I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books. The original novel was published in German in 1934 and this English translation has been done by Michael Hofmann
Wassermann presents us with the story of Alexander Herzog and his disastrous marriage to a woman from a middle-class German family named Ganna. Alexander begins his tale with a history of Ganna’s childhood which seems to have a profound effect on her mental stability as an adult. Ganna is one of six daughters, fifth in line, and is described as a duckling among swans. She is not as pretty, graceful or demure as her sisters. Her disobedience and lying often result in brutal beatings from her father. No one ever thinks that Ganna could attract a man to marry; but Alexander, a young and up-and-coming writer, enters the scene and Ganna is smitten with him.
The beginning of the story has a light and funny tone as Alexander tells us about Ganna’s devotion to him and his writing. She follows him around like a puppy and adores anything and everything he writes. During this time Alexander is not able to make a successful living from the sales of his books so he is often in debt and wondering where his next meal will come from. It starts to wound his pride when he is forced to rely heavily on the charity and pity of his friends. Ganna suggests marriage to him because her rather sizeable dowry would mean the end of his financial woes. Alexander dismisses Ganna’s suggestion of marriage as ridiculous, first and foremost because is not the one- woman, settling-down type of man. But Ganna is relentless and finally wears him down, even threating to jump off a balcony if Alexander doesn’t agree to marry her.
Alexander lets Ganna and her world wash over him and he accepts his fate as her husband and a member of her extended family. But Alexander’s passivity is his greatest flaw and he ignores the many warning signs of his impending misery and doom. I kept reading the book and cringing because of all the gloomy foreshadowing. The marriage starts to unravel rather quickly because it is evident that Ganna is mentally unstable, volatile, paranoid, and quite possibly psychotic. She yells at the servants and then plays the part of the victim; she makes quick and intimate friends with various people in society and just as quickly makes them her mortal enemy. Ganna and Alexander fight constantly and all the while Alexander keeps believing that he can change Ganna, calm her down, make her see reason.
After about ten years of marriage Alexander has many affairs which Ganna accepts as something that Alexander needs to do; she is content with the fact that she is the lawful wife and that he will always come home to her. But when Alexander meets and falls in love with a woman named Bettina, all of this changes. Bettina is kind and patient and happy and Alexander, possibly for the first time in his life, falls deeply in love with her. After carrying on their affair for several years, Alexander finally decides that he must ask Ganna for a divorce. This divorce pushes Ganna over the edge to the point at which she is completely obsessed with making Alexander’s life miserable. She employs one lawyer after another to ring more and more money out of him and to drag out the divorce for years. At one point it is estimated that she has a team of forty lawyers working to make Alexander’s life miserable. The last third of the book goes on for pages about the awful mess that Ganna makes out of everyone’s life and the horrible stress she causes to Alexander and Bettina.
I really should not have finished reading this book before bed because I laid awake for quite awhile thinking about it. The combination of Alexander’s passivity and Ganna’s mental instability causes a perfect storm of misery for both of them. The book is also an interesting commentary on mental illness and the far-reaching effects it has on a family. How does one deal with a person who is so completely irrational, paranoid and volatile? I think if Ganna were written about in the 21st century should would probably be diagnosed with a personality disorder or a psychosis.
The New York Review of Books has reissued another great classic from the German Language which I highly recommend if you enjoy books that explore marriage, psychological issues and unforgetable characters.
About the Author:
He completed his military service in Nuremberg. Afterward, he stayed in southern Germany and in Switzerland. In 1894 he moved to Munich. Here he worked as a secretary and later as a copy editor at the paper Simplicissimus. Around this time he also became acquainted with other writers Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Thomas Mann.
In 1896 he released his first novel, Melusine. Interestingly, his last name (Wassermann) means “water-man” in German; a “Melusine” (or “Melusina”) is a figure of European legends and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers.
From 1898 he was a theater critic in Vienna. In 1901 he married Julie Speyer, whom he divorced in 1915. Three years later he was married again to Marta Karlweis.
After 1906, he lived alternatively in Vienna or at Altaussee in der Steiermark where he died in 1934 after a severe illness.
In 1926, he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Art. He resigned in 1933, narrowly avoiding an expulsion by the Nazis. In the same year, his books were banned in Germany owing to his Jewish ancestry.
Wassermann’s work includes poetry, essays, novels, and short stories. His most important works are considered the novel Der Fall Maurizius (1928) and the autobiography, My Life as German and Jew (Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude) (1921), in which he discussed the tense relationship between his German and Jewish identities.