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…
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