The ridiculous is very deep in her, where she fights with phantoms

My First Wife
by Jakob Wassermann
translated by Michael Hoffman

This “lost classic” deserves introduction because it’s really quite an odd story. First published in German in 1934, this story was just a small segment buried in a 2000-page trilogy, an autobiographical confession loosely disguised and hidden from view. When Michael Hoffman stumbled across it he was stunned by this powerful account of a marriage and knew he had to bring it to a wider audience and so set about translating it into English for the first time.

The story is that of Wassermann’s alter ego Alexander Herzog, a German-Jewish writer who lives on the kindness of friends and strangers in true Bohemian style until he is introduced to the bizarre character of Ganna Mevis. Claiming to have been misunderstood her whole life, Ganna enthuses gushingly about Herzog’s artistry, sure that he will become a star and that her generous dowry will help him to get there. It is not a comfortable union from the start. Herzog confesses to being cold with her and can never understand her, but he is also spellbound to a certain degree, whether by her constant flattery or sheer weirdness it’s hard to tell:

“You can find a woman lovable without loving her; that’s a dangerous grey area. When I gave her my hand, she could sit there charmed as though that moment was a singing eternity, then she would lean over and press her lips to my fingers with a reverence that sometimes made me say: oh, don’t do that, don’t bother.”

After a few years of uneasy truce the marriage begins to unravel and so begins the legal and financial tangle that make the rest of Herzog’s life hellish. He is made to see how his earlier leniency has cost him dearly, but not before he has spent years defending Ganna to everyone else, as they all see how dangerous she might be:

“One shouldn’t judge Ganna on the basis of single incidents, you need to see her in the round, as the wild nature she is. Her errors, her passions, her mistakes, they are all based on a splendid unity…The ridiculous is very deep in her, where she fights with phantoms…She doesn’t have a clue about reality.”

If this wasn’t autobiographical (with very few details changed, apparently) it might be hard to believe in the character of Ganna. She is utterly vindictive, but that’s not quite the word because she so thoroughly believes that she is in the right and that she has been wronged at every turn. And no wrong is ever forgotten.

Wassermann’s style is at once detached and chatty. He is analysing his own story and making a clear effort to separate himself from events, which is of course impossible even if he has given his story to Herzog, and leads to the occasional “unreliable narrator” moment when he lets slip a detail about himself that you realise explains an awful lot that has gone before.

There is a lot of glib talk about optimism and pessimism, which occasionally becomes profound:

“Even those moments of wanting to die come with a small flame that causes the heart to flicker into life…The least happiness is something so exquisitely precious in the lower depths.”

Wassermann writes movingly of love (albeit not for Ganna) but also of the Great War (“At the Somme a half-brother of mine died…No letter, no farewell, just a silent death.”), of misplaced trust but also of rabid inflation and other signs of political turmoil in Germany and Austria in the 1910s and 1920s. He tries hard to understand how he ended up where he did, a successful author dying in severe debt with his sweetly optimistic lover crushed by the weight of years of doing battle with her predecessor. And really the clues are all there, he is far from blameless.

This is such an interesting read, and eminently quotable at that, but it is not one to race through quickly. It demands of its reader some attempt at understanding this relationship that defies understanding. And I found myself trying to bestow empathy, or at least sympathy, on characters who pages later threw such an emotional response haughtily back at me. I have no doubt that Penguin is right to label this a classic on its first printing in English.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

First published in German, within Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz, by Queredo, Amsterdam, 1934.
This translation published in Penguin Classics, August 2012.