Opposites attract, and Helmut Holk and Christine Arne, the appealing married couple at the center of this engrossing book by one of Germany’s greatest novelists, could not be less alike. Christine is a serious soul from a devout background. She is brooding and beautiful and devoted to her husband and their two children. Helmut is lighthearted and pleasure-loving and largely content to defer to his wife’s deeper feelings and better wisdom. They live in a beautiful large house overlooking the sea, which they built themselves, and have been happily married for twenty-three years—only of late a certain tension has crept into their dealings with each other. Little jokes, casual endearments, long-meditated plans: they all hit a raw nerve.
How a couple can slowly drift apart, until one day they find themselves in a situation which is nothing they ever wished for but from which they cannot go back, is at the heart of this timeless story of everyday life. Theodor Fontane’s great gift is to tell the story effectively in his characters’ own words, listening to how they talk and fail to talk to each other, watching them turn away from their own true feelings as much as from each other. Irretrievable is a nuanced, affectionate, enormously sophisticated, and profoundly humane reckoning with the blindness of love.
[Irretrievable is] one of Fontane’s most idiosyncratic achievements, and certainly one of the finest literary autopsies of a foundering relationship…. The pleasure of the novel lies in its subtlety—in this case, a discreet exploration of marital psychology. Here again, trouble starts within and, like a dry rot, eats its way outward….But even after the couple ostensibly reconcile, there’s really nothing left; by the end of this mild yet anguished work, all that remains of the marriage is a lifeless residue of thwarted yearning—‘nothing but the willingness to be happy.’ As so often in the fiction of Theodor Fontane, that’s not enough to save the characters, but it’s a marvellous subject for a novel.
—Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker
No writer of past or present stirs in me that kind of sympathy and gratitude, that immediate, instinctive delight, that reflex gaiety, warmth, and satisfaction, which I feel reading any of Fontane’s verse, any line of his letters, any scrap of dialogue.
A minor masterpiece of translation…
—The Times Literary Supplement