My initial reading of this book was that there was a dark, mercurial, almost subversive strain beneath what is otherwise an almost boringly idyllic narrative of spring love and a childhood crush. On further consideration and after scouring many reviews and critical discussions...it seems like there is nothing dark and subversive and what I had taken for palpable angst is really just the pain and heartache of missed opportunities and a lifetime of regret.
We're introduced to our protagonist, Reinhard, as an old man shuffling down the street in late autumn. He, like the weather is in a season of debilitation. As the leaves swirl around him, his own poor clothes are outdated and covered in dust, destined for a purgatory of regret without hope of spring revitalization. After what we assume is his ritualistic evening walk, in which he meets no one, a stranger to the world that surrounds him, he makes his way home to the quiet retreat of his study where he begins part two of his evening ritual: waiting for the sun to slowly walk its fingers pryingly across the room, illuminating one object after another until finally it lands on a single photograph where it pauses; our hero, forced to acknowledge the suns intimations, whispers "Elisabeth." At once Reinhard is transformed into the youth he once was so many years ago, and we are swept along into the narrative of his regret.
The basic storyline goes something like this: Reinhard is 11, Elisabeth 5 and they are playing house together in the fields in a little sod dwelling they have been slowly building together. There is a brief exchange about lions, angels and India and somewhere along the lines Reinhard extracts a pledge of marriage and fidelity from our little heroine. Having interacted with 11 year old boys and 5 year old girls somewhat regularly I find this narrative so far to be suspect.
Next we are shown vignettes of Reinhard defending little Elisabeth in school, of the two being lost in the woods as they wander in search of Strawberries, their hunger assuaged only by Reinhard's incessant poetry recitations. With each story the two age, until at last our protagonist is away at school, flirting somewhat coarsely with a barmaid. A friend or roommate mentions that a package has come for him while he was out philandering and Reinhard races home to find cakes, delicately decorated with his initials, and cuff links. He is ashamed of his behavior and devotes himself to hours of story writing for his dear 12 year old intended.
When he finally makes his way home for a visit, he is shocked to find Elisabeth, no longer a girl but a blossoming maiden. There is an awkwardness, a tension of sorts, that has never existed before. Slowly he realizes in his absence he has not been the only suitor. His good friend (or ex-good friend) has replaced Reinhard's linnet with a gold-finch of his own. Somehow this is not conclusive enough for Reinhard and once again he demands and successfully extracts a pledge of sorts from Elisabeth, this time the pledge is to wait for two years for him to tell her a secret.
Elisabeth, who apparently needs more than zero communication and empty promises of ardour, much to our hero's shock and chagrin decides after two years and not a single letter from her good friend Reinhard to accept a proposal from Eric, after his constant wooing and two previous proposals have been denied. As she and her mother and their little gold-finch embark on their adventure to their new home, Reinhard is left to pick up the pieces of his broken heart and write more poetry.
Eventually, Reinhard is invited to the estate of Eric and Elisabeth, Immensee, and upon arrival is gently simmering in jealousy. He interprets Elisabeth's affection for Eric as sisterly, unable to believe that it could be anything else. He goes for long walks with the hope of coming upon Elisabeth alone in the forest, but his prey always alludes him.
At last, unable to refrain any longer, he plays his best and last card: family poetry recitation time and taking a cunning offensive he begins:
"By my mother's hard decree, Another's wife I needs must be;
Him on whom my heart was set, Him alas! I must forget;
My heart was protesting, but not free.
Bitterly did I complain, that my mother brought me pain.
What mine honor might have been, that is turned to deadly sin.
Can I ever hope again?
For my pride what can I show, And my joy, save grief and woe?
Oh! could I undo what's done, O'er the moor scorched by the sun
Beggarwise I'd gladly go."
Reinhard has gone too far, his references were far from oblique and have made everyone somewhat uncomfortable. Elisabeth quickly gets up and runs into the garden, while her mother obsequiously makes excuses for her. After a brief pause, for proprieties sake, Reinhard jumps up and goes off in search of his beloved. As he races through the forest, the woods stand impenetrable, silent and thick foliage, the underbrush holding the secrets of infinite trysts.
Eventually Reinhard finds himself alone and dejected, walking along a shoreline. As his eyes dart back and forth searching for hope, he sees a perfectly white lily floating a stones throw away. All at once he is seized with the desire to see it up close and strips off his clothing and jumps into the dark encompassing depths. As far and has hard as he swims he can never quite reach the lily. It is always just beyond his grasp, pulled by a demanding, insatiable undercurrent. Always out of reach. As he circles the lily ineffectually, he eventually gives up and swims back to the shore only to be confronted with the floating lily among the large gleaming leaves.
When he finally makes it home he meets Eric and the mother preparing themselves for a journey, when Eric asks where he's been he tells him he has attempted to pay a call on a water-lily, but failed. Eric, always jovial and in good spirits, tells his friend that to pay a call on a water-lily is beyond the comprehension of any man. Reinhard replies: "I used to be friends with the lily once, but that was long ago."
Reinhard is getting close to admitting defeat. His beloved has apparently not been pining away for him. As he sits down to write one last poem, he hears a footstep in the hall. Has Elisabeth finally come back to him? As he rushes into the hall anticipating finally their reunion, he is met only by a demure Elisabeth who finally extracts a promise from Reinhard, that he will never come back. In an instant he realizes he will grant her this one request. He packs his bags immediately and leaves, defeated and rejected. How could he have misread the quickening of his soul so fundamentally. How could he have let this lily escape his grasp.
Again, he is an old man, having only his solitude as a constant companion, destined to spend the rest of his life ruminating over his regrets, as he examines his life over and over again before the ever dwindling fire.