Two recently translated autobiographical German novels—both about becoming a writer—are deeply unsettling. Martin Walser’s A Gushing Fountain begins in 1933; Jakob Wassermann’s My Marriage appeared in 1934. Now forgotten, Wassermann was a celebrated writer of the early twentieth century who came of age in the nineteenth. Walser is an important postwar novelist associated with Gruppe 47, the influential group of postwar German writers, like Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, who rejected the traditional language they’d inherited.
Wassermann writes about an unruly marriage that intrudes on the narrator’s creative life (based on his own) as he tries to make his name. Walser’s novel is the story of a boy finding his own voice in a shaken world. They could not be more different in place or plot, but they share an exalted sense of the writer-as-artist unusual even in autobiographical novels, and they both provoke a surprisingly similar unease: an unsophisticated and anachronistic desire to reach back in time and give everyone, characters and authors, a shake. It is a sign of just how powerful the two novels are, and how flawed.
A Gushing Fountain, translated by David Dollenmayer, is the story of Johann, a six-year-old boy growing up in the same small village on the shores of Lake Constance where Walser grew up. His father is a dreamy, musical Theosophist who cannot earn a living; his mother a practical, devout Catholic determined to keep their restaurant afloat; his older brother, talented and remote, endlessly practices scales on the piano; his idolized best friend bullies him with amiable predictability.
All around are the eccentric characters of village life. There are the regulars at the family’s Station Restaurant, like Herr Schlegel, too drunk to lift his “ponderous head, heavy as a Chinese lion’s,” who calls out, regularly and randomly, “Up against the red wall and shoot him!” and Herr Seehan, muttering strings of imaginative obscenities to himself. The restaurant’s dishwasher is a princess with a glass eye and a penchant for boys, who immediately and unfailingly translates any dialect she hears into High German. “Schiller dead,” she says when someone displeases her, “and this character still walks the earth.”
Johann observes them all, soaking up the specificity, the idiosyncrasy of language, of its accents and phrases. The speech he hears as much as the behavior he observes forms the rituals of his provincial boyhood. He is a precocious child, caught up in the beauty of individual words, the poetry his father reads aloud, the lilting sound of his own tenor voice. He describes with lyrical intensity the feel of his “serrated” bicycle pedals against the soles of his bare feet; he glories in the curve of every lane. The first sentence of the novel declares: “As long as something is, it isn’t what it will have been.” What “will have been” is Germany from 1933 to 1945. Charming and writerly in its depiction of Johann’s youth, the novel is also chilling, haunting for what it leaves out, which is the Holocaust.
Johann’s story, and so the story of the village, comes to us piecemeal, sometimes repeated, like memory, like the gossip of the local character Hermine, who cleans the large houses of the summer people “without demeaning herself in the least,” Johann’s father likes to say. Without her the village would have no idea what was going on “in those villas dozing by the lakeshore.” She brings not only news of the summer people, but also new words from them, like “subterranean, kleptomania, migraine.…”
Walser revels in words, entire lists of them. They carry worlds within them. Johann notices immediately the coarseness of the words his best friend, Adolf, picks up from his father, Herr Brugger, a fan of Hitler’s since 1927, when he named his son. Johann’s father, in contrast, is peaceful, musical, still stunned by the last war. He picks at his health food, dabbles in unrealistic financial schemes—silkworms in the attic, raising angora rabbits, a silver fox farm—and teaches Johann words that are long and lovely and hard to spell, words like Swedenborg and Bharatanatyam.
Johann’s mother has no time for words. She is too busy running the restaurant and fighting off creditors. But Herr Brugger swaggers as he reassures those spooked by bank failures and economic hard times. “Next month Bavaria’s going to lift the ban on uniforms, then you’ll see some marching, my friends…. Hitler’ll get us out of this.” Assured that Hitler is a good Christian and enticed by the prospect of large meetings held in her restaurant, Johann’s mother joins the “new party.” Head Teacher Heller is also a party member, a forceful one, pushing Nazi ideology in class. There are others, too, like Frau Fürst, previously pinched and silent as she delivered newspapers, now expansive, so proud of her son, the Jungfolk troop leader, and her daughter, secretary to a prominent Nazi, that she drops off the papers with a jaunty “Heil Hitler, everybody!”
When Johann is eleven, that same Jungvolk troop leader dishonorably discharges a Jewish boy named Wolfgang Landsmann. Wolfgang’s bicycle has been thrown off a cliff, which Johann thinks is unkind, but he has other things than Wolfgang to think about, like reading Karl May’s Winnetou books, wrestling with Adolf, and building his muscles as he delivers bags of coal, the family’s side business. And there are girls. By the time of his first communion, Johann has fallen passionately in love with a little acrobat who arrives in town with the circus, a girl his own age who goes to first communion with the other children. His discovery that she prefers Adolf is shattering.
He is, in other words, a boy in a boy’s life. The scattered bits of information that tremble with meaning for us are just random details to him. He sees prisoners marching by in striped uniforms and hats without brims. “Dachau,” his friend whispers, but Johann barely hears him. He is thinking about singing Schubert’s Jägerlied. When Dumb August, the circus clown, is savagely beaten after making jokes about Hitler in a performance, Johann feels sorry for him, but their teacher tells them the clown is an enemy of the German people, and when he and his brother wonder if the SS did it, their horrified mother begins to cry:
Mother said it was all she could take that Father had nothing but trouble with the new people and they had almost lost everything. Wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t they be quiet now? Hadn’t the family been in enough trouble already?
The rituals of growing up, the control of parents and teachers, merge easily with the control of the Third Reich. Johann, once forced by his mother to greet everyone he passed with a pleasant “Grüss Gott,” is now expected to extend his arm for the German greeting.
Johann’s father dies just before his first communion, and that loss, emphasized by the loss of his first love, leaves him desolate and alone. It is then that he begins to write poetry, hiding it in the secret compartment of a desk. The only living thing he feels close to is his German shepherd, Tell. Johann reads Byron to him under the apple tree. As the war progresses and Johann moves from the local Jungvolk troop to the Marine Hitlerjugend, his primary military concerns seem to be his score in the national semaphoring contest and his uniform, which he considers “overdone, almost dandyish,” the brimless hat “especially hideous.” He is young, and he is vain.
In the earlier passages of the book, Johann’s aesthetic obstinacy and childish vanity are touching and human. Walser beautifully captures the innocent self-absorption of the world of a child. Johann’s myopic focus is rich with detail and truth; invisible events that, as readers from the future, we cannot help but knowing are terrifying. But year after year, Johann’s oblivion to everything but what immediately, intimately concerns him continues. And it is 1945. And Johann is not a child. He has grown into an eighteen-year-old soldier of the Reich returning to his village. But, and this is a weakness that undermines the force of the book, Johann has not grown as a character, he has shrunk into a near cliché of Alpine aestheticism and Romantic egotism.
Walser, now eighty-nine, is a public intellectual whose 1965 essay “Our Auschwitz” was an important early call for Germans to examine their collective guilt. In 1979, he wrote, “Not a single day has passed since Auschwitz.” So it was a shock to the literary community when, in 1998, Walser gave a speech that questioned Germany’s culture of Holocaust remembrance in which he suggested that Auschwitz was becoming routine, compulsory, a “moral bludgeon.” He has since distanced himself from the speech, but it unleashed a storm of criticism and accusations of anti-Semitism. The Gushing Fountain, published the same year as the speech and explicitly focusing on the nature of memory, seems to fall in the middle of this debate. “Now we say it used to be thus and so, although back when it was, we knew nothing about what we say now,” Walser writes in the first chapter of The Gushing Fountain. All we have of the past is “what it surrenders of its own accord.”
Walser seems to want to protect the past from itself, a philosophical and literary goal for him, perhaps, a moral question for others. But his approach poses a simple narrative problem as well. A character of Johann’s degree of self-absorption becomes less interesting as the years pass. For Johann’s innocence to resist the information coming at him from all sides, it has to swell into narcissism so ornate and all-encompassing that he begins to seem not naive but dense, a rather silly Romantic young man yodeling and skiing through his military service as he reads Thus Spake Zarathustra and glories in icy mountain beauty, the language of Nietzsche, the language of “freedom.” The selective nature of the historical information gives the book a visceral, suggestive reality when Johann is a child. By the time he is seventeen, however, the myopia feels forced and succumbs to a different kind of filter from the future: nostalgia.
When he comes home to his village after the war, Johann runs into Wolfgang Landsmann, the Jewish boy who was dishonorably discharged from the Jungvolk troop. Wolfgang’s mother has spent the war in hiding, a fact that seems to surprise Johann. But he turns staunchly away from the revelation. Johann has to “fend off the fear in which Frau Landsmann had lived…. He wants nothing to do with it.”
The aspiring writer home from the war demands the freedom not to look. He wants to be free to find his own language unburdened by the “language he had learned after 1933,” but Walser tells us that freedom also means Johann should be unburdened by the memories of people like Frau Landsmann. For Johann, this is a choice, a necessary choice by a young writer searching for his voice:
Maybe Wolfgang thought Johann was at fault because he hadn’t known all those things, hadn’t noticed them. Johann resisted the assumed reproach…. He didn’t want to be told that something was expected of him. He wanted to decide what his own feelings should be…. He wanted to live and not be afraid. Frau Landsmann would pass on her fear to him, he could sense it. He had to turn his thoughts away from her and her fear.
In Germany, where historical memory has a complicated history of its own, Johann’s need to find the right words may seem bold and urgent. This novel is autobiographical, after all, and when Johann states that he “never wanted to be subjected again, neither to power nor to fear,” that he “wanted to be freer than anyone had ever been before” and “simply entrust [himself] to language,” a German reader more familiar with Walser and his place in their national memory might recognize a turning point not just for Johann but for an entire generation of postwar writers. For an American reader like me, however, Johann’s leap into the gushing fountain of language is more likely to appear rather callow, his explanations self-justifying, his ideas of art grandiose. The Gushing Fountain is enthralling and enraging, an important book to read, but the eerie promise of the novel—a uniquely personal glimpse into how ordinary people going about their ordinary lives become complicit in a historic catastrophe—seems to fade, finally, into literary abstractions.
My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann is also about a narcissistic young man becoming a writer, but the threat to him is not the stain of German history, which Wassermann did not live to see, but a poisonously obsessive wife. Unlike Walser’s postwar sensibility, Wassermann’s voice comes from an earlier time. Originally buried within an enormous trilogy by the prolific Wassermann, My Marriage has fortunately been rescued by the translator Michael Hofmann. It was published in 1934, the year Wassermann died. A Jewish German writer highly regarded in his lifetime, the young Wassermann moved to Vienna, where the novel takes place, in 1898, when it begins. It is a minutely autobiographical account of a celebrated writer’s public misery. Unfolding in fin-de-siècle Austria, the book is socially and psychologically fascinating, a furious, baffled portrait of what has to be the worst marriage in the history of literature—yes, even worse than that one, the one you just thought of when you read that sentence.
The narrator, a twenty-seven-year-old writer named Alex Herzog, has fled a scandalous love affair in Germany. Lonely and in debt, he has come to Vienna to seek his fortune, which presents itself in the form of Ganna Mevis. She is introduced to us from a distance, as in a fairy tale: “She had five sisters—four older, one younger. The six Mevis girls were known all over the city.” Their “father and commander-in-chief” and their mother, heir to a fortune from consolidated steel, all live together “respected and envied…in a spacious villa.” But one of the Metz sisters is different. Ganna is “the ugly duckling…among the five arrogant swans.”
The fairy tale then shifts tone, and ominous hints, more like something in a gothic tale of horror by Edgar Allan Poe, drift up through the narration. Ganna was “hard to manage” as a child and her father “took to giving her twice-weekly prophylactic beatings.” She would “scream like a banshee. Sometimes she would throw herself to the ground and thrash about with her arms and legs.” When dinner is served in the punctual household, the family must wait until “finally a creature bursts into the room in a mad rush, her face puce, her eyes wide with dread, her hair a tangled mess.” The physical descriptions of Ganna, the creature with the puce face, throb with menace. Her speech is “hasty and excitable,” her hands “uncommonly small, twitchy.”
She also has literary interests and “there was something smitten about her. She was capable of being enthused by a work of literature. She roughly understood the categories. She despised mediocrity.” A work of literature she is especially enthused by is Alex’s first novel. What was it about his novel that infatuated her? “Why was she compelled to imbibe it so hungrily? I often asked myself that, later.”
Wassermann’s condescension and abhorrence seem a little overwrought considering their object is a girl whose only crime seems to be enthusiasm and tiny hands, and early on the novel’s tone appears bizarrely judgmental. But that one word, “later,” is why. Wassermann wrote My Marriage at the end of his life. The Anschluss was still to come, but he’d been dropped by his German publisher. Seriously ill, he was, Hofmann writes, “contemplating an old age of fear, penury, homelessness, dishonour and exclusion from the literature of his native language.” The tribulations that didn’t originate with the new chancellor of Germany originated with his first wife, the model for Ganna.
Fixated on Alex, a photograph of him cut from a magazine and hung on her wall, the rich young woman has finagled a meeting with him through a mutual acquaintance. She begins to write to him, urgent letters, pneumatiques. They meet and take walks together and she flatters him, talks of the book he’s written, the books he will write, and he feels she has seen into his innermost being. “Ganna had something of a sorceress about her. I thought she was a white witch, or a strong, energetic and courageous little fairy.” He is drawn to her “irresistibly impetuous” nature, but there is always something unnatural about her, and looking back, he sees her feverish interest differently: “It was her way of saying: I am inside your work, it’s my destiny, it belongs to me.”
Soon enough, Ganna offers herself and her large dowry to him. She will support his genius “and work that she was able to predict with visionary fire.” Passive by nature and not in love with her, Alex lets “things take their course.” Until one rainy day Ganna appears at the door of the house he is visiting, leaps onto the balustrade, and, “with a hysterical jingle in her voice, said: ‘If you don’t take me, I’m going to jump into the lake; I swear I will. Either you’re going to marry me, or I’ll jump.’”
The proposal should worry Alex more than it does. He considers it ostentatious, but he is fond of her, tired of scrambling, grateful to be loved and wanted, conscious of the comfort, and time for writing, that a dowry can provide. And he wants her to get down from the balustrade. The meeting between the prospective son-in-law and the father of the bride is perfect, a polite business negotiation between the conventional bourgeois who wants to get his difficult daughter off his hands and the conceited bohemian who does not want to soil his hands with anything but his lofty pen. “So you want to marry my daughter?” says the stern father. “I don’t really want to,” Alex replies. “Ganna does.” When they get down to the practical side of things, Alex insists that not only does he have debts, but he has no propects. The father reassures him that one day he will be successful, but Alex the artist will have none of that. Success would be a sign that he “had compromised. With taste. With the fashion of the day.”
Alex expects to live modestly on his wife’s money, to write unencumbered by worry while Ganna runs the household with quiet efficiency. What he gets is chaos: Ganna screaming at the servants, who sneer at her, plunder the linen closet, make off with the “flour, rice and preserves under their skirts.” One servant is in the advanced stages of syphilis, another an arsonist; another’s lover shows up with a gun. Meals are inedible. Ganna, who guards the gold like Fafner, doles out bits of pocket money to Alex. She interrupts his work. She must be comforted for the latest domestic disaster. She needs constant attention. She would be comical if Wassermann did not flavor his account with loathing. Even when Ganna gives birth to a little son, Alex describes her screams as too loud, the tears that well up in her eyes when she holds him to her breast as too primal. The nursemaid sings the baby to sleep by singing him obscene ditties. The dowry dribbles away.
Like Johann in A Gushing Fountain, Alex venerates freedom, specifically the freedom to write. “Freedom is an inestimable thing; if you allow it to be tricked away from you, it means trouble, you will have to pay and pay until the bloody sweat spurts from your eyes.”
Everything that Ganna does is wrong, and Alex catalogs her crimes with weary revulsion. They fight about where to send the children to school—progressive or traditional? They fight about when to call the doctor. The list is riveting not because her behavior is outré, as he believes it is, but because it is the stuff of every couple’s squabbles, though garbed in fin-de-siècle attire. Ganna makes them late for a concert because she has been “lying dreamily on the terrace; in her right hand a book on mysticism and the Pre-Raphaelites.” She refers to him too often as “my husband.” Her relatives and friends are boring. She lies “in her hideously untidy bedroom, marking up Goethe’s Italian Journey in pencil” while one baby screams in the nursery and another bangs on the piano. She flops around the house in a kimono “that makes her look like Sarastro in The Magic Flute,” filthy slippers and stockings that she doesn’t pull up so that they “look like a pair of sausage skins hanging down her legs.”
The grievances in the household are petty and authentic and recognizable. The patriarchal expectations cannot hide that from us. It is only when Alex begins to be chronically unfaithful to Ganna that, for a modern reader, anyway, his entitlement really begins to challenge Ganna’s mania for the prize of Worst Spousal Attribute. He is very disappointed in Ganna’s reaction to his string of infidelities. Sometimes she cries, sometimes there are bitter outbursts. This is not at all up to his standards. After all, he is “terribly discreet—to spare her—it comforted her that in most cases she didn’t know the identity of the woman in question.”
Even when wretched, benighted Ganna seeks to justify her husband’s sexual cavorting as an artistic need, Wassermann is offended. It is mere “calculus” on her part, “ a dispensation that sanctioned the literary reinvestment of amorous experiences.” It was, in other words, good material. It could go into a book, and the book could make money, and one of Ganna’s most despised characteristics is her focus on money. But worst of all for Alex—who sees himself victimized by his own marital cheating—Ganna begins to boast of the high social position of his conquests. Imagine! A Belgian countess. And that is simply vulgar.
Alex does eventually fall in love with a married woman named Bettina who, after years of their affair, boldly and efficiently leaves her husband. She expects Alex to leave Ganna as well. Bettina is everything that Ganna can never be: calm, distinguished, competent, quiet. She’s a very appealing character, decisive and strong. It takes a long time for her to realize how weak Alex is, and how morbidly attached he is to Ganna and the chaos she personifies. He cannot explain it. He wants to be free of her, but he is bound to her in some dark, ugly, mutually destructive way.
If Wassermann’s novel sometimes reads like the diary of a man preparing a dossier for court, perhaps it is because his own wife plagued him with vindictive, financially ruinous, and highly public lawsuits for decades, just as Ganna plagues Alex. She becomes increasingly paranoid, publishes his letters to her, writes a novel demonstrating that she is his real love, and when she finally agrees to a divorce, after years of hysterical, monomaniacal to-ing and fro-ing, Alex has to pay her back the dowry they have already spent. Even then she sues him for money, often to pay the lawyers with whom she is suing him. Worse, she sues to show that the divorce is invalid after Alex and Bettina marry in order to delegitimize the son they have. “A grisly farce,” Alex calls it toward the end of the novel, “a dance of death starring forty law offices,” all hired by Ganna, all paid for by Alex with “the money I scrape together month after month literally by the sweat of my brow.”
Any of the Gannas in this novel—the woman of intellectual ambition with no interest in or aptitude for housekeeping, the girl beaten by her father, the deserted wife—would surely be treated with more sensitivity in a novel written today. Alex sees her as unhinged, which she increasingly is. But the telltale heart of this story of marital misery, beating in loud, swollen rage, is not poor Ganna’s. It is Jakob Wassermann’s. He did not live to see the novel published.