Read an Excerpt from Jakob Wassermann's Searing Novel 'My Marriage'

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Read an Excerpt from Jakob Wassermann's Searing Novel 'My Marriage'

Brutally honest scenes of matrimony from Jakob Wassermann's novel My Marriage, out today from New York Review Books Classics.
January 26, 2016, 5:37pm

Jakob Wassermann. Photo by Emil Otto Hoppe/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Jakob Wassermann (1873–1934) was the son of a shopkeeper. His mother died when he was young. He published his debut novel, Melusine, in 1896. Then he spent some time writing for newspapers. And eventually he became an acquaintance of Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann. He wrote and published many novels during his life. His previously untranslated autobiographical novel My Marriage was published after he died. I am not sure whether he intended for it to be published. It is honest in a way that writing-for-others often is not. I mean that it is careless and quick, written in little bursts of what might be anger, or maybe just note-taking, or memory. Most striking, Wassermann's narrator doesn't conceal his pique. His anger reflects badly on him—when it clearly betrays selfishness—but it's not edited for the ring of objectivity. He writes, "I hear her dull 'Hallo-o' which drives me wild with nervousness, ten times an evening, 20—a real huntsman's sound, it sounds like the jungle with its grim long-drawn-out 'o-o.'" It's an angry voice, the voice of a friend confiding over a beer, a bit oppressive, yes, but remarkable for its candor. The book comes out today from New York Review Books Classics.

—Amie Barrodale

An Excerpt from 'My Marriage'

The tragedy of the male

Before I relate how the ever uglier and more distressing business of the school went on and finally ended, I want to talk about my own experiences in the years before the war, and in the first years of the war—two in particular that, each in their own way, had a profound effect on the future. The one was the birth of my daughter Doris, the other the gift of a house—a whole fully furnished house, with grounds—the kind gift of a young couple I had been close friends with for some time. I had told them about my domestic trouble, the difficulty of finding peace and concentration in a rented apartment, and the resulting tendency to fritter away the day and do my work at night. Then, on a generous impulse, they offered me the money to buy a house in the country. I was so stunned I could hardly breathe. I didn't dare turn it down, but felt I couldn't accept it either. It was extraordinary; I asked myself if I had any right to avail myself of this favorable smile of fortune, it almost seemed to me it would be betraying my friends to do so. How can you deserve such a sacrifice—albeit those making it don't see it as such—how [can you?] thank them, when thanks you can't give will end up burdening you? I had none of the greedy self-certainty of those geniuses (I didn't think I was one in any case) who accept support and help from their admirers as a perfectly natural form of tribute. I was too steeped in the bourgeois ethos of deals and contracts. The formulas 'nowt for nowt' and 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' were in my blood. It wasn't easy for me to see myself in any way as (in some higher sense) 'deserving' the generosity of these friends.

Ganna, however, had no such scruples. She thought it was absolutely to be expected that people would seek to spoil me a little. They were only giving me back what they had already had from me in plenty, she said, with eyes wide. 'Come off it,' I said, petulantly, 'there must be a couple of thousand like me. Ninety per cent of us will probably die in a ditch. You're doing pretty well if you have enough to eat and a bed to sleep in at night. What's so special about me? What have I done to deserve a luxury villa? We have no right to such security, it seems to me.' Ganna vehemently disagreed. She was too obviously the child of a well-provided and self-righteous era where mind and work had their value just as stocks and shares did. It raised my worth immeasurably in her eyes, although she seemed not to be aware of the fact that it was her husband who had been given the house. Nothing like this had happened since the days of the Medicis. She trumpeted her and my good fortune to all and sundry, and when I asked her to be a little discreet, she looked at me uncomprehendingly. But it gave us a neutral territory where our shared interests could get to work on a common project. Ganna needed to be kept busy, she was like a stove needing fuel. She could do 20 things at once, and each of them with verve and enthusiasm. And when we discussed the house together, looked for a piece of land, spoke to the architect, studied the plans, bought furniture and lamps and other things, the besetting passivity I fell into whenever I was with her left me, and I could at least be dragged along. And, so that she didn't see I was only allowing myself to be dragged along, I would stroke her tiny hand which was feeding me sugar lumps, so that I for my part wouldn't notice how she was dragging me along. Marriage offers the weaker party plenty of opportunity to show no character.

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It took no particular cleverness or endeavor on Ganna's part to induce me to have my new possession—this house, the workplace and refuge intended for me personally—registered in her name as well. One day we went along to the land-registry office and Ganna was legally made co-owner of the villa. I gave the matter no thought whatsoever. I didn't think that I was thereby relinquishing the one and only thing that was entirely mine. I didn't reflect that I was establishing Ganna in a feeling of ownership and entitlement that—beyond the actual name on the deeds—signified in some magical sense a transfer of body and soul.

But I was only superficially engaged with all this. In hindsight, these years came to seem like a trek along a dark, overhung path, with rare moments of rest or looking up. I could sense that tremendous things were imminent. The black cloud, still invisible below the horizon, was already projecting electric waves, and I was continually nervous, like a bird before a storm. There was an awful magic being wrought over the land and over the people, I felt ill at ease when I walked at night, as I often had occasion to, through the streets of German cities; I suffered from my second sight like a sleeper dreaming his house is on fire. It seemed to me another world was claiming me than the one in which I had thus far been content to be. What I had achieved seemed negligible, inadequate; it spoke to too few people, it existed in outmoded forms. I had a sense of others, waiting, but I didn't know anything about them. I was still far from my limits, and far from myself; if I failed to break through my crust, then I would find myself crushed by it.

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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 or shell with unknown contents, peeling them like a fruit which I then discarded. It wasn't Don Juan-ishness, nor was it sheer lechery either. There might have been something in it of the misunderstanding that takes the living being and half-angrily, half-playfully exchanges it for an imaginary one, and contents itself with that because it can't perfect the other. Perhaps it was something to do with the tragedy of the male who sets off towards the glacial region of symbols and en route forgets himself with warm-blooded nymphs.

By the time the baby was born, we were already living in our new house.

The truth begins to dawn

Only then did events with the school board take on the shape of the catastrophe that deeply affected both Ganna's life and mine. The main cause of the trouble was that Ganna stubbornly refused to make over the meadow to the company. The stockholders described it as intolerable that the extensive land for the project, on which the newly built school was standing, should remain in separate ownership, and that the owner, herself a member of the board, should charge a substantial rent for it. In the course of stormy meetings, Ganna was upbraided for the immoral and unbusinesslike nature of the situation. It made her look bad, it was said, that she laid claim both to the idealism of the project and the lion's share of the profits. That is very much the way of it: People who have disappointed expectations of money are extremely hard on those who, while on the side of the angels, also want to turn a profit. That's wrong, they say, there are businessmen and there are priests, you can't be both at once. The other side's lawyers even contested Ganna's title. Their claim was that Ganna had managed to acquire the title by some underhand method, and they sought to expose it.

Ganna is left reeling. The world is darkening on her. She swears sacred oaths that she would rather die than give up her meadow; she won't give up a square foot of it, no, not so much as a blade of grass. Inevitably, the children, for whose sake this venture was started, become aware of their mother's unpopularity. The advantage that Ganna sought to gain for them is lost. But neither can I find that they are disadvantaged and emotionally damaged by all this, as Ganna weepingly claims. They needed to learn to take the rough with the smooth, I opine with a calmness that drives Ganna into a fury. 'How can you stick up for those criminals?' she hisses at me. 'That just shows what a weakling you are. The whole world knows that you abandon your wife at the earliest opportunity. Well, God will punish you for it.' Those speeches! I really haven't abandoned her, and why is she coming with her divine punishment? What does she know of God, she who only ever uses His name in vain. Her god is Ganna Herzog's special constable, who will launch his thunderbolts the moment his dear Ganna is hurt by a bad person.

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She goes up to the teachers and gives them all a piece of her mind. It fails to improve matters. Ferry goes on strike; we've reached the stage where the children are paying for Ganna's misdeeds. The quality of the teaching, which Ganna once praised to the skies, is suddenly wretched. The same teachers who only recently were paragons, so many Fröbels and Pestalozzis, are now held in contempt. She sticks at nothing in her campaign against the headmaster Borngräber, with whom she was certainly once half in love. She conspires with handymen and charwomen. Day after day she hangs around with people in whom the name Herzog inspires no respect. She tussles with them. Like anyone with a political mission, she is surrounded by provocateurs and flatterers. I worry that she won't come out of this smelling of roses.

The establishment is crumbling. She comes home in the evening shattered from her campaigns. She gulps down the warmed-up leftovers of lunch, not tasting anything, not knowing what she's eating. She runs into the nursery, where she opens the floodgates of her dammed-up tenderness, because, with her maternal care limited to this brief interval, she tries to make up for constancy by intensity of feeling, and remains sternly unaware of anything that might show her idols in any other light than in her immediate passion. But then all it needs is for one of the children to test her patience, or not play along with her latest whim, and she starts to yell crazily at the shocked—a moment ago babied—creature, and if I try and intervene (it's one of Ganna's abiding characteristics that she can't stand any contradiction, not from anyone, in any matter), then she will foam with rage. If the telephone shrills she shuffles out into the corridor in her down-at-heel slippers, and I hear her dull 'Hallo-o' which drives me wild with nervousness, ten times an evening, 20—a real huntsman's sound, it sounds like the jungle with its grim long-drawn-out 'o-o.' It's very evident if the person at the other end is someone who wants something from her, or if it's someone she wants something from; if it's the former her voice is cutting, mordant, bossy, and if it's the latter it's sweet, beseeching, submissive. After her supper she comes into my room and combs her hair, an activity that seems to take her forever, during which she dreams and builds castles in the air, and chews over old wrongs she's suffered. The comb drives crackling through her chestnut hair, her wide-open blue eyes stare fixedly into space. What they're so fixed on is anyone's guess, not even she herself knows; but the bottomless pain etched into her features moves me. And when I think she's on her way to bed, so that her tortured soul will finally have some peace, she will remember something and hurry across to the desk, to compose some long screed or epistle which the next day will turn out to be perfectly meaningless and superfluous.

'What are you playing at, Alexander,' she cried, 'a father of young children, a family to support, you're not serious?'

It's in the nature of hell that it affords ever deeper degrees of torment and dread; you think it can't get any worse, but you're only in some antechamber of limbo, some zone of moderate awfulness; and that was my position when Ferry and Elisabeth were removed from the school and put in an ordinary state school instead. Whether it was punishment or a voluntary withdrawal wasn't vouchsafed to me. Ganna claimed it was an act of revenge and I had to believe her; I had no desire to go looking for the truth, I didn't want to create yet more conflict. The heads of the state schools had little good to say about the private school, and Ganna's bewilderment was great when the various gymnasiums refused mid-semester to admit Ferry; and her shock was even greater when it was put down to the insufficient preparedness of the boy. Anxiety darkened my mood. I felt accountable for my son, but how could I stand up for him at the court of destiny, when his mother robbed me of all responsibility and remonstrated passionately with the judge against whose verdict there was no appeal? The thing she had tried to save him from now came to pass, with a vengeance: intellectual insecurity, academic caprice. I didn't have the time to win back from her what she claimed from me and the world as hers of right. No, I didn't have either the time or the energy to fight with her and persuade her to change course. I thought—maybe foolishly, maybe vaingloriously—that God had given me my days for some other purpose than that anyway. Ganna's world was a world of limitless freedom, and for her to help herself from it equally limitlessly was the only way to happiness that she knew, even though whatever happiness resulted wasn't what she wanted. I can remember hours when I argued with her as though my soul's salvation depended on it, tried to break her rigid purpose, tried to make her milder, gentler, more insightful. But it was like trying to draw a face on a sheet of water. Once, in a strange fit of contrition, she said to me: 'For you I would have to be a saint, but I can't become holy without a mortal sin.' I have never been able to forget those painful and terrible words. An abyss opened, at the bottom of which I glimpsed a Ganna fighting with ghostly shadows.

And what about me? What was I? A man being crushed in the fist of destiny. The war was tearing at me, tearing me in two the way a storm breaks a sheet of ice on a frozen lake; it broke me and I flooded and flooded, and the quiet dreamer and worker, the hibernal dreamer, the frozen dreamer, became a waker with the experiences of many, the sufferings of many in his bosom. Sleep and peace fled from me, and I stepped out of my rocky fastness; I tried to help, I tried to serve, I was looking for a soul, and if I hadn't happened to find it finally in Bettina Merck, then despair would have choked me.

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Ganna remained oblivious to all this. There was never a conversation about these things, no chance of a serious debate, as she was completely taken up with her business. There was something eerie about the way the global catastrophe seemed not to touch her. Her involvement in the events that shook all five continents was that of a little girl who was surprised to see the sky reddened by distant fires. She didn't quite believe that the news that reached her ears was based on actual events. Her shock had something feigned, it was as though there was some conspirative agreement between people who didn't concern her; all the while the true, the palpable, the Ganna world, the Ganna nursery world had nothing to do with these bruited, alleged doings.

I had volunteered in the first few weeks of the war. No man of heart and upstanding character at that time gave any thought to the rights and wrongs of the war, nor did anyone know what war actually was, or what it meant. We were parts of a whole and the whole was, or appeared to be, a living organism, a people, a fatherland, a place of being and becoming. I made up an excuse to Ganna, travelled into Vienna overnight and went to the consulate. The Consul, who knew me, initially wanted to pack me off home because they were so overrun with volunteers, but I insisted on being examined. The doctor found a cardiac neurosis. I went home desperately disappointed to Ebenweiler and told Ganna what I'd done. She was aghast with shock.

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'What are you playing at, Alexander,' she cried, 'a father of young children, a family to support, you're not serious?'

Then it was my turn to be shocked; I think it was on that day that it occurred to me that the female Don Quixote was only a decoy.

'And what's the matter with your heart?' she moaned, when I told her what the doctor had said. 'You see, it's because you don't look after yourself. You smoke too much, you don't sleep enough, you should listen to me.'

'Oh no, Ganna,' I said, 'it's not that. Living means using up your heart. That's the point. I will have got too upset about too many things. Has it never occurred to you that getting upset is worse for me than smoking and not sleeping?'

That hurt her. She wanted to know what had upset me, as though it could be anything I might put my finger on. I was unable to give her a detailed instance; what difference would it have made if I had, she would have tried to talk it away and another argument would have started. Still, she kept boring in on me, and finally she asked me if I thought she was a good wife to me.

'Have you got any grounds for complaint? Tell me, aren't I a good wife to you?'

'Yes, Ganna, you are,' I said, 'you're a good wife to me.'

Then she wanted me to swear that I really meant it.

'What's the point of that, Ganna, don't be childish,' I replied, and more than ever I had the sense of her hopeless trusting in forms of words, believing in hollowed-out notions and being in love with an image of herself that bore no relation to the living being.

Ganna makes her will

By now, things have got to the point where the consortium or board or whatever the group of directors called themselves have started to demand the meadow back from Ganna. She can name a price for it, she is told, but within reason. It's not easy for Ganna to think of a number, seeing as the exploitation of the meadow is the subject of all her dreams, and she wants to make me happy by it (though I don't seem very happy about it). With a strange unaccountable tenderness she clings onto the piece of property in her mind; 'my little meadow' she says, and smiles just as blissfully as when giving our little Doris her breast. How can such a thing be, what makes someone like that tick? I can't explain it to myself.

The pressure on her from all sides is too much; she loses her nerve. Tossed back and forth between opposition and weakness, tenacity and fear, bitterness and speculative greed, she is unable to make her mind up. She asks everyone who crosses her path for an opinion—her sisters, her brothers-in-law, the servants, the suppliers, the gardener. But if one doesn't coincide with her own secret wishes she becomes unpleasant, and launches into lengthy discussions of her view and praise of the meadow.

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She calls a general meeting. People talk, quarrel, shout, and at the end Ganna promises to make her decision public the next day. The next day she communicates the price to the board in writing. No sooner has she posted the registered letter than she takes fright and asks for it back. 'They'd be laughing all the way to the bank,' she says to me, 'I should ask for three times as much, they're all well-off people and I mustn't allow them to bully me.' I warn her. I don't know what's going on, but this seems to me to be playing a dangerous game. More negotiations, more ranting and screaming, followed by an abrupt walk-out. The brothers-in-law are with me in exhorting her to moderation. Dr Pauli describes the offer made to her as decent and acceptable; she resists it with all her might, claims she is being cheated. The inappropriateness of her demand is proved to her; she seems to accept it, only an hour later to be back with her old standpoint. She runs from pillar to post, scolds those who disagree with her, wastes people's time, describes the intrigues being used to intimidate her, comes up with vast sums she is being cheated of by the pressure of the antagonists, asks every Tom, Dick, and Harry: 'Should I do it, should I not, at this price, at that price, on this condition, on that condition? Will I regret it, won't I regret it? Is it not a crime against my husband and my children if I let that gang walk away with my lovely meadow?' She thinks about nothing else. She lives like a fugitive. She neglects herself, her domestic duties, me, the children. She no longer appears at mealtimes. Sometimes she can be found sitting on a bench in the public park, eating an apple. Sometimes having a nap in an Automat, listening to a scratchy gramophone record all dewy-eyed as if it were the Philharmonic.

The story of the meadow is already making waves. To know that my name is being used in connection with it pains me.

Her indecisiveness, her anger, her restlessness, her wheeling and dealing, her tangled arguments, all the trash of a commercial dispute fought out with repulsive methods—she brings them all to me and dumps them on my lap. I am to 'have the last word.' I decline; the last word would only be the penultimate one anyway. Every evening till far into the night the same song with the same exhausting refrain that it was all for my sake, that this whole struggle was all for me and only for me. 'If you accept that, then I'll stop,' she says. 'Do you accept that, do you accept that?' Echolalia and nothing but. What am I to say? She won't stop anyway, never mind how much I accept.

I can't stand the endless rhetoric of it any more; the canny lawyerly presentations; the suspicions of people who are either acting in good faith, or who have nothing more dastardly in mind than Ganna herself, namely to make some money. I am nauseated by the disagreeable mixing of profit motive and highmindedness. The story of the meadow is already making waves. To know that my name is being used in connection with it pains me. Old Councillor Schönpflug approaches me once in the club and begs me to keep Ganna from further folly, which might end up in a court case and not just a civil one at that. It's horrible, it's humiliating, I must try and bring it to an end.

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One morning, dressed and ready to go out, I walk into Ganna's bedroom to say goodbye to her. She is just coming out of the bathroom, swathed in a red and white chequered dressing gown. No sooner does she catch sight of me than she launches into the usual daily litany. There is to be a meeting at Dr Pauli's at twelve o'clock, could I not perhaps attend. It would help her a lot. She would be forever grateful to me (or rather, I think to myself, she would never forgive me if I refused).

Of late, I haven't shown her much in the way of friendliness. It cost me too much. I can't be friendly if I don't have it in me to be so. I have become increasingly cold and laconic and irritable. I am angry with myself for my lovelessness. But my heart is blocked. I can't find a kind word. Not now either. I shrug. The thought of more talks at the lawyer's office gives me the willies. I couldn't, I'm afraid, I say. Straight away Ganna turns aggressive. If only I could leave her to rage and walk off. But her tirades are like glue, and I'm stuck fast. When she calls it pathetic, my refusal to support her, the man for whom she is sacrificing herself, I remind her I hadn't demanded or wished for any such sacrifice, and she was more use to me as a housewife and mother of our children. That earns me a salvo of derision from Ganna's mouth.

'That's the thanks I get! I bleed myself dry for such a man, such a monster, more like! What thanks!'

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'There's nothing to thank you for,' I remark with a degree of calm that should have given Ganna pause, but it washes off her, 'just as I never counted on a life like the one you're making me.'

Ganna laughs hollowly. 'What do you mean by that? What life? How do you propose to live? Do you want to starve till you get white hair? Where would you be without me anyway? Ask yourself that.'

'I don't know where I'd be without you, all I know is that I can no longer go on with you. Either you put an end to the business with the meadow and just sell it, or I'm going to leave you and get a divorce.'

No sooner has the word fallen than Ganna's features are contorted. The word is not one that has been spoken before between us. She never thought she would hear it. She feels as sure of me as if I were a part of her, an arm or a leg. She is fundamentally secure, rootedly secure. Perhaps the dread word lies in some buried depths of her unconscious, like an explosive charge in a cellar. She gives a scream. The scream, which is awful, shrill and guttural, lasts fully 15 or 20 seconds, and while she is screaming she is running around the room like a madwoman. She is certainly oblivious. She is certainly not in possession of her senses. Even so, I have the feeling that the utter loss of self-control is giving her pleasure, the pleasure of abdication, of psychic degeneration, that epileptics are said to have during a fit. While she rips the dressing-gown off with furious movements, she hurls a torrent of abuse at me. In every register of which her voice is capable she shouts the dread word at me: divorce. Inquiring, shouting, squawking, howling, gasping, with fingers hooked like claws and blue flashing eyes. And as I suffer the ghastly outburst showing me a wholly new, unsuspected Ganna in silence, she runs over to the window, stark naked as she is, and leans over the metal rail with her upper body, as though to plummet down the next moment. I am instantly reminded of the scene 16 years ago, on the balcony by the Mondsee. Basically, she always does the same thing, I think to myself sadly, reaches for the same trick to get the other person in her power, the same words, the same gestures; only I always forget, and I always fall for it. In spite of my tormenting fury I remain relatively cool. I know she won't do it; anyway there's not much danger, the window's about ten or 12 feet over the garden, which at that point is lawn—at the most she could break one or two ribs. But my certainty that she won't throw herself over gives the situation something darkly ridiculous. At the same time, the rage that has been gathering inside me suddenly bursts out like a jet of boiling steam; it's years and years since I last felt anything like it; with a single bound I am behind her, I grab her by the bare shoulders, fling her onto the bed and start blindly punching her. I still can't imagine how it came over me. I'm laying into her like a drunk in a bar fight. Like a drayman. I, Alexander Herzog, am punching a woman. And Ganna is completely quiet. Curious, because she's so quiet I stop hitting her and rush up to my room, lock the door behind me, drop into my chair, and sit perfectly still and brood about my misfortune.

And what did Ganna do in the meantime? I found out later, by chance. I found a sealed envelope on her desk, inscribed with her big accusing capital letters: My Will and Testament. When I asked her in amazement when and why she composed her will, she tells me with tear-stained face that it was just after I had hit her. I begged her not to bring it up again. But she told me about her despair and how she had sworn to herself to sell the meadow that very day. One day I would surely understand what I had done to her, what I had done to myself… From that moment on, we each had our own private stab-in-the-back story. Ganna never let go of the version that I had gone for her at the very moment she was in the process of making me millions. This figment was Ganna's prop through all the later blows of fortune she suffered. In that way, she was like all conquered peoples and power-hungry parties; without a scapegoat she had no chance of confronting reality. And scapegoats are everywhere to be found, since without divided responsibility there is no practical action.

Burdened with this moral debt, whose interest payments I with my usual willingness took upon myself, I emerged into a new phase of my life—the one for the sake of which I have set down these confessions.

Excerpted from My Marriage, by Jakob Wassermann, by arrangement with New York Review Books Classics.