My Marriage: Jakob Wassermann

“It was the age of paste diamonds and shallow minds.”

I don’t think you can beat California when it comes to divorce laws. This is a no-fault, community property state, and that boils down to the two basic elements: if one party wants a divorce and the other doesn’t, tough, it’s sayonara. And no one really cares whose fault it is; it’s 50/50 baby.

Now why do I preface a review of a German novel in translation, published in 1934, from the fabulous NYRB with a comment about California’s divorce laws? Well I’ll get back to that later.

My Marriage from Jakob Wasserman is a novel about a writer, Alexander Hertzog, who, in his late 20s, marries Ganna, a young heiress. Fast forward to three children, the dowry spent, countless affairs, and Hertzog, now further in his career, falls in love with another woman, wants a divorce, and guess what … Ganna doesn’t roll over and give him what he wants.

My Marriage

Hertzog, our narrator, is a penniless young writer, one meal away from starvation when he’s introduced to Ganna–one of six daughters, “the ugly duckling among five swans,” and the one who’s also “hard to manage.” Now in hindsight, Hertzog draws the warning signs in the sand of a determined young woman who may not be the most stable female on the planet. Ganna is obsessive, willful and, apparently, worships Hertzog. Determined to get him for a husband, she pursues him and talks him into it. There’s a bit of waffling here, but it’s easy to see that Hertzog is swayed by the money and persuades himself that Ganna, who is starstruck by Hertzog’s talent, will make a good wife.

Should I have shut myself away, should I have remained aloof and said: begone, there is no room for you in my life? There was room. Of course, the fact that I saw and sensed her the way I did in my self-sacrificial compassion, this single pregnant moment that bore the seed of thirty years-that was also in part Ganna’s doing, her over-powerful will, her dazzling sorcery. But I wasn’t to know that back then.

Hertzog does a lot of bitching about Ganna. There’s never really a honeymoon period that palls and segues into disillusionment; he’s always at the “mercy of her drives.” One of his complaints is that Ganna has the bad manners to discuss his extramarital affairs in public.

My senses too were aflame. Ravenous appetite alternated with satiety. No woman was enough for me; none gave me what I was dimly seeking: a sense of who I was, some final easement of the blood. I went from one to another, and it was often as though I had to break them open like a husk of shell with unknown contents, peeling them like a fruit which I then discarded.

Hertzog has basic problems with Ganna right from the start; she’s emotionally needy, manipulative and prone to hysteria, and surprise surprise, some of the problems are over money. It’s been drilled into Ganna to live off the interest of her 80,000 crowns, and not touch the capital, but Hertzog finds that idea rather grubby.

What was it all for, I would ask myself periodically, to be living like an outlaw? A bank account, I thought is obviously intended to be a type of conserve, like foie gras; not something anyone eat fresh.

As I read My Marriage, I kept thinking about von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Furs; it’s an account of one man’s search for the ideal harsh mistress (and his fantasy was to have a woman treat him like crap until he decided it was time for the game to stop. Logical fallacy…who’s really in charge?) If you read it, you also have to read his wife’s version of events, The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch –contrasting the two is hilarious. My Marriage is a diatribe from the fictional Hertzog about his wife, but the events in the book mirror Wasserman’s life. As noted in the afterword, “as anyone reading it then or now can tell instantly, Ganna (or now) My Marriage is the true account of Jakob Wassermann’s marriage to Julie Speyer of Vienna.” Ganna (aka Julie Speyer) had her say in Psyche Bleeds (Julie Speyer’s novel was The Living Heart: Novel of a Marriage,) and according to Hertzog, aka Wassermann, it’s wasn’t pretty.

It’s impossible to determine the dynamics of another’s marriage, and that brings me back to the ‘no fault’ divorce. With a divorce in which one party must prove ‘wrong,’ who can really tell (unless, let’s say for example, in a case of abuse) where the first misstep took place? And a no-fault divorce doesn’t allow one party to hang on the other spouse just out of spite or revenge.

Poor Hertzog seemed to forget that marriage is a legally binding contract, so we see him complaining how Ganna wants him to provide dowries for his two daughters while also providing for her in perpetuity.

The Kraal’s imperative was: provide for your brood, man; first and foremost your brood, we don’t give a hoot about what happens to you; let the deserter work himself to the bone; let him fail and come to his senses; let him and his mistress fail ever to free themselves from the shackles.

In the aftermath of the separation, Ganna, now with her dowry gone, tries to create an income stream for herself, but fails, only generating a mountain of bills which she expects Hertzog to pay. Hertzog seems to see this as another attempt to drain him dry, and it’s likely that just how reasonable and unreasonable these two parties are, will cause some division of opinion amongst readers. While it’s easy to have a lot of sympathy for a man who wishes to sever ties with a woman he can’t stand, it’s not so easy to have sympathy for a man who wishes to step away from his obligations and start with a clean slate.

This is a very emotionally involving book, and I found myself, at several points, wanting to slap the pair of them. There’s a dynamic between Hertzog and Ganna which becomes increasingly pathological as the distance between the pair grows. Neither one knows when to stop, and as Ganna grows increasingly desperate, Hertzog inadvertently feeds her desire to be involved in his life. Hertzog is so passive, he creates his own fate, and Ganna, who “had something of a sorceress about her,” won’t release Hertzog from her possession.

It’s all very sad. Is Ganna as unbalanced as Hertzog claims? If so, is he responsible for this? After all this was a young woman raised in privilege, trained for marriage, who suddenly found herself, in middle age, penniless and cast adrift. Is Wasserman motivated by guilt when he responds to Ganna’s repeated annoying requests? By the end of the book, the sympathy see-saw wobbles back and forth.

I first heard of this book through Tom’s blog, so thanks for the recommendation. This book would be great material for book clubs, for it’s certain to generate some lively conversations.

Translated by Michael Hofmann

Review copy/own a copy



Filed under Fiction, Wasserman Jakob

22 responses to “My Marriage: Jakob Wassermann

  1. There’s nothing to make you feel better about your own life than to have someone else’s misery unveiled! I have to admit a real fondness of these behind the scenes of a marriage books although I got the feeling that Hertzog wasn’t prepared to take any responsibility for his part in the disintegration

  2. Yes, a very emotionally-driven book. I felt somewhat drained by the experience of reading this, but fascinated at the same time. I must admit to feeling somewhat sympathetic towards Alexander, but I’m acutely aware that Wassermann only presents us with one side of the story.

    • I felt sympathetic towards Ganna in the beginning, but then she went off the rails. I loved the part when he lent one of his friends 1000 crowns (of her dowry), and then it turns out to be over 1700 crowns. He thought she was unreasonable to object, but she seemed to have the money sense he lacked. All that flew out the window later, however, with her various money making ventures. I had to admire her for trying though.

  3. I’m just waiting for this one to come panting into my mailbox, so this was great to read. You’ve really whetted my appetite.

    • I’ll be very interested in how you feel about it, Gert.

      • Just finished it. If it weren’t autobiographical, what a masterfully Stendhalian portrait of the artist it would be. As it is, there’s a cold egotism associated with the idea of himself as an artist that isn’t ever really examined. He does realise to some extent how badly he’s treated both Ganna and Bettina, but no one can ever really breach his self-regard. The whole book comes from that wounded self-regard I think and from his rage that his life has been so disrupted. If it is even half true and it sounds from Michael Hoffman’s afterword as if it is, Ganna was a nightmare, but really the book is all about him. All the same I thought it was a marvellous read.

  4. I love the way you’ve tagged this as ‘miserable marriages’ … an endlessly fascinating topic. We look around us and think, ‘what do they see in each other?’ ‘why do they stay together?’ ‘what finally made them decide to separate?’ (‘what took them so long?’) and ‘when are they going to get over the divorce and stop bagging each other?’
    If there is a moral to any of it, it must be not to marry a writer… because one day your marriage will be dissected in print and all your dirty washing will be hanging on a public line!

    • In this case Ganna (Julie) started it w/her book, so his was tit for tat. reminds me of War of the Roses.
      I think there’s a stage, in some dead marriages, where the greatest pleasure in life becomes torturing the other spouse. In Ganna’s case, she wanted her ‘dues.’ But just what that was could not be agreed upon.

      • Yes, and that’s a whole new topic for a book. For some, what matters is to be able to look back on misery and to know that they have behaved well, and this desire to control their own future needs for self-respect and dignity guides their behaviour (albeit sometimes imperfectly, human nature being what it is!) For others, the desire for vengeance and to control the story is paramount because their sense of self-respect means that they need to be “proved” right. I read somewhere once that ex-partners who spend years in the courts fighting over money and access to the children do it because they can’t let go: what they really want, though it’s hard to tell from the hatred on display, is to have the Ex back, usually so that they can *make* them listen to their side of the story so that they are sorry for what they have done. So the endless rehashing (whether in a court of in a writer’s book about it) means that the Ex still has to take notice, is still being controlled because the provocateur knows he/she is getting a reaction.

  5. It’s a very involving book, it really provokes you in different ways as you follow the unfolding disasters. Your sympathy moves around, and you feel alternately bemused, sad, enraged, sympathetic. I wonder if any of Wasserman’s other stuff is worth a look – this one has only really emerged because Hofmann translated it (whether anew or for the first time I’m not sure).

    Have just finished a reread of another tale of marriage disintegration – The Good Soldier. Like this one, there’s plenty of blame to share around (whether the protagonists see it that way or not).

  6. Sounds cheery, just the kind of thing to take along on a romantic weekend. Of course I live in California, so…

    I was unaware of the Wanda von Sacher-Masoch book, but I can well imagine that the spouse’s response to Venus in Furs would be make for quite a contrasting version of events.

  7. I wanted to read this for ages but since it’s actually part of a longer novel, I could never motivate myself. I know it works as a standalone but it would be weird, only to read the middle part of a book. I understand why the editor only published this though.

  8. It sounds fantastic but it’s not available in French…

  9. Trevor of themookseandthegripes said that he thought this would be on his end of year list. I asked there, but shall here too, how does this relate to his My First Marriage? Is it the same book under another title or did he write two on this theme?

  10. When I saw the other title, I thought it was another book. Disappointed to find it was the same..

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.