Unlike his wife, who can never enjoy the moment because she is forever focused on the hereafter. Yet for all their flaws, they are an appealing couple. Fontane shows that their present incompatibility was not always so. They have happily co-existed and raised two children and remain mutually fond of each other. Yet when familiarity breeds contempt, it happens gradually. The couple begin to bicker, to quarrel and to finally to fight over priorities. Should Helmut build new cattle stalls or a new family mausoleum – the old one has fallen into a state of disrepair and Christine does not wish to buried in a place of indignity.
When Helmut is called to court, Christine refuses to go with him, preferring to remain at Holkenäs to attend to family priorities. Ironically it is her decision that triggers the unravelling to follow.
Moving the Count to Copenhagen allows Fontane to explore the full extent of Helmut’s superficiality alongside that of the Danish Court. The novel is set in the 1850’s when the Schleswig-Holstein question was a burning one. The Schleswig-Holstein question? Palmerston once remarked that only three people had ever understood it, of whom one went mad, the second had died and the third, Palmerston himself, had forgotten! So there’s no way I can explain it either – although in this new-published NYRB edition there are some useful notes in the introduction for the English reader. Sufficient for my reading is knowing that Helmut, who considers himself a man of the world, is pilloried at the Danish court for being the straight-laced German with the same faults he finds so annoying in his wife!
He stands there as solemn as a high priest and has no idea when to laugh …. Germans don’t make good courtiers.
Now I may be giving Helmut a hard time here, but it’s nothing to the dissection of his character performed by others. To be fair, Fontane, who believed in seeing things from both sides, ensures that Christine receives similar treatment. Fontane uses dialogue and letters to reveal psychological truths. Sometimes the insights are from third parties, sometimes from the protagonists themselves. There is a letter which Helmut writes to his brother-law and I would love to quote from it, because it shows how “talk” can be a means of both self-concealment and self-exposure. Instead I shall follow Fontane’s example and be fair by laying some accusation at Christine’s door. Here’s a letter she writes to Helmut in Copenhagen – a classic example of self-righteousness and scorn. I could a-l-m-o-s-t say that she drives Helmut to the other woman.
Your hunger for news will, I know, not in any case be very great, as you always let yourself be completely absorbed by your immediate surroundings. And when your immediate surroundings are … as piquant as Fräulein von Rosenberg … then you are unlikely to be anxious to have news from our dull old Holkenäs, where it is an event if the black hen has seven chicks. ….. Asta (their son) spends half of every day with Elizabeth (their daughter). They are very fond of each other, which makes me very happy indeed, for childhood friendships are the most beautiful thing in life. I thank Heaven that in this you agree with me.
Oh, the ambiguities of life. If there’s one thing that Fontane shows in this novel, it is that good intentions are not enough and that it is impossible to judge. From my review it is obvious that I am more sympathetic to Christine than to Helmut but the ending, which I shall not reveal, turns those feelings on their head …. and I’m sure there have been essays written solely about that. Is the theme of this novel, therefore, the dilemma of being human? I should say so!