Publication Date: February 15, 2011
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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.
Theodor Fontane (1819–1898), novelist, critic, poet, and travel writer, was one of the most celebrated nineteenth-century German men of letters. He was born into a French Huguenot family in the Prussian town of Neuruppin, where his father owned a small pharmacy. His father’s gambling debts forced the family to move repeatedly, and eventually his temperamentally mismatched parents separated. Though Fontane showed early interest in history and literature—jotting down stories into school notebooks—he could not afford to attend university; instead he apprenticed as a pharmacist and eventually settled in Berlin. There he joined the influential literary society Tunnel über der Spree, which included among its members Theodor Storm and Gottfried Keller, and turned to writing. In 1850 Fontane’s first published books, two volumes of ballads, appeared; they would prove to be his most successful books during his lifetime. He spent the next four decades working as a critic, journalist, and war correspondent while producing some fifty works of history, travel narrative, and fiction. His early novels, the first of which was published in 1878, when Fontane was nearly sixty, concerned recent historical events. It was not until the late 1880s that he turned to his great novels of modern society, remarkable for their psychological insight: Trials and Tribulations (1888), Irretrievable (1891), Frau Jenny Treibel (1892), and Effi Briest (1895). During his last years, Fontane returned to writing poetry, and, while recovering from a severe illness, wrote an autobiographical novel that would prove to be a late commercial success. He is buried in the French section of the Friedhof II cemetery in Berlin.
Douglas Parmée (1914–2008) was a lecturer in modern languages at Cambridge and a Lifetime Fellow of Queens’ College. He translated many works of classic and contemporary literature from French, Italian, and German, receiving the the Scott Moncrieff Prize for French translation in 1976. NYRB Classics publishes his translations of The Child by Jules Vallès, Afloat by Guy de Maupassant, and Nature Stories by Jules Renard.
Phillip Lopate is the author of the essay collections Against Joie de Vivre, Bachelorhood, Being with Children, Portrait of My Body, and Totally, Tenderly, Tragically; and of the novels The Rug Merchant and Confessions of a Summer.
“[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
“A minor masterpiece of translation. . . ” —The Times Literary Supplement
“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.”