“My Marriage” by Jakob Wassermann [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, New York Review Books)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 7%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: <1%
Wassermann’s My Marriage is a beautifully complex emotional and intellectual account of a budding relationship that careened into a failed marriage, based, reportedly, a great deal on the author’s own first marriage to Julie Speyer (whom you can see on the NYRB Classics edition cover). How much of the book is actually autobiographical, I don’t know, but perhaps we can take the word of the German literary historian Peter de Mendelssohn, who said it was the “exactest, most scrupulous autobiography,” “the true confession of the death-marked author,” as per translator Michael Hofmann’s Afterword. At the same time, the book is presented as fiction, with names changed and pasts imagined.
The book was originally published posthumously in the autumn of 1934; Wassermann himself had died on New Year’s Day of that year of various troubles, including what Hofmann calls “general exhaustion.” After reading this book, we might extrapolate what Hofmann means.
The book pulled me in immediately. It isn’t happy reading, but it is an exquisite rendering of pain that is brought on by union and separation at once. Wassermann seems to be exploring, trying to comprehend just what happened with this central experience of his life, and I loved the step-by-step exploration of his painful past—not that it was entirely the past.
Let me introduce the characters who stand in for Wassermann and Speyer. The author/narrator is a man named Alexander Herzog. He divides his account into three sections: Mirror of Youth, The Age of Certainties, and The Age of Dissolution. Mirror of Youth begins before he’s ever met the persistent, eccentric Ganna Mevis. Again, it’s like Herzog has to go back that far just to get his footing, just to see where this juggernaut that would run through his life got its beginning.
The youngest of six daughters, Ganna doesn’t fit in. Ganna is fiercely competitive with her sisters. She dreamed of a glorious future. Hers weren’t the usual banal girlish dreams, they were scenarios and imaginings of an usual definition. She felt chosen, even though she couldn’t have said in what way.
Meanwhile, in this early section Herzog is a young author who has published one great book that made him no money. Ganna gets a hold of that book and her imaginings tell her that she must be a part of the author’s life. She knows nothing about him, naturally—she even is afraid that any letter she sent would simply be lost amongst the flood of letters Herzog was definitely not receiving—but she pursues him even when he obviously thinks little of her.
The next day, I got a pneumatique from her. Why the rush, I asked myself. There was nothing pressing in it. The letters were just as urgent as her speech. Big, jagged, impetuous characters that resembled a meeting of conspirators. I can’t remember if I wrote back. It seems to me it was only the third or fourth letter that induced me to give her an answer. Because she wrote to me almost every day. Always pneumatiques. A few lines, with obvious attention to style. I thought sardonically: writing letters to a writer is surely an education in itself. And the content? Atmospherics: happy wonderment at the new turn in her life; a plea to me not to forget her; a friendly greeting because it was a nice day; anxious inquiries about my state, because she’d had a bad dream about me. She wasn’t short of things to say.
Herzog thinks back on this time and tries to understand “what possessed me to answer her?” His answer: “I don’t know.” But he has some ideas and he works through them. For one, “[e]ven the most resolute misanthrope has a spot where he falls prey to vanity. And I was anything but a misanthrope.” Still, the notes are exhausting, and he admits that sometimes, “when I was opening one of her notes, it was as though I had to push away her little hand that reached for me with greedy grasp.”
Money, though . . . he’s honest enough to admit that her money and his lack thereof contributed greatly, even if he did his best to leave the subject under the surface. She’s the one who brings it up, and I love Herzog’s lingering amazement, capable of erasing the years between their courtship and his writing this account, taking him back to the initial confusion as his younger self pondered just what she was thinking:
But patience, Ganna, patience: do you propose to take what you call your wealth, today or tomorrow, and merely drop it at his feet, unconditionally and impulsively and without regard to yourself, and without any reference to any of the usual contracts and obligations? It would be a splendid impulse, whether it were possible or not. Or is some forfeit not required—in fact, wouldn’t the person, the future, the whole man from head to toe have to serve as your collateral? Speak!
We already know where this is heading, despite words of warning from the author himself: “You can find a woman lovable without loving her; that’s a dangerous grey area.”
Marriage, honeymoon, children, pain, a slow—and strange!—separation. Throughout, Herzog—Wassermann—shifts back and forth from a distant perspective, trying to see the forest for the trees, to an impassioned closeness. It was his writing that brought Ganna into his life, and it is with his writing that he attempts to exorcise her. He knows in the end that such an act is impossible: “But in the end it’s just words on paper, which can be turned and twisted and perhaps challenged by a higher instance.” It’s not spoiler to say that he is still struggling even with his last paragraph:
So what do I need? A hand to help me past an obstacle whose nature I cannot ascertain. A human breath to imbue me with the spirit of understanding. Understanding would surely illumine me like a flash of lightning ripping apart the sheet of darkness. And then the devil riding over the wreckage of my life would disappear with a howl into the gulch of his hell. A slightly overdone image. But then I’ve lost all sense of measure.