In Derek Cianfrance's recent film Blue Valentine, the short marriage of Dean and Cindy is coming undone. Dean is content with his life as a house painter; it's the kind of job, he says, that allows a guy to have a beer in the morning. What's more, he just wants his wife to be happy. His lack of professional ambition enables Cindy to focus on her career.
But Cindy, who had wished to become a physician, is stunted in her role as a nurse, a frustration that Dean probably doesn't understand. Dean's contentment becomes a foil for Cindy's disappointment. Why won't he live up to his potential? Why can't he be more serious?
Such are the very pleas of the equally strong-willed Christine in regard to her foolish, fun-loving husband, Helmut, in Theodor Fontane's modern masterwork, Irretrievable (Feb. 15), rereleased in Douglas Parmée's translation of the original German by New York Review Books. Fontane, who was nearly 60 when he started writing novels in 1878, constructed wonderfully precise and carefully observed narratives in the mode of the Portuguese EÃ§a de Queiroz and the Brazilian Machado de Assis.
Like Blue Valentine, Irretrievable is a study of a marriage drifting apart. Always careful to examine all sides and explore every complexity, Fontane tracks Christine and Helmut's decline, from differences in personality — "In spite of all their love, his easy-going temperament was no longer in harmony with her melancholy" — to silence, belligerence and then resentment. Helmut is left cold by Christine's dogmatism. "A woman," he says, "must have some warmth, some temperament, life, sensuality. What can one do with an iceberg?"
Soon enough, for Fontane was obsessed with the specter of adultery, Helmut is forced to answer his own question. He is skating on Lake Arre with Ebba, a young, vivacious countess, and they find themselves at the edge of an ice floe heading out to the North Sea. Is he daring enough to prove his bravado? "We've reached the limit, Ebba," he says. "Shall we go beyond it?"
Helmut's words dangle marvelously in this carefully restrained narrative; so calculated, they raise the hairs on the arm. Ebba is simply too hot to handle. Beyond it is a place that Helmut, a bare insouciant who likes to discuss genealogy and local history, can't really imagine. Beyond it is something Helmut couldn't have fathomed: the 20th century.
The good folks at New York Review Books — so accustomed they are to finding and polishing the treasures of modern literature — have brought us that, too, in Bohumil Hrabal's marvelous one-sentence Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (May 3). Before Milan Kundera, Hrabal, who died in 1997, was the master of Czech literature. Where Fontane is coolly observant, Hrabal's narrator, a 70-year-old shoemaker entertaining some girls in a bar, is spasmagoric. The prose, in the translation by Michael Henry Heim, combines the sheer anti-romantic heft of Norman Mailer and the bewitching absurdity of Isaac Babel. "Marriage," says Hrabal, "is like dragging a cowhide along a sheet of thin ice, there are days when a wife says to her husband, You know what you need, Papa? you need a good smack in the kisser and he says to her, Mama, you dirty bitch, if you get plastered once more I'll tear your mouth open with a camp iron, and then young ladies, ideals start to crumble, even Goethe had his troubles, to say nothing of Mozart. ... " Just ask Cindy and Dean of Blue Valentine, whose unraveling marriage finally erupts in violence and hatred: Gone for good are Helmut's days.