Review: My First Wife – Jakob Wassermann

My First Wife is a semi-autobiographical novel by German-Jewish writer, Jakob Wassermann (1874-1933), a prominent writer of the time, but little known in English speaking countries because of the lack of translations of his work.  As far as I can tell, this new translation by Michael Hoffman is the only novel published in English, although Wassermann’s Wikipedia entry shows a long list of over 30 books and plays.

Penguin Classics are promoting this book as “the rediscovered masterpiece of love, hate and obsession” and I have to agree that this is as good an eight-word summary as you could get, being a portrait of an awe-inspiringly dreadful courtship, marriage and divorce, which today would probably end up in the pages of the Daily Mail.

In his afterword to the book, Michael Hoffman tells us that My First Wife is, “the true account of Jakob Wassermann’s marriage to Julie Speyer of Vienna, with almost nothing omitted or changed”.  As I read the book I gained the impression of a heart-felt personal testimony, raw in emotion and painful to read, not only because of the suffering the writer went through but also with a feeling that perhaps his wife deserved better treatment from her family and her husband.

Alexander’s future wife, Ganna, was born into the family of a wealthy steel magnate.  With five sisters, she was the ugly duckling of the family, a wilful and difficult child who “did not know the meaning of obedience”.  Her father submitted her to “twice-weekly prophylactic beatings” in order to cure her of the habit of lying (how times have changed – no attempt is made to suggest that Ganna’s adult behaviour is anything to do with her treatment as a child).

As other sisters are married off, Ganna’s parents begin to despair of ever finding a husband for her, but she has her own plans.  As she grows up, so she develops a deep interest in literature and gathers a small salon around her who meet fortnightly to talk about the latest books and to discuss Ganna’s own philosophical essays.  She reads a book by the young author, Alexander, and is so impressed with it that she decides to seek out the author, launching on a campaign to ensnare him which today might be called stalking.  Ganna engineers a meeting with Alexander and then proceeds to write letters to him.  He ignores the first two or three then replies to the next, not realising that “from the moment I first wrote back she had acquired in perpetuity a right to be answered”.

Jakob Wassermann
(image from Wikipedia)

Alexander and Ganna begin to meet up, on a casual basis from Alexander’s perspective, but with the purest passion from Ganna’s.  When Alexander leaves for his summer tour of remote places, Ganna manages to visit him in a remote farm-house, Alexander’s annoyance being tempered by a sense of pity for the strange girl before him.

Through a combination of inertia and folly, Alexander allows himself to be betrothed to the obsessive Ganna, finding that her father, far from being concerned about her marriage to a penniless author, is prepared to attach a large dowry to her, which will allow him to continue to live independently and devote himself to writing.

Once married of course, Alexander finds that the solitude and reflection-time that fed his writing is now impossible to find.  Ganna takes up all his waking moments for marriage has removed from her brain all thought of poetry, idealism and love of literature and replaced it with domestic concerns, a mawkish devotion to her relatives and within no time at all, a series of pregnancies and ensuing babies.

Although money has been settled on the young couple, this is Germany between the wars and before long inflation is eating into their investments.  Poverty adds a further level of family disharmony.  Alexander manages to write further books, but in the most uncomfortable circumstances and he longs for his previous life before he met Ganna, whose neuroses are now in full flood and driving him to distraction.

I won’t spoil the book by describing what happens next – the cover already says that the marriage self-destructs so I have breached no confidences so far.  However, the nightmare of this marital breakdown exceeds most divorces in its awfulness and threatens to ensnare Alexander in life-long misery, ruining subsequent relationship and making it extremely difficult for him to continue his career as a writer.  Having become embroiled with Ganna, Alexander finds it impossible to ever get away from her because her own and her family’s tentacles reach far into Alexander’s personal and business life.

Of course, we often read in the papers of painful divorces but this one, being described by a skilled writer, comes alive on the page in all its awfulness. My only feeling on reading the book is that Alexander brought this all on himself, ignoring every possible warning signal, but being seduced by the prospect of financial security for the rest of his life.

My First Wife is a good read and deserves to be in Penguin’s Modern Classic series.  It introduces a renowned German novelist of the last century to English speakers and  no doubt more translations will follow.

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