March 2016

Lori Feathers


My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hoffman

A marriage lives and breathes; it is a creature with a pulse all its own. Some resemble Frankenstein's monster, others Pygmalion's Galatea. No one observing a marriage from the outside can feel all of its stress points or understand what each spouse needs from the other. Jakob Wassermann's compelling 1934 autobiographical novel, My Marriage, places us inside the mind of a husband living through a painful, troubled marriage, and we serve as confessor to his most intimate thoughts about his wife and their relationship.

Not long after novelist Alexander Herzog first meets the much younger Ganna Mevis, one of six daughters -- the ungainly and temperamental one -- of a respected Vienna law professor, he finds himself betrothed to her. The efficiency with which Ganna captures the reluctant Alexander is an early sign of her ability to manipulate him, a skill against which Alexander's accommodating passivity will be no match. Despite his misgivings about the marriage, Alexander vehemently defends the awkward Ganna to friends who voice suspicions that the two are not compatible and that Ganna will derail his writing career. Yet even as he argues against his friends' doubts, Alexander soon realizes that his feelings toward his new wife are not what they should be:

Guilt: the word makes me flinch, but from the very beginning there was guilt in my relationship with Ganna. I never felt any passion for her. I didn't realize it right away. It took me a while to understand. Once I had understood, I had to fight off Ganna's sudden surges of passion with secret dread.

This absence of romantic love colors his opinion of Ganna. He feels disgust for what he believes are her bourgeois values, lack of sophistication, and conventionality. Frequent and vicious arguments erupt over money and Alexander's barely disguised infidelities. But sense of duty, especially after the birth of their first child, and pity for Ganna keep Alexander in the marriage. So too does Ganna's steadfast and fawning admiration for him and his talents as a writer.

And then Alexander falls in love with Bettina, a woman who shares his artistic sensibilities and, most importantly, carries a rational calmness about her that is an antidote to Ganna's wild, angry tantrums. Although Bettina is his refuge Alexander is incapable of ending his emotional dependency on Ganna:

I understood that I must not allow Bettina to wither. That at any price, I had to achieve the capacity for joy. And since it was Ganna who stood between me and joy, whose fault it was that I could no longer laugh or smile, so Ganna would have to be induced to restore to me my cheerfulness, my insouciance, my undaunted courage, whatever the price -- because if not, then everything was wasted and I would lose Bettina.

This dissembling is Alexander's attempt to justify why he cannot turn his back on Ganna. He is unable to admit to himself or Bettina that he needs Ganna to validate his worth as a person, that his chosen profession, writing, is honorable, and that he is a good provider. Despite his open disdain for Ganna's and her set's conventional, bourgeois values these are the very standards against which Alexander, unconsciously, measures his self-worth. And so Bettina's affirmation of his talents and goodness can never be enough because, in his mind, Bettina stands apart from the bourgeois -- ironically she is better than the petty conformers who live by those standards. This, then, is the hypocrisy which roils Alexander's life: he loves Bettina and the refinement that she exemplifies and distains Ganna as the personification of the common and uncultured. Yet his insecurities and vanity obstruct any possibility that he can save himself, because in order to do so he must reject the destructive relationship with Ganna and wholly embrace the liberating one with Bettina.

In matters of love, objectivity is an easy victim, and we assume some measure of unreliability in Alexander's portrayal of Ganna and their marriage. And perhaps this is the case. But the measured, almost detached tone with which Alexander thinks, speaks, and acts, even in the midst of his most humiliating and painful experiences, places our assumption in continual doubt. And the perfect pitch and phrasing of Michael Hoffman's translation brings out Alexander's staid rationality:

Her accumulated pains, complaints, and reproaches are poured out over me in a flood. In her fevered eloquence she loses herself in detail, mixes up things that happened yesterday with others that happened long ago, imagined things with others that are true or half-true, and if I manage to refute one charge, she comes at me with another one that I've refuted three times already. It's as if someone, in ignorance of the pattern on the front side of a rug, were picking at loose threads on the back, and with a sore finger.

Wassermann no doubt realized that by presenting only Alexander's depiction of the marriage, some readers would feel that the novel is incomplete. Naturally we long to hear the other perspective, Ganna's version of the story. And as the novel progresses Ganna's silence seems to grow louder and louder; the mystery of how she would portray Alexander and their life together intensifies. But, rather than diminishing the novel, this "unknowing" creates suspense, leaving it to the reader-confessor to draw upon her own experience to interpret the silences; her intuition, to imagine the version of the marriage that remains untold.

My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hoffman
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590179222
288 pages