Jakob Wassermann’s ‘My Marriage’ Is a Harrowing Magnum Opus of Matrimonial Horror

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If current trends prevail, the marriage rate in America will fall to zero by 2042. Still, when presented with such speculation, the mind drifts easily away from self-inspection toward matters of fact. The decline in marriage, some say, mirrors the decline in religious belief and its attendant institutions. Others suggests that millennials, the largest living generation, are merely waiting for better conditions to tie the knot. Another indisputable graph tells us that the rate of marriage in the 20th century is linked in some way to world wars and financial crises. We rush to marry before the war and after — it’s hard to kill and wed at the same time. And when depressions and recessions inevitably strike, we avoid the altar: we don’t say I do; or we say I don’t.

Quivering beneath these explanation is a nervous traditionalism, one that whispers of the civilizing advantages of marriage. If only we believed in something, a voice says, we could marry. The conditions aren’t ripe, sighs another, but one day they will be. “We kind of hope we’ve reached a floor,” says Sam Sturgeon of Demographic Intelligence, a company that measures the marriage rate, “but we really aren’t sure.”

Sturgeon is right: we aren’t sure about marriage. And we could readily turn the graphs inside out; for example, we could surmise, if we wanted, that world wars and economic crises are actually in service of the institution of marriage, which, needing a break, sometimes sends young men off to die. Or perhaps marriage, in a fit of envy and jealous rage aimed at other ways of living, summons old men to wreck the world economy. It turns out that we can say whatever we want about marriage because we aren’t, ourselves, sure about it. The inner chambers of the heart, after all, are much too dark for spelunking.

Once in a while, though, a terrorized, self-righteous man will shove aside the facts, speculations, and graphs, the indirect communications that purport to explain the whimsy of marriage as a social phenomenon, and dive straight into the matter. On these rare occasions, the writer in question, seeking to pull a pearl out of an ocean of madness, will don the protective wetsuit of fiction. One such writer, of course, was Ted Hughes, who, with no shortage of mischievousness and cowardice, pretended that his Birthday Letters were actual birthday poems he sent to his wife, Sylvia Plath, during their marriage. “That bloody end of the skein / That unravelled your marriage,” Hughes wrote to Plath, “Left your children echoing / Like tunnels in a labyrinth.” That’s a gift horse with some scary teeth.

Translator Michael Hofmann points out the above — that Hughes contrived the “fiction” of the Birthday Letters — in his afterword to Jakob Wassermann’s 1935 novel My Marriage, out this month from NYRB Classics. And like a demented minister joining two sickish books in matrimony, Hofmann adds that Wassermann’s novel, like Hughes’ poetry, uses the veil of fiction to tell the true story of a tumultuous marriage and its protracted aftermath, in this case between Wassermann, who is disguised in the novel as Alexander Herzog, and the bourgeois whirlwind Julie Speyer, known here as Ganna Mevis. The photo of Speyer on the book’s cover, which shows a woman with large, intense if somewhat vacant eyes, folded arms, and a slightly agape mouth — a woman, in other words, who appears to be conspiring — almost tells the whole story.

But even if My Marriage is the best (and roughest) novel I have ever read that focuses on a failed marriage — and it is — it does not tell the whole story: of the mysteries of marriage, or even of Wassermann’s own back-breaking marriage, which we learn (in Hofmann’s afterword) eventually bankrupted and killed the man. And it does not tell the whole story because, frankly, it is a one-sided character assassination unlike anything else in fiction.

The whole thing begins and ends with Ganna, one of six daughters of a Viennese law professor and his heiress wife. The daughters, Herzog tells us, “were known all over the city” for their classic beauty and discipline (“a small army of Amazons,” Herzog writes, “a sealed phalanx”). But among the five, Ganna is the “ugly duckling” who from childhood was “hard to manage.” Prone to Oyster Princess-like outbursts, fits of play-acting, tardiness, breaking things, and outright lying, she is picked on by her sisters and tolerated by her father, who looms over the household as “a commander-in-chief.” Later, when Ganna is a little older, her confused inner and outer worlds play out, for her friends and family, a “continual comedy of errors” including “[m]isplaced letters, garbled names, forgotten appointments, muddled dates and places, forsaken umbrellas, lost gloves, attempts to leave by the wrong door, inappropriate replies, pointless errands…” When a “professional seducer” tries to hit on her at a party, she bites him so hard that he has to wear rubber on his thumb for days. He responds by calling her a “Satanic little mix.”

Herzog, who, again, is not easily divorced from Wassermann, recalls Ganna’s early days with a mixture of gleeful reminiscence and distress. He repeatedly conjures a hyper-literal sense of foreboding; you can almost hear the music from Jaws fade in and out selectively in the book’s first section. Due in part to this effect, the novel becomes an almost Huysmans-like black comedy of mental illness (at least until Ganna and Herzog are betrothed). Could their marriage be as torturous as Herzog hints it will be? Is Ganna a crazy person? Is Herzog perpetrating the strangest, the most meticulously detailed, the most indirect act of gaslighting ever put to paper?

When the future couple first meet at a literary salon, Ganna is obsessed with Herzog’s debut novel, The Treasure Seekers, to the point that she quickly plans his next, unrelated book for him — so intimately does she know his mind. Herzog’s rendering of this meeting crystallizes his many contradictions and paradoxes, features which make him a more unreliable narrator than Hofmann suggests in the afterword. When he claims that Ganna did not leave a first impression, for example, he then provides a detailed snapshot of her first impression:

I have a picture of a rather garishly clad, fidgety, restless young girl. I am unable to say whether she was well dressed or not. I didn’t have a way of telling. She loved loud colours, and a picturesque framing of little scarves and fluttering bows. Over supper, with a sidelong look at me, she told how she’d almost fainted on the stairs. Her hasty and excitable speech was disagreeable to me, but Frau von Brandeis had prepared me for the degree of excitement she would be plunged into by my presence, so I took a clement view of her excessive vivacity. Two or three times I glanced at her fleetingly. She had a plain face with strained features, freckled complexion and intensely peering blue eyes; the cheekbones were prominent; very attractive though were the sensuous mouth with splendid teeth, and a charming innocent laugh. Her uncommonly small, twitchy hands displayed recurring gestures that had something jagged and assertive about them, which she became aware of at intervals and tried to moderate.

In the first third of the novel’s tellingly named three parts — “Mirror of Youth,” “The Age of Certainties,” and “The Age of Dissolution” — Herzog’s combination of distance and obsession, of self-abnegation and surprise, is charming and humorous; in later sections it becomes a source of madness. As he tries to convince himself and the reader that his marriage to Ganna was a matter of partnership and convenience — he was a poor writer, she a bourgeois admirer with an inheritance — rather than love, he repeatedly gives himself away.

What happens next? Ganna and Herzog marry — her father is thrilled to be rid of her — even though Herzog is warned against it by several friends. They attend literary parties, have children, buy property, hire maids. Herzog writes book after book; the couple becomes the source of literary gossip. Ganna slips, just a little, in and out of mania. Herzog, with the tiniest amount of self-reproach, takes girlfriends on the side. A tortured Ganna begrudgingly accepts the women — so long as he never divorces her. To save their marriage (and educate their children) she founds a kind of charter school, and, to the consternation of her investors, attempts to take most of the profit. She slides deeper, Herzog assures us, into madness. Eventually, Herzog begins a serious relationship with another woman, Bettina, which leads him to ask for a divorce. This turn of events unsurprisingly sends Ganna over the railing — almost literally. The novel’s final section, “The Age of Dissolution,” is a marvel of Bleak House-level legal disputation, a masterpiece of dead-hearted obsession, and an accidental treatise on how love and marriage disintegrate under the weight of bureaucracy.

Or do they? Even though Ganna and Herzog spend the rest of their lives apart, they can never truly be rid of one another. From the beginning, Ganna’s obsession with Herzog is total. After they divorce, while he’s still alive, she writes a long study of his books and their life together. For his part, Herzog repeatedly breaks the heart of Bettina, his new wife, because he can’t wrench himself away from Ganna, even if his communion with her takes the form of an excruciating legal battle. By the end of the novel, Herzog — overmatched by Ganna’s incessant love and hatred, her boundless energy — has “lost all sense of measure.” Of what? Of anything.

That My Marriage is a masterpiece of matrimonial despair is clear by the novel’s midway point. That it is a story of totalizing love becomes obvious only in its final pages, when a delusional Herzog can’t even conclude the book because he is so twisted up in his ex-wife. I suppose that’s why they call it “tying the knot.”