“We all wanted a little house and a garden and children and trips to Spain and to grow old in peace, and if we weren’t badly deceiving ourselves, then we could be happy with that, and why should we be deceiving ourselves so badly with someone if he came from the same town and we’d known him forever and his parents had a shop around the corner or they cut our grandfather’s hair or sat behind the counter in the savings bank.”
Mrs. Sartoris, another choice for German Literature Month 2018, is a stunning novella that explores passion and compromise. The story is narrated by Margaret Sartoris, a middle-aged married woman whose reliable husband Ernst, daughter Daniela, and adored mother-in-law Irmi, cannot compensate for a tragic love affair that occurred decades earlier.
When the story opens we know that something is seriously wrong with Margaret’s life. She has a drinking problem (Ernst “checks” her breath when she returns home) and a problem with her nerves, so she’s on pills to ‘help.’ Regarding her life, Margaret says she doesn’t know “when it got lost. The certainty, the strength, the concentration that was automatically there for what is known as everyday life.” Gradually chapters reveal Margaret’s past which includes an early romance that went badly and resulted in a period in a sanatorium.
After the sanatorium, Margaret’s passionate nature is switched off, and then she meets Ernst, affable, safe Ernst who has one leg. When she decides to marry Ernst on the rebound, she acknowledges that she’s driven by “a form of ice-cold delirium.”
I would marry Ernst and live with him and Irmi; in spite of everything, Ernst looked good, he treated me with real consideration, he earned a good living, he was a good, dear man who wouldn’t deny me anything, and Irmi was simply a treasure. I imagined how nice it would be to have her around, and I imagined Ernst’s dazzled gratitude that he wouldn’t have to leave his mother, the war widow, alone, but would be allowed to bring her with him into the marriage. I would go on working, in the evenings we would often be with friends–nothing would become of my dancing now–and when we came home, Irmi would be there, a source of life and good cheer. Perhaps we would have a child.
To outsiders, Margaret pulled her life together: she has a solid, stable career, a long-standing marriage to the steady Ernst and is devoted to her mother-in-law. But all these years, all these seemingly satisfactory elements of Margaret’s life, are just window dressing. It’s as though she’s an iceberg with an exposed functioning tip while hidden passions of incredible intensity lurk beneath the surface. Underneath the routine, the household arrangements and her intimate domestic life, Margaret maintains a detachment, an apathy towards her life and her future.
Middle age is a peculiar time of life: it’s a time of accounting, and very often a time when we measure our lives against our early expectations. No wonder so many people go off the deep end. Margaret Sartoris has a life that is on auto-pilot. She and her husband go out with friends, she laughs and participates, is a good, dependable employee, a good wife and daughter-in-law, but there’s also a huge chunk of Margaret that doesn’t engage with her own life. Then, after more than twenty dormant, albeit, outwardly successful years of life with Ernst, she meets a married man, a serial philanderer.
My energy had made an impression on him, as had my uninhibitedness, and I had swept us both into a feeling that we could live all over again. The last twenty years unfolded in front of me like a bleached out map; I could find paths on it I had walked a thousand times and yet had hardly a single visible contour; I could have made a list of the sentences I’d said or heard again and again: Sleep well! Or Does it taste good? or Is Daniela in bed yet? or Have you thought about Irmi’s birthday? or Are we taking the car or going on foot? or Did you get the things from the dry cleaner? or Where is the aspirin? or Is the coffee finished? or Did you lock up downstairs? or Are the eggs still fresh? or I think I’ll keep reading for a bit.
There weren’t many unfriendly sentences in this catalogue, lots of friendly concern, lots of good will, lots of good cheer, though none of that was mine, not much worry, not much anger, not much surprise; as sentences, they were like oar strokes, regular, always on the same beat, always pulling in the same direction: we’re rowing across the sea, the sea, we’re rowing across the sea now. But I was no longer rowing with them.
The story unfolds with Margaret’s life in the present and flashes of memory–her first, damaging love affair, and the unexpected passion that shakes her from her dormant life. This is a woman who made a sensible choice, packing away all her passion, desires and disappointments, until one day they are unleashed again, and this time, these passions, rather like Pandora’s box, cannot be packed away again.
The book’s blurb connects the plot to Madame Bovary. As far as the similarities go, the two books are about unhappily married women who have illicit love affairs. This is not Madame Bovary. Mrs Sartoris is something quite different, and the plot takes the reader in an unanticipated direction. Margaret is an interesting woman who dons the circumspect ‘costume’ of respectability and reliability. She subsumes and controls all passion, passion which in her case is destructive, and she manages to act the part for more than twenty years until one day she throws caution aside. Margaret’s voice is calm, cool, detached and yet … we know that incredible passions lie dormant, just underneath the the surface. How much compromise is too much? Are ‘sensible’ choices the best ones? Or are we just delaying the day of reckoning? Highly recommended.
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway