The marriage of Count and Countess Holk has turned sour. The children are old enough to go to boarding school; building the new beachfront mansion was a useful distraction, but it is now complete; the Countess has grown increasing judgmental, rigid, and a bit morbid, while the Count is too shallow to repair the damage himself.
That’s how Fontane’s Irretrievable (aka Beyond Recall, 1891) begins. Early in the book, when the point of view hops around among several characters, I guessed that the Countess would be the focus, since she is the more interesting person. When the Count is summoned to his official duties in Copenhagen, as gentleman-in-waiting to a Princess, I thought this was a device to get him out of the way, but no, the point of view now stays with Count Holk, moving to the big city where temptations await.
As Madame Bovary made clear, this kind of limited perspective technique is adept at finding the depth in shallow people.
The novel at this point becomes a detailed, even methodical, account of the steps by which the Count is led, or allows himself to be led, or leads himself, into a sexual affair with one of his colleagues. Because of some bad luck, and because Holk is a fool, the consequences of the affair are sadder than he had expected.
It occurs to me that Irretrievable is something of a workplace comedy, where the “employment” is assisting and entertaining the elderly aunt of the Danish king.
They all met daily, alternating between the left- and the right-hand towers, and just as the company was always the same, so the entertainment, too, always took the same form, being limited to play-readings, poetry recitals, and charades. (188)
Easy but dull.
Only near the end of the novel did I understand that the wife’s story had also been present through the book, like a soft cello playing behind the brighter instruments. I use a musical analogy because the key moment of the novel is her strong response to a song early in the book, back in Chapter 4.
The music was already open on the piano, the lights were on, and they both began. But what they had feared happened: voice and accompaniment failed to keep pace and they both burst out laughing, half embarrassed. However, they started again at once and Elizabeth’s high, clear voice, still almost that of a child, rang through the two rooms. Everyone listened in silence. The countess seemed particularly moved and at the end of the last verse, she rose from her chair and went over to the piano. Then, picking up the song still lying open on the music-rest, without saying a word to anyone, she left the room. (28)
That last action is the secret chord that does not resolve for over 200 pages. Much of the subtle art of the novel is in this story, the wife’s, the story that is not told. The lyrics of the song are included, of course, just like in a Theodor Storm novella, even repeated several times. Delicate things, Douglas Parmée shoves the English into footnotes. “Peace is surely the best of all earthly happiness, what earthly joy remains free from bitterness?” (46).