Jakob Wassermann, who published nearly a book a year for the last thirty years of his life but died broke and exhausted, soon to be forgotten, on 1 January 1934 at the age of sixty, was well acquainted with the dangers of literature. My First Wife, which first appeared a few months after his death, is a cautionary tale. Belloc might have called it ‘Ganna Mevis, who read too much and ruined her marriage’. The fifth of the six daughters of haute-bourgeois Viennese parents – an academic and his wife – Ganna is rarely without a book. She takes Nietzsche on picnics, reads Hölderlin as she makes pancakes, has a group of friends-in-literature with whom she ‘rapturously shares her finds’, and sees herself as ‘marching at the head of the true cognoscenti’. Literature, she believes, enables her to live life in a ‘higher reality’; and she becomes obsessed with Alexander Herzog, the book’s narrator, when she reads his first novel, ‘avidly, the way you guzzle an elixir’, and assumes he’s someone who could live in that higher reality with her. She cuts his picture out of a publisher’s catalogue and pins it up next to her bookcase, fires off letters to him, and persuades one of her friends to invite him to a salon so that she can meet him. But Herzog is more worldly than Ganna will ever be able to bring herself to believe. He’s charmed, at first, by her bookish eccentricities, but feels compelled to marry her only when he finds out that she comes with a dowry of eighty thousand crowns. He’s also sceptical about higher reality: ‘It was a fact with Ganna that her notions of life came out of books, and they stood to reality like a painted tiger to the beast that lays your shoulder open with a swipe of its paw.’
The friction between higher reality and reality-reality causes problems. On the couple’s honeymoon in Italy, Herzog goes off on his own to climb Etna, but gets trapped in the snow and is late back. After waiting for him for a couple of hours, Ganna sets off into the snowy night alone, summons the carabinieri, and when he finally returns hurls herself at Herzog ‘with a piercing scream, like a madwoman’. When they get back to Vienna and move into their first, poky flat, Ganna treats the eighty thousand crowns with ‘holy awe’. She refuses to touch anything but the interest, which means they often have difficulty paying the rent, the bills and the hired help. The help is essential because Ganna is too distracted by Hölderlin to cook properly and too uplifted by Goethe to look after her children. What’s more, she embarrasses Herzog in front of the kind of company – successful artists and the cultured aristocracy – that he, as his reputation grows, cares more and more about winning over: she’s too demonstrative in her emotions and too forceful in her arguments. Herzog at one point discusses the difference between ‘Prussian’ taste (old-school Romantic) and Austrian, which favours ‘lightness, softness and urbanity’, and leaves the reader to infer that this is a fundamental difference between him and Ganna. His contempt hardens; he starts to have affairs. He falls in love with a member of the cultured aristocracy called Bettina Merck, moves in with her once she gets a divorce, and tries to get a divorce himself. Ganna, partly because she’s desperate to restore the higher reality that married life had promised, and partly, Herzog suggests, because of the instinctive cupidity of her class, pursues him through the courts until he’s all but penniless. For all that Herzog accuses her of being out of touch with reality, her litigious skill far surpasses his.
On the back flap of Michael Hofmann’s new edition, My First Wife is pitched as ‘a lightly fictionalised account of Wassermann’s own troubled marriage’. In 1898, Wassermann, a German Jew with a difficult childhood behind him (his father was a failed businessman who could barely afford to feed him, his mother died when he was nine, and he repeatedly ran away from home), met Julie Speyer in Vienna. He had just published his second novel, The Jews of Zimdorf, about the fraught relationship between Germans and Jews in Bavaria, and Speyer, impressed, arranged to be introduced to him at a salon. She, like Ganna, was the fifth of six sisters, the daughter of a professor and a book-lover. Almost everything that’s true of Ganna is also true of Speyer. Speyer worried about the salubriousness of Viennese schools, bought a meadow and set up her own school there. Ganna does the same: the enterprise consumes the couple’s finances and comes apart as her collaborators take against her overbearing manner and ‘conspire’ against her. Ganna publishes an encomium to her husband’s work without warning him (Herzog calls it ‘clever and readable’ but ‘studded with the modish critical terms of the day’); Speyer wrote a whole book – Jakob Wassermann und sein Werk – for Wassermann’s 50th birthday. Herzog has an affair (or comes very close to having an affair) with Ganna’s sister Irmgard; Wassermann had an affair with Speyer’s sister Agnes. Ganna, as Speyer did, suggests forming a ménage à trois with Herzog and his new wife, long after his attraction to Ganna has disappeared. When Herzog refuses, Ganna implies that she and he don’t get on, not because they’re too self-absorbed to listen to each other, but because they possess two different shades of literary soul, hers bohemian, his neat, Austrian and aspirational: ‘Bitterly, she called me a bourgeois who didn’t have the courage to try out in his life what he was happy to promulgate in his books.’
As Hofmann points out in his afterword, Wassermann’s writing career began at a point when ‘the bourgeois felt scandalous stirrings of a latent creativity, and the artist, tired of outlawry, a hankering for comfort and possessions.’ He belonged to the first generation of German writers to whom writing seemed to offer a prosperous future. Thomas Mann, a friend of Wassermann’s, was teased for being a hartnäckiger Villenbesitzer, or ‘serial villa buyer’; Stefan Zweig owned Beethoven’s desk and Goethe’s pen; Hofmannsthal summed up his aspirations with a list of trophy comforts: ‘I finally want a house with Empire furniture, a smell of lavender, Old Vienna porcelain and music being played.’ As in the novel, Speyer’s raids on his bank account prevented Wassermann from climbing the ladder from bohemian to bourgeois man of letters and forced him into a state of constant production. ‘I am sorry to say that an edition of two thousand copies for 75 mark cannot at all satisfy me,’ he wrote to one of his publishers in 1932. ‘Sooner I would decide to make a present than to sell the copyrights for such alms.’ Hofmann says that Wassermann ‘wrote too much, too quickly, too chaotically and abundantly’: Belloc might have called his story ‘Jakob Wassermann, who married someone he didn’t like and wrote too much and ruined his reputation’. My First Wife is the only Wassermann novel in print in English (though several English translations were published, to some acclaim, in the 1920s and 1930s – MGM even adapted his 1910 novel, The Masks of the Devil, for the cinema); in Germany he is best known for his autobiography, Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude, which records his unusual attitudes towards anti-semitism. He argues that Germans and Jews have more in common than they realise: both are victims of ‘misunderstanding on the part of the outside world; ill will, jealousy and suspicion’, and both share ‘a detached spiritual life that imperceptibly leads to hubris, to arrogance and unteachable stubbornness’. He then claims to feel ‘more sorrow for Germans than for Jews’.
My First Wife was not meant to be published on its own. It was originally a section of a novel called Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz, a volume of pseudo-memoir supposedly written at the behest of Herzog’s doctor, Joseph Verkhoven, which was itself the third volume of a trilogy. Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz was Wassermann’s last book, and much of it was written when he was already suffering from ill health: following a meeting with his publisher in November 1933 he suffered a major heart attack and died soon afterwards. But Wassermann had been desperate to get the book published, Hofmann claims, not because he cared much about the rest of it – most of it is pretty scrappy – but because of My First Wife, or ‘Ganna oder die Wahnwelt’ (‘Ganna, or the Mad World’), his most elegant and focused work. Hofmann has dug the book out of unpromising soil and dusted it off. He says that Wassermann buried his ‘masterpiece’ in the trilogy to save himself and the other main figures in the story from public embarrassment, and quotes Churchill: ‘In wartime, truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.’ Wartime, Hofmann explains, both because the novel was written in the middle of Wassermann’s war with his ex-wife, and because it spans the First World War: Herzog volunteers but is turned down on medical grounds, while Ganna, like ‘a little girl who was surprised to see the sky reddened by distant fires’, is unable to grasp the reality of the conflict.
According to the German literary historian Peter de Mendelssohn, My First Wife is ‘exactest, most scrupulous autobiography’, ‘authentic to the last detail’. But it’s hard to shake off the impression that Ganna-Speyer is Wassermann-Herzog’s creation: it isn’t just books and class that have made her a monster – he has. From the first, Ganna and her family, despite his respect for their wealth, disgust him. He describes his first meeting with her family as a visit to a ‘Negro village’, bustling enough to distract him from ‘the tedium of their society’. In the same chapter, he describes the family as a ‘kraal’, the Dutch word for a pen full of livestock. The unflattering metaphor recurs throughout the book – for example when he realises that Ganna’s family have taken legal measures to prevent him getting his hands on her money in case of a divorce (‘The Kraal’s imperative was: provide for your brood’). When they move in together, Herzog mocks her for her poor cooking and her laborious managing of the family accounts; he confesses his dread at her getting pregnant, and when she goes into labour with their first daughter, he flees. When he starts having affairs Ganna bravely explains to her friends that men like him ‘might become spiritually impoverished without fresh experiences’. Some may feel she has every right to the tantrums she throws, that her constant attention-seeking is not without justification, and that Herzog deserves to have his life made miserable by her. But Herzog is unapologetic. He imagines a friend reading the book and asking him: ‘When you pushed the woman into ever deeper suffering, how could you square that with your sense of truth and decency?’ To which he replies: ‘It’s all not true … though I was increasingly drawn to other women, and was never able to resist sensual temptation, I did remain connected to her.’ In his mind he hasn’t betrayed her at all.
But Wassermann buries clues throughout the narrative that suggest we ought not to take him entirely at his word. Herzog dismisses much of the literature written after the war as little more than hate-filled ‘word-bombs’. But wouldn’t that be a good way of describing his own precision-tooled piece of character assassination? He says that Ganna’s notion that he and Bettina, his aristocratic girlfriend, lived together in untroubled bliss settled ‘into a myth in her, like certain historical “events” in history books’. But when he talks about the unreliability of Ganna’s version of events, doesn’t he cast doubt on his own? Similarly, when Ganna’s plans for the school go wrong and, in her imagination, her collaborators conspire against her, Herzog makes so much of the fact that he only has her side of the story that again, he seems to be calling into question the integrity of his own one-sided narrative. After Herzog finally moves out, Ganna writes a book about the dissolution of their relationship called Psyche Bleeds, in which she puts all the blame on Bettina. Herzog calls it ‘a dirty distortion of Bettina’s likeness’: one can imagine Ganna saying much the same thing about his portrait of her. Perhaps there’s another cautionary tale here, addressed by the man who wrote too much to the woman who read too much, the moral of which is something like this: literature’s ‘higher reality’, though it may feel more real, is often just false.
Wassermann might have known what he was doing, but Herzog and Ganna behave as though they’re unaware of their part in the damage they’ve caused, and of how much they depend on each other. In the end, Bettina takes control of Herzog’s divorce proceedings. Herzog is baffled by this, but the reader sees instantly that she is jealous of Ganna, who sucks up so much of her husband’s time and energy: she, too, has been cheated out of the higher reality – call it happiness – that life with Herzog promised.