Gottlieb Zürn (GOHT-leeb tsewrn), a real estate broker living in the Lake Constance area of southern Germany. He is almost fifty years old and is haunted by a sense of failure and inadequacy in business and family life. He feels harassed by the details of everyday living (such as car insurance) and troubled by inopportune lust. He likes to speculate about the real ages of his acquaintances. People and events in the novel are seen through his eyes, although this is a third-person narrative. His rival real estate agents seem far wealthier and more stylish, enterprising, and successful than he is. He appears less likely than them to obtain the coveted sole agency to sell a magnificent art-nouveau villa on the lake where Gottlieb, who writes poetry, likes to linger in useless melancholy. At parties, he is likely to lose his head in efforts to entertain the company, so that his indiscretions haunt him afterward. On one occasion, he makes extravagant purchases while failing to call on a client through loss of nerve. In family affairs, he believes that he is an inadequate father to his four daughters. He is hot-tempered and impatient in his dealings with them and fails to provide support in their times of need (for example, pregnancy and a wish to “drop out”). He observes that his wife, who bears the brunt of family difficulties, is also more effective than he is at selling real estate. The final discovery that the villa is being demolished at the hands of a rival agent leaves him battered and resigned.
Anna Zürn, Gottlieb’s wife, who is burdened with family cares, which include tending a daughter (one of four) who is inexplicably ill. She has a tenacious memory for detail and is perhaps a better agent than her husband. She fends off Gottlieb’s amorous advances, often using sobering information for this purpose.
Regina Zürn, their daughter, who is mysteriously ill, often in the hospital....
(The entire section is 834 words.)