My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael HofmannMonday 04 Feb 2013
Publisher: Penguin Classics, hardback
One of the delightful side-effects of this 265-page novel – in fact a barely-disguised memoir posthumously published in German in 1934 - is that it makes you contantly think about people under pressure, what they may or may not be capable of doing, when put to the pin of their collar.
It’s like a cauldron of different human reactions, different human frailities. There is greed, bloody vindictiveness, the tendency not to confront realities, to be swept unthinkingly along. There are instances too of almost superhuman strength and force of will, although such strength, given that it is exerted in the long wasteful months of a protracted marriage break-up, is merely tactical.
Inevitably, as reader, you wonder too how you might react if, say, you too experienced an unabating torrent of legal writs and wildly unreasonable suits for financial support rained down on your head. That torrent that hasn’t even ended for the protagonist narrator Alexander Herzog – in reality the author Jakob Wassermann himself - by the time he concludes his tormented, painstaking account. The pain continues, down another tributary of tribulation, even after he has faced something like a sequence of 40 lawyers, hired by his vengeful wife who refuses to let go.
The debt-ridden, but gifted writer Herzog is in fact Wassermann’s surrogate, who marries Ganna Mevis (in reality she was Julie Speyer). Ganna is the youngest of six Viennese sisters, all of who find respectable husbands, through the usual bourgeois connections. But Ganna's case is different - she finds a German-Jew Herzog whose mother died when he was nine. He has had a tough upbringing and doesn’t have much by way of income.
With the promise of a handsome dowry, Herzog sleep-walks into an ill-advised marriage to Ganna. Once married, she insists on keeping a tight hold of the finances, after his debts have been paid. The capital granted by her father, a professor, must not be tampered with and they will live, she decides - penuriously enough, as it happens- on the interest from the dowry. Thus begins the insidious spiral into a domestic nightmare, as Ganna, unconsciously or not, aims to control Herzog’s entire existence. Hitchcock or Truffaut might well have salivated at the film prospects and soembody should seriously think of its film treatment possibilities.
Incredibly, despite their initial tensions, the couple have three children together (four in fact in the real life story.) Ultimately, after a string of infidelities – Herzog certainly doesn’t help his case in that regard - the writer falls for a 25-year-old married woman, Bettina Merck, based on the real-life Marta Karlweiss.
Bettina is 17 years his junior and is vastly different in character from Ganna, being level and tactful. She is a mother of-two who promptly and coolly divorces her own husband. However, securing a divorce from Ganna becomes a tortuous, endless saga for Herzog.
Not only is the proposed divorce complicated by his wife’s toxic cloud of vacillation - bound up with her iron refusal to let go - but divorce is also held up by Herzog’s reluctance to sever the bonds. He still believes - with whatever little faith - in the `semi-mystical union’ of his marriage to Ganna.
Fasten your seat belts for this compulsive page-turner, there is much turbulence. The book is something of a masterpiece.