My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann

With Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month in full swing, I’ve been searching my shelves for suitable books, and this one caught my eye. First published in 1934 and freshly translated in 2012 by Michael Hofmann, My First Wife is a (lightly) fictionalised history of Wassermann’s own troubled marriage to Julie Speyer. The names have been changed, but Hofmann’s afterword leaves us in little doubt that this extraordinary narrative is ‘almost wholly true. Nothing of significance has been omitted.’

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Alexander Herzog narrates the story in the form of an extended account of his relationship with Ganna Mevis over the past thirty years. Alexander, a German Jew and published author, meets Ganna when he flees from Munich to Vienna to escape his creditors and the fallout from a love affair. Ganna, the fifth of six girls born into a bourgeois family, is something of a handful: she is highly strung, ambitious, but absent-minded; an ugly duckling amongst five swans. Through her experience of life in the Mevis household, Ganna has come to believe that she must lie in order to get herself out of trouble:

‘Lying becomes an indispensable weapon for Ganna, like the black liquid into which the cuttlefish disappears.’ (pg. 6, Penguin Classics)

Ganna (who by now has developed a fixation for literature) sets her sights on Alexander despite his rather poor financial circumstances. Intrigued by the girl’s originality and excitable character, Alexander allows himself to fall under Ganna’s spell, and an engagement beckons. Even at this early stage in the couple’s relationship, the warning signs are there. Alexander detects ‘something of the sorceress’ about Ganna: her desire to please him is ‘nigh on obsessive;’ some of her movements seem strange and predatory. Nevertheless, Alexander presses ahead; he envisages a comfortable life as a writer and preparations for the marriage commence. Ganna’s father, Professor Mevis, is delighted by the union and embraces the opportunity to free himself of any responsibility for the girl. He will provide a substantial dowry, but in return Alexander must sign a prenup, a legal document that will contribute to his undoing in the years to come:

The dowry was spelled out in figures; but the rights and duties of the respective spouses were described in utterly opaque legalese. There was also something about revocability in the event of dissolution. I wasn’t familiar with the word. Since I didn’t ask, no one felt called upon to tell me. I was bored. I signed. I thought: the Professor is a man of honour, why shouldn’t I sign? It seemed unreasonable to me to ask questions. Twenty-five years later, I understood what it was I had put my name to. A quarter of a century had to pass before the light went on and I saw I had been duped. (pg. 45)

Wassermann’s description of the wedding itself is quite something. He recalls a day of indescribable noise: the endless clattering of plates; a stream of handshakes; a never-ending sequence of pretentious speeches. It’s an extended passage that cries out to be quoted, but here’s a brief summary to whet your appetite:

All in all, when I think about it today, it was a concentrated parody of the social mores of the epoch. Life of a comfortable middle class condensed into a matinee performance, with musical accompaniment from a mildly soused four-piece band. (pg. 49)

The couple’s marriage comes under pressure from the outset. Ganna maintains the purse strings insisting they must live on the interest from the dowry, the capital itself is not be touched. And so begins an endless round of false economies and fanatical bookkeeping, all spearheaded by Ganna. But by focusing on the minutiae, Ganna fails to see the bigger picture. Before long, the first of the Herzogs’ three children arrives. Finances are tight, and Alexander has to dip into the capital.

Clueless about life and lacking even a modicum of common sense, Ganna is unable to relate to the household servants. She demands the unrealistic, the impossible, and flies off the handle when people fail to deliver. Here is a woman hell bent on turning every minor incident into a crisis:

Ganna doesn’t let nature get away with anything. She believes in doctors the way a devout Catholic believes in the Holy Communion. At the slightest suggestion of a symptom the doctor is sent for, a specialist even, for whatever it is. Any and every doctor in her eyes is a sort of all-powerful bourgeois God. But there’s trouble for this Godhead if he doesn’t bring about an instant cure. Then we get blaspheming and the daughter of the heathen kraal will send for a fresh god. (pg.75)

Alexander struggles against the force of Ganna’s excessive emotions; he warns his wife, imploring her to see sense, but all his efforts are in vain:

By temperament, she was a force of nature, proof against any civilizatory intentions. All her life she took it for a brutal meddling in her character if anyone tried to rein in or refine the elemental strain in her. (pg. 55)

To impede Ganna and change the direction of her affect is as hopeless as it would be to ask a storm to kindly take itself off somewhere else. (pg. 75)

Another child arrives; the Herzogs swing from one house to another; staff come and go. By way of an escape, Alexander embarks on a sequence of affairs and eventually meets and falls in love with Bettina, an intelligent, intuitive and empathetic woman, she is the love of Alexander’s life. In time, he seeks a divorce so as to establish a new life with Bettina, but Ganna opposes the severance in the somewhat deluded belief that Alexander will come to his senses and return. After all, he can ill afford to support two households. What follows is a litany of unreasonable financial demands from Ganna, a torrent of legal letters and court orders sufficient to occupy an army of thirty to forty lawyers in pursuit of her interests. Here’s Alexander as he summarises the Ganna modus operandi:

She didn’t discriminate between good and evil, she couldn’t tell the difference between a bridge and an abyss. Lyrical paean and toxic brew, plea and threat, truth and contrivance, emotion and business, affection and embitterment – it was all one hopeless inextricable tangle. Overheated style, ice-cold calculation. In a typical run of four consecutive sentences, the first one would be self-pity, the second accusation, the third a demand for money and the fourth a declaration of love. (pgs. 175-176)

My First Wife is a distressing and detailed account of the disintegration of a marriage, all the more affecting as it mirrors the story of Wassermann’s own ruinous union with Speyer. The writing is excellent throughout, although I must admit to finding it an emotionally challenging read. Wassermann portrays Ganna as a deluded, obsessive and cruel woman determined to destroy Alexander and anything he touches. I can’t help but feel that many of Ganna’s issues stem from her troubled relationship with her father and the ‘twice-weekly prophylactic beatings’ she experienced as a child. The early chapters are quite significant as they offer an insight into the girl’s childhood:

Beatings only made her more wilful, and drove the badness further into her. When she was beaten, she would scream like a banshee. (pg. 4)

Also, there are times when Alexander’s choices only serve to exacerbate his situation. Despite Ganna’s deranged behaviour, he feels responsible for the woman and fails to take decisive action at key moments. (I’m very conscious that we only hear one side of the story and it left me wondering how Ganna would portray the marriage.) When he finally leaves to live with Bettina, Alexander hopes for a degree of tranquillity, but the spectre of Ganna continues to cloud his existence, and he finds it virtually impossible to experience any joy. By the end of the novel, he is a broken man.

German Lit Month

My First Wife is a remarkable piece of writing, a devastating story, Wassermann wrote this account at the end of his career (he died in 1934 and the text was published posthumously). If you’re interested in further information, Caroline’s blog contains an interesting piece on the background to the book.

My First Wife is published in the UK by Penguin Classics, tr. by Michael Hofmann. Source: personal copy.

43 thoughts on “My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is fascinating and very intense, Helen. It’s been sitting on my bookshelves for a couple of years, but I just hadn’t got around it for some reason. German Lit Month prompted me to pick it up, and I’m glad I did!

      Reply
  1. Caroline

    Thanks for this wonderful review and for the link.
    I have still not read the book because – owning the complete original, I can’t really just read one part even though it seems to work so well on its own.
    Oh the beatings. Black Pedagogy – I say no more. Some psychologists think if, at the time, the beating of children and the demand of total obedience hadn’t been such a typical feature of childrearing in Germany, Hitler might not have been as “successful”.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, Caroline, and you’re very welcome. The background is fascinating; it’s almost as if Herzog’s/Wassermann’s story was ‘hidden’ in the larger text. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think of it when you do get a chance to read the full work. I bought My First Wife after reading The Guardian’s review a couple of years ago, but I just hadn’t got around to it. German Lit Month seemed the right time to pick it up.

      Just thinking about the beatings and that culture of obedience sends a shiver down my spine. As an aside, have you seen Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon, set in a German village just before the First World War? As a film, it really captures that ultra-strict approach to raising children, and there’s a very sinister feel to it. I was reminded of it when reading the early section of My First Wife.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This does sound powerful.

    As you alluded to, we really never know how one sided something like this is. Thus I think that a book like this works best if the reader does look at it as fiction.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, it’s a very powerful and an intense read, Brian – it’s pretty full-on. I must admit to having quite a lot of sympathy for Alexander, but I’m very conscious that we only get to hear his perspective on the relationship. You’re right, I think we have to consider it as a fictional portrayal of a marriage, and it left me wondering how Ganna would present it. In fact, in My First Wife, Ganna writes a roman-à-clef called Psyche Bleeds, as an attempt to get one over on Alexander and convey her side of things. In real life, Julie Speyer (Wassermann’s wife) wrote a book, the title of which translates as ‘The Living Heart: Novel of a Marriage, about the breakdown of a writer’s marriage. I don’t know if it’s available in translation (I need to investigate), but it would be a fascinating one to read.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review and very intriguing. I get the impression that the narrator is not necessarily that sympathetic a character and I must admit that what you hint about the source of Ganna’s behaviour would make me actually question *his* behaviour. Nevertheless I may well track this down as I like your quotes!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, Karen. Yes, I do wonder about the reliability of Alexander’s narration, and I’m very conscious that we never hear Ganna’s side of the story. I must admit to having quite a bit of sympathy for him, even though he is completely naive at the outset and doesn’t do himself any favours by embarking on a sequence of affairs! I think you’d find this a fascinating read, and there’s scope for different interpretations/readings of Ganna’s behaviour (and to what extent Alexander is to blame). In fact as I mentioned in my reply to Brian (above), in the novel, Ganna writes a roman-à-clef called Psyche Bleeds. It’s an attempt to get one over on Alexander and convey her side of things. In real life, Julie Speyer (Wassermann’s wife) wrote a book, the title of which translates as The Living Heart: Novel of a Marriage. I need to check if it’s available as it would make a fascinating companion piece to My First Wife.

      Reply
  4. susanosborne55

    This sounds fascinating – I wonder if Wassermann’s wife was still alive when the novel was published. I hope not! As for ‘prophylactic’ beatings, hard do imagine those not having a deleterious effect on the marriage. Thanks, as ever, for pointing me at this one, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      You’ve very welcome, Susan. Yes, Wassermann’s wife (Julie Speyer) was alive when it was published. In fact, Hofmann’s excellent afterword mentions that she outlived Wassermann by almost thirty years. I can’t help but think there must have been some psychological fallout from the beatings Ganna experienced as a child…

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I found it riveting, I have to say. I hope you like it, Gemma – it’s pretty intense so you’ll probably want to have a change of tone for your follow-on book! I’d be very interested to hear how you get on with it.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’d find this fascinating, Stu, and I’d be very interested in your take on it. As ever, I’m sure you’d be able to make connections with other works.

      Reply
  5. Emma

    Excellent and fascinating review. It seems to be a terrible marriage and it would have been interesting to hear Ganna’s opinion on the same event.
    It is sad to think it’s based upon the writer’s actual experience.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, Emma. It does portray a nightmare of a marriage, and it’s desperately distressing at times especially given its connection to Wassermann’s own union with Julie Speyer.

      Yes, I really wanted to hear Ganna’s own version, not just events filtered through Alexander’s point of view. You might have seen this in the comments above, but in the novel, Ganna writes a roman-à-clef called Psyche Bleeds (what a title). It’s an attempt to get one over on Alexander and convey her side of things. In real life, Julie Speyer (Wassermann’s wife) wrote a book – the title translates as The Living Heart: Novel of a Marriage. I’ll have to see whether it’s available to read as I’m sure it would make for an intriguing counterpoint to Wassermann’s text.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, John. The story behind this book is extremely interesting, just as fascinating as the novel itself. As I understand it, one of the characters in the full work writes a book, so there’s a novel (now published as ‘My First Wife’) within the broader story. I think that’s why it works so well as a standalone piece.

      Further, it’s almost as if Wassermann has ‘hidden’ the account within the larger text. There’s a suggestion that it might have been a conscious decision on the part of Wassermann to ‘half-hide’ the story of his marriage in this way. In his afterword, Hofmann likens it to Wassermann building ‘a haystack for his needle.’ He knew he was dying and wanted to put out his own version of the story surrounding his marriage. By conveying it through Alexander Herzog’s character, it could remain deniable or the subject of speculation at the very least. Intriguing stuff.

      Reply
  6. Guy Savage

    I already own this one (still unread) so the good news is that I don’t have to go and buy it. It can be rough to read about bad marriages, but interesting too at the same time. It’s easier as an outsider to see the pathology.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s a bonus, Guy. Glad to hear you have a copy as I think you’ll find the psychological aspects of the story very interesting indeed.

      I felt for Alexander, I must admit, but I’m also acutely aware that we only hear his side of the story. Ganna is painted as a monster, a sort of human tornado, but there’s a sense that Alexander could have been more understanding and supportive of Ganna, certainly in the early stages of their marriage. I did find it fascinating though, despite the emotional intensity of it all. Looking forward to hearing what you make of this one (whenever you get a chance to read it).

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    I remember reading this but nor reviewing it. Probably largely lack of time, but I also think I found it unremittingly negative and didn’t like the one-sidedness.
    It’s also a very strange idea to excavate a novel from a larger text – though there are a few longer novels where this might not be such a bad thing!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is difficult to find the time to review everything, and I can understand why you didn’t post on this one. I found it strangely gripping, but rather draining at the same time. The one-sidedness is very pronounced here, and I ended up feeling some sympathy for Alexander (even though I know we only hear his version). It’s open to different interpretations though, as the tone of Alexander’s narrative can work against him. I guess that’s why it would be fascinating to hear Ganna’s side of the story.

      As Naomi commented under a different post (it may have been Ørstavik’s The Blue Room) there are times when it would be good to have a private forum for discussion of certain aspects. There’s a key scene between Ganna and Bettina, one I’d like to discuss, but it might reveal too much about the ending!

      Reply
  8. Seamus Duggan

    This sounds fascinating, and having just read anther of Hoffman’s wonderful translations of Josef Roth, I would consider his name a reason to be interested in a book on its own..

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I must get around to reading Roth at some point. The Radetzky March has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve been trying to read from my shelves rather than buying any new ones for German Lit Month. I hope you’ll be reviewing the Roth/Hofmann you’ve just finished as I’d like to hear your thoughts. Hofmann’s name on the translation was one of the things that attracted me to My First Wife, I must admit, and his afterword is excellent. His commentary on the book and the ‘story behind the story’ is fascinating in its own right. I think you’d like this, Seamus – it is very full-on though.

      Reply
  9. Bellezza

    The Germans are so good at the emotionally exhausting stuff, they’re good at being heavy period, from their food to their decorating to their writing. But, there’s a place for such heaviness, for such distress, and I can well imagine this doomed marriage from your post. So sad.

    P.s. If I was scouring my shelves, I would not have come up with such an interesting novel. I suspect your bookshelves are like Mary Poppin’s carpet bag: never ending surprises. ;)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right there, Bellezza. The three books I’ve reviewed for German Lit Month (All Quiet, Transit and this one) are all emotionally charged in different ways, and the Wassermann in particular left me craving a complete change of tone, something light. The marriage was doomed from the start, and there’s a sense that Alexander should have seen it coming (although he isn’t entirely free of blame for the terrible events that follow). Very sad as you say, especially given the couple had three children.

      I love your image of my shelves! They’re in a bit of a muddle to be honest, and every now and again I discover something I’d completely forgotten about. I bought this one off the back of The Guardian’s review a couple of years ago and only found it again during a recent clear-out. I’m sure your shelves contain their fair share of hidden treasures too!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a really fascinating story, Alice, but you’re right…it’s desperately sad and emotionally draining in a way. When I came to write my review, I looked through all the quotes I’d marked, and they were all of a similar tone. There isn’t much hope here, but it’s a remarkable story nonetheless.

      Reply
  10. erdeaka

    hello, Jacqui :)) it’s been a very long time since the last time I visit your blog. I see that you’re joining #GermanLitMonth. Ah, well, I’m always curious about German literature, especially the contemporary one. Though this book is a classic, I think it’s quite interesting :)). I don’t know why but to me a wrecked marriage is always an intriguing topic to follow ;p. Nice review, by the way!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi erdeaka. No worries at all, we all have such busy lives these days! Yes, this my third for #GermanLitMonth – all classics so far, but I’ve got a review of a more contemporary German novel coming later this week. In fact, it’s one you might like as the story focuses on a relationship and it’s written in quite a personal style.

      I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like the Wassermann. It is a very intriguing story, but we only hear Alexander’s version, and it left me wanting a better insight into Ganna’s perspective. Fascinating stuff though.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Vishy

    Interesting book, Jacqui. Looks like it would be a bit hard for me to read it though. I need to be in a brave mood to tackle it. Nice to know that Wassermann’s prose is wonderful. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. It’s an emotionally draining read for sure, and I can quite understand why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. You would have to be in a strong mood to go for it.

      Reply
  13. Max Cairnduff

    This has been on my radar ever since John Self reviewed it. It sounds marvellous, but perhaps claustrophobic in the way fiction about disintegrating marriages can be. Interesting to see there’s a book by Wassermann’s wife. I was wondering about Ganna’s side of the story, particularly when he starts having a string of affairs, so it would make a very interesting companion piece as you say.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is fascinating and a really remarkable story, but very intense – claustrophobic is a good word for it actually. I’m in two minds as to whether to recommend it to you, Max. The quotes will give you a good feel, but when I came to write my review, virtually every passage I’d marked was ferocious – there’s so much shade but very little light. I’m glad to have read it though, even if it did leave me feeling rather drained by the experience.

      The story behind the book is a piece in its own right, and Hoffmann’s afterword is just brilliant, it’s almost worth reading for that alone. I had a bit of a look for Julie Speyer’s book last week but couldn’t find anything available in translation. Ah well…

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Yes, I have a book titled A Child of the Century which was one of two linked novels written respectively by a man and woman. The man’s book is translated into English, her’s isn’t. I’ll pass on from that without further comment I guess.

        Hofmann is a selling point for me. He’s a great translator and a good judge of German literature, and to be honest while it sounds ferocious your review tempted more than dissuaded.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, Hofmann’s a selling point for me too, and I really want to read at least one of his Joseph Roth translations next year. The Radetzky March in all probability as I’ve heard nothing but great things. Well, if you do decide to go for My First Wife, I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of it.

          I haven’t come across A Child of the Century. Tell me more, not that I need to add to my collection of books or anything…

          Reply
          1. Max Cairnduff

            I don’t know a huge amount. He had a relationship with George Sand, and they each wrote a novel about it from their perspective, both I think well regarded. His is translated into English, hers isn’t, which is as neat an example of literary sexism as you could possibly hope for.

            Reply
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