My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hoffman
They often say that truth is stranger than fiction. This novel is apparently no fiction – it’s one of those ‘all names have been changed’ type books! My First Wife was published posthumously in 1934, and was a thinly veiled account of the author’s first marriage – and that marriage was a dis-ast-ah!
Herzog is a poor writer who moves to Vienna, where he meets Ganna. She is the fifth of six sisters, she’s not a beauty, she’s eccentric, bookish, and, he finds out too, late – über-clingy. But lured on by her rich family and his debt, he panders to Ganna’s odd behaviour and lets himself be fascinated by her …
It was one of my most disastrous qualities that, faced with a self-willed person, I would lose out because the phenomenon of willpower in and of itself would put me into such a state of amazement that I could generally only come to the decision my opposite number had made for me.
Alexander had been spending the summer in the country, house-sitting when Ganna arrives on her bike, and threatens to jump in the lake (a twenty foot drop) if he won’t have her.
And she: ‘Will you have me or not?’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or be cross. ‘All right, I will, I will.’ I said hurriedly, if only to put an end to the upsetting scene, but even as I said it I had the feeling I had swallowed poison. She jumped back, dropped to her knees in front of me and covered my hand with kisses.
Not an auspicious start, and in fact it goes downhill rapidly after they’re married. They have to live off the interest from Ganna’s settlement, they can’t afford a big house, they have babies, and Ganna has very odd ideas about education. Meanwhile, Herzog dabbles at writing and tries to avoid doing anything meaningful, especially with his wife. Eventually he leaves Ganna for his mistress and that’s when he finally realises that she will never let him go, and that all the money they have and more will be used up by the leeches she employs to fleece him, leaving him a truly broken man.
I read this book immediately after The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, another story of dysfunctional marriages and philandering, and by the end of The Good Wife, I had had enough of this misery! Herzog is so up himself, he’s so weak and self-centred, Ganna is barking and you wonder why she settled for the first man who’d have her. Herzog treated her appallingly, and she, scorned, turned it all back on him. I really felt for their children.
But whereas Ford’s narrator was of the unreliable type, remembering things that changed the story, Wassermann’s isn’t – but of course we only get Herzog’s side of things and he is full of self-pity – none of it is his fault. I wonder if Wassermann himself was such a shit!
Even after reading Ford, I was totally engrossed in this tale which has all the vicarious thrill of a period memoir that bares all – so much so, I can’t really comment on Hoffman’s translation. Wasserman tells the story in short chapters, unnumbered, each with a tantalising title and relating a specific event or anecdote. One such was ‘A female Don Quixote’ in which Herzog tries to explain to one of Ganna’s sisters why he was fascinated by her. He likens Ganna to the ‘idealistic battler against windmills’ – this was, of course, before they fell out. I liked the structure and writing even if I didn’t like the antihero (7.5/10)
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My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann, translated by Michael Hoffman, pub Penguin Classics, Aug 2012. Hardback 288 pages.