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.’
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.
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.