An English-language resource for people interested in Jakob Wassermann.

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website http://www.jakob-wassermann.de/ has a wealth of information. It is well worth a visit, even if your German is as poor as mine.

Details about Wassermann's life and work are hard to obtain in English: I hope this helps, in part, to correct that.

Comments, suggestions, and corrections are more than welcome. Contact.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Jakob Wassermann, The Triumph of Youth


Wassermann’s short novel The Triumph of Youth was first published in Germany in 1926 under the title Der Aufruhr um den Junker Ernst (which roughly translates as ‘The Turmoil of Baron Ernst’). It was published in an English translation two years later. According to Arnold Bennett, the novel is Wassermann’s masterpiece. Wassermann himself described it as ‘the one which I like best.’

Ostensibly about a seventeenth-century German witch-hunt, The Triumph of Youth is an allegory about fanaticism and persecution, a dark fairytale that speaks to present-day concerns about religious dogmatism and the decline of creative freedom.

Set in Wurzburg, Lower Franconia – the place where Wassermann served his year of compulsory military service, and where, for the first time, he experienced overt anti-semitism – the novel is a fictionalised account of an incident in the life of Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, Bishop of Wurzburg. It begins ‘in the third year of his reign’, which would place events in or around 1623.

The Bishop, who for some time has been busy hunting out heretics and burning them at the stake, is told, one April afternoon, that his sister-in-law, Baroness Theodata, has suddenly returned to the area, having been absent for the last eight years. This absence, we learn, was occasioned by the death of her husband - the Bishop’s brother – an abusive drunk who was killed in a duel. Left penniless by her husband’s gambling and debauchery, the Baroness was forced to leave her only child, Ernest, then six years old, in the dubious care of his wealthy uncle – a responsibility only grudgingly accepted by the Bishop. The Baroness was then compelled to move from place to place, relying on the charity of friends and relations (and quite possibly passing from man to man, the text hints).

During those eight years the Baroness has never seen her son; she has not wanted to, believing, irrationally, that Ernest has rejected her:

‘One event constantly recurred to her which was the crowning point, as it were, of her suffering... In the night before his duel her husband, laughing wildly, had dragged the sleeping boy Ernest out of his bed. He wanted to take him along so he might see his father fight. In spite of her pleading and her tears he had actually carried him away in his arms. The innocent child, half-asleep, had thrown his arms around his father’s red, bloated neck and had turned away from her. Why did he turn away from her? Why from her and not from him?... In her mind’s eye he had suddenly become so identified with the image of his father that she was unable to bear his gaze, and she had a perfect horror of this six-year-old boy.’

The Bishop, similarly, has had nothing to do with his nephew. Instead, Ernest has been raised by a deaf nurse, Lenette, and a somewhat feckless tutor, Master Onno Molitor. Neglected and lonely, and kept in virtual poverty by his uncle, Ernest becomes a strange, enigmatic figure, a solitary whose ‘mind and spirit’ seem to ‘dwell outside the world, above it or below it.’ He has an almost magical ability to invent stories, and soon gains a devout following among the local children, as well as among many of the local adults, who sit, as if hypnotised, for hours at a time, listening to his seemingly-inexhaustible narratives. An innocent, a prodigy, a mystic – it seems impossible to tell which he is. He is perhaps all three.

(With Ernest, Wassermann is calling to mind figures such as Caspar Hauser and Nikolaus, the apocryphal shepherd boy responsible for the Children’s Crusade. There is also a strong autobiographical element in the character: Wassermann, from an early age, was an accomplished, even compulsive, storyteller; he felt abandoned after the death of his mother and yearned to be reunited with her; he too grew up in poverty.)

Unsurprisingly, Ernest’s growing reputation as a mystic attracts the attention of the Church – in particular, of the Jesuit, Pater Gropp, ‘confessor and confidant of the Bishop, his right hand, executor of his will and the real judge in all trials of witches and sorcerers’. Pater Gropp, at the point where the narrative begins, has already had Ernest under clandestine surveillance for some time.

With the return of Ernest’s mother, the Bishop decides to pay his nephew and sister-in-law a visit. Pater Gropp accompanies him, eager to see the supposed mystic up-close. Gropp’s intentions are clear: he is only waiting for an opportunity to denounce Ernest and put him on trial as a sorcerer. His plans are thwarted temporarily by the response of the Bishop, who develops an unaccountable – to him, at least – fascination with his nephew. The Bishop invites Ernest to live with him. The Baroness, who still cannot overcome her ‘horror’ of her son, consents. Ernest becomes the Bishop’s favourite companion, spending more and more time with him, until eventually Pater Gropp’s machinations bear fruit, and Ernest is arrested on suspicion of sorcery.

Hearing of her son’s imprisonment, the Baroness finally remembers her ‘duty’ as a mother. She rushes to the Bishop to plead for her son’s life. She is then arrested herself and tortured in front of Ernest. Both seem destined to burn at the stake, but then, outraged by the news of Ernest’s arrest, the local populace, led by the children, and aided by Pater Spe – a compassionate Jesuit, the antithesis of Pater Gropp - rise up against the Bishop and free both Ernest and his mother. The Bishop, having fled to safety, lies in a fever, tormented by the guilt of what he has done (and by an additional guilt, Wassermann intimates). Meanwhile, Pater Gropp, the real villain of the piece, has also vanished, never to return.

Ernest, now free, sits in front of an expectant crowd. He will tell them his story, he says:

‘But not to-day; after a year perhaps – two years, perhaps; only have patience, this I beg of you – only patience... .’

And there the narrative ends.

In electing to give his story a happy ending Wassermann departed radically from the actual events. The Bishop’s nephew, in reality, was burned at the stake; and there is nothing to suggest the Bishop himself suffered any crisis of faith – his reign lasted another five years; it is estimated he was responsible for the deaths of 900 people.

So why did Wassermann decide to take such liberties with the facts? Primarily – I would argue - because the narrative is intended as a sort of fairytale; without a message of hope it would not work (or not as effectively).

Yet there is also something defiant in his decision: he takes sides with the individual (Ernest) against religious orthodoxy (The Bishop, Pater Gropp); playing with the facts is a way of claiming victory. Although the Bishop’s nephew may not have escaped in reality, in imagination he can be brought back to life; history can be rewritten from the point of view of the victim.

Unfortunately, the happy ending – to a modern sensibility – seems a little too neat and contrived. Without doubt, the narrative is weaker for it. I suspect Wassermann – despite claiming the story was his favourite – knew this. He realised there was a lot more to say – and he did not wait long to say it.

The Triumph of Youth, among other things, is an early draft of The Maurizius Case. The same themes – of injustice and persecution - are explored in both. Similarities exist between characters: Ernest is a prototype for Etzel Andergast, Baroness Theodata for Sophia, the Bishop for Etzel’s father (or Gregor Waremme), Pater Gropp for Gregor Waremme (or Etzel's father), Pater Spe for Melchior Ghisels. Yet the gulf between the two books is immense. The Maurizius Case is three times as long; it has a contemporary setting; none of the characters can really be described as good or bad, all are far more complex and elusive; the novel’s conclusions are more ambiguous; and the ending is more pessimistic.

Personally, I think The Maurizius Case is an infinitely better book; but that is not to dismiss the achievements of the earlier novel. Beneath the surface, The Triumph of Youth is a disturbing, prescient critique of the religious and political fanaticism which continues to haunt not only Western Europe, but the rest of the world. It anticipates – by dint of its simplicity, its ‘universality’ - the rise of Nazism, McCarthyism in America (similarities to The Crucible seem obvious), the hysteria of evangelical Christianity, Zionist paranoia, and the deeply unsettling ambitions of Islamic fundamentalism.

Wassermann clearly wanted, with The Triumph of Youth, to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The prose is deliberately simple. It can be read as a straightforward narrative. Alternatively, it can be read as an allegory first and foremost, a comment on authoritarianism. Its relevance today seems undiminished.

For instance, it is difficult not to hear a present-day echo in the sentence: ‘A man could easily cover up a wrong he had committed if he accused a woman of having carnal relations with Satan.’ You only have to think of the women who are stoned to death for adultery, or for committing the ‘infidelity’ of being raped, to see that this sort of oppression is alive and thriving, that it has never disappeared, but has remained hidden, ready to resurface at the slightest encouragement.

Furthermore, Wassermann is able to suggest – by exercising a fair amount of poetic licence, admittedly - that the motives behind authoritarianism and persecution have likewise remained stable throughout the centuries. His description of the Bishop, for example, could apply equally well to any of history’s actual or would-be tyrants:

‘He was an utterly lonely man. But this loneliness was not caused by absorption in philosophical speculation, nor was it due to the resignation of a man disillusioned by the things of this world and now contemplating heavenly things. It had been produced by fear. Narrow of mind and cheerless of heart, he was completely enthralled by the delusion that man is surrounded on all sides by demons. This had its beginnings early in his life; it was fostered and encouraged by all the horrors and confusions of the age; its roots reached deep down into his thoughts and dreams. This tendency in him was restrained as long as he led the comfortable life of a prelate, but now that he was ruler of a territory and lord over many thousand souls, it knew no bounds, and he spared no one in his relentless warfare.’

His description of Pater Gropp captures just as succinctly the even more sinister - because even more fanatically convinced - man behind the throne:

‘When he called the Young Baron Satan it was spoken out of a depth of his heart unknown even to Pater Gropp himself. Had he approved of him and accepted him, then he would have destroyed himself and thrust himself down from the highway on which he was wandering with iron assurance; had he attempted merely to understand him, he would have become another – no longer the hater of life that freely blossomed out of itself, the persecutor of this freely playing, airily floating creature. It was just this creature that he opposed, as the tamer, in order to cast it into chains, that it might please his spirit, and be subject to the very master whose chains he himself was wearing. Thou shalt not soar, while I go in chains; thou shalt not laugh, while I am chilled by the rottenness of the world; thou shalt not play and amuse thy fellows, while my avenging hand grasps at the heart of humanity that I may make mankind obedient to myself.’

Here, in its essence, is the true struggle for Wassermann: the conflict between those who would be free – ‘airily floating creatures’ – and those who would tame them and make them obedient; or as he puts it elsewhere, the conflict between ‘the guileless’ and ‘the malevolent.’

The modern element in Wassermann’s narrative is that neither the guileless nor the malevolent are wholly self-aware. Ernest lives in a sort of dream world, ignorant of how vulnerable he is until it is too late and he finds himself imprisoned, forced to watch his mother being tortured. Pater Gropp, too, does not fully understand his own motivations: his ‘iron assurance’ stems from a blind faith that he is right; his desire to tame others arises because he himself is in chains – in thrall to an idea, a conviction he refuses to examine, because to examine it, to understand his ‘enemy’, would be to destroy his reason for existing.

Yet, of all the characters, it is the Bishop who struggles hardest to deny who he is. His strange fascination with his nephew is nothing more than homosexual desire. Wassermann makes this clear time and again throughout the text:

‘What a strange thing it was for this septuagenarian to be attracted to a human being, to feel a longing for the miraculous in this human being, to picture to himself how the blood coursed through his veins, how his limbs were fashioned, to feel a desire to touch his luminous skin, to recall the smile that made his youthful lips swell like an almond placed in hot milk! On one side is this person and on the other side the world with all its treasures; this one means more than the whole world; all meaning and desire are concentrated upon him.’

Not only does this expose the inevitable hypocrisy of those who judge others – none of us is without ‘sin’, therefore none of us can cast stones – but it also reveals the basic inhumanity of persecution, the violence we must do to ourselves – as well as to others - in order to live by dogma and artificially-imposed laws. The Bishop falls in love with his nephew, but according to his own morality this is a sin – it is evidence of Satanism. Despite acknowledging that love has something ‘miraculous’ about it, and that it is worth more than all the world’s treasures, the Bishop nevertheless betrays himself. After trying everything he can think of to protect his nephew from the very forces he himself has unleashed, he finally surrenders to the stronger will of Pater Gropp and allows his nephew to be arrested. He ends the novel in a fever, racked by guilt, finally realising ‘he no longer had the right to sit as a judge over others’.

This may seem a little too much like wish-fulfilment on Wassermann’s part – but, as stated earlier, it is a necessary conclusion to the story. Youth has to triumph over authority in order for the narrative to work as a fairytale: it would be too bleak otherwise, too modern (it would lose its timeless quality). The rejection of realism is self-conscious and deliberate: Wassermann changed the ending to leave us with a note of hope.

Moreover, the happiness of the ending is not unqualified. Pater Gropp returns to his Order, presumably to carry on with the work of burning heretics: he escapes without being punished, without any damage to his ‘iron assurance’. We know, if we are interested enough to research the facts, that the Bishop actually allowed his nephew to die and went on killing people for years to come; so we realise that the hope Wassermann wants us to entertain is nothing more than that – just a hope. Finally, we have the example of Pater Spe, the figure of humility and doubt – the figure closest, I suspect, to Wassermann’s true feelings about persecution and fanaticism. Spe’s vision of the world is almost identical to the one Wassermann develops in The Maurizius Case: bleak, despairing, ambiguous, yet for all that, somehow positive:

‘What little hope he still cherished became more attenuated every year, until nothing remained except a bare stalk on which his spirit held itself upright with a noble effort, striving to find and approach the divine. Many a person is lamed by sorrow; he, on the other hand, became flexible and eager; many flee into solitude when the face of the world stares at them in its skeleton-like reality; not he – he remained among men and strove not to become weary – either of them or of their deeds.

“Love urges me on and burns in me,” he said, and quietly went on his way.’


From The Triumph of Youth (George Allen & Unwin, 1928)

232 pages

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Hesse, Mann, Wassermann



left to right:

Hermann Hesse
Thomas Mann
Wassermann

It is one of life's great mysteries that plus fours went out of fashion. Baffling.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Praise for Wassermann


MY LIFE AS GERMAN AND JEW: 'A frank autobiographical study... an intensely interesting book... an eloquent attempt at self-vindication.' - The Times

'Jacob Wassermann... was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of modern German novelists... in this autobiographical sketch he records the story of his life and his futile struggle for recognition in his native country.' - Manchester Guardian

'Everyone who has read the novels of this great writer should read this autobiography and then read them again... a man who writes in the name of humanity as well as of his own race. It is a testament of the age.' - New Britain

THE GOOSE-MAN: 'A full-length romantic novel in the grand style, which is also an easy introduction to a great writer's later work... The riches of Wassermann's art are never flaunted. They are contained and controlled.' - Daily Herald

WEDLOCK: 'An important novel... Wassermann has the hand of a fine classic writer... the book is intensely provoking and the characters are drawn from life by a master hand... a profoundly stimulating and astonishingly vital book, and one which may well achieve a large meed of immortality.' - Morning Post (The irony!)

'Wedlock is full, thoughtful and informed by a deep understanding of human suffering. There are chapters which entitle it to be called great... an exceedingly fine performance.' - Spectator

'Wedlock is the greatest novel to appear in the English language since The Maurizius Case.' - Bookman

THE JEWS OF ZIRNDORF: 'A striking and powerfully written work... noteworthy for the author's characteristic gift of intellectual creation and for the unsparing honesty of its discussion of a difficult subject.' - Times Literary Supplement

'Wassermann is one of the greatest novelists of our time... the theme is topical, and in view of the present proscription of Wassermann in Germany, has a pathetic interest which should arouse wide sympathy.' - Spectator

'Jacob Wassermann, now an exile from Germany, his books burnt by the Nazis, is one of the greatest novelists of our time, and this novel is a cry from the heart. There is nothing superficial about him: he sounds the depths of human feeling.' New Britain

FABER: OR THE LOST YEARS: 'As accomplished and fluent as the rest of this author's work of which the most salient feature is a passion for philosophical or metaphysical argument and the ability to cast that argument into highly dramatic forms.' - The Times

'Faber gives the impression of a sensitive intelligence at work, analysing and classifying human experience.' - Daily Telegraph

THE TRIUMPH OF YOUTH: 'It is a remarkable book and I read with an admiration which increased as I slowly penetrated into the story. What particularly astonishes and satisfies me in this book is its atmosphere of naturalness. Everything is terrible, but nothing is forced, and beauty disengages itself from the asphyxiating horror... Jacob Wassermann is indeed an uncommon fellow. He has at once imagination, insight, a fine sense of form, and marked dramatic power.' - Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard

'The whole thing has the clear beauty of a medieval carving, with its suggestion, too, of the dark and grotesque and fearful... Its beauty, its vivid light that shines steadily above the darkness of the time cannot be conveyed. It must be read, and the penetrating sweetness and strength of it felt.' - Observer

'A fine page of mingled sweetness and horror drawn from the dreadful tale of the suppression of witchcraft. The earnest simplicity of the narrative is very convincing.' - Spectator

THE MAURIZIUS CASE: 'Philosophical, psychological, and dramatic was built up like an immense structure... stimulating and impressive.' - Manchester Guardian

'The oblique approach to events... is made with extraordinary skill and cunning. There are few German novelists more adroit than Herr Wassermann in points of narrative technique, and his dexterity here is altogether admirable. It is impossible not to admire the intellectual virtuosity of the entire book, and the ending is masterly.' - Times Literary Supplement

'His The Triumph of Youth is a masterpiece. I will not say that The Maurizius Case is not a masterpiece. The book is one of those to which, in order to get the full effect and beauty of them, you must surrender yourself without any conditions. Do that and you will be justly rewarded.' - Arnold Bennett

ETZEL ANDERGAST: 'Herr Wassermann handles his high theme throughout with greatest skill and dignity.' - Spectator

'A great book... a book to be judged among the world's books not among the week's books; it is great in conception and execution, in breadth and fullness of canvas, in dramatic intensity and dignity of thought. It is so great that it may be compared to War and Peace... so stupendous are his powers of creation, his characters seem to act for themselves... This masterpiece.' - Time and Tide

JOSEPH KERKHOVEN'S THIRD EXISTENCE: 'Wassermann's narrative powers... are superb. If the present is blinded by nearness the future must surely see him as one of the world's great novelists.' - Yorkshire Post (Again, the irony!)

WORLDS' ENDS: 'Each one is a gripping story, powerfully dramatic and hinging upon a subtle psychological factor. Certainly ought to be read ' - Evening Standard

'Each is a good example of his powerful and accomplished art.' - Times

'All of them are written with imagination and dramatic power, and the whole volume displays in a marked degree Herr Wassermann's extraordinary fertility of expression.' - Times Literary Supplement

'He must be placed among the three greatest living novelists. The poise and finish of the stories are superb. Every one is a microcosm of a world. They are all of them tragedies of the spirit clothed in aching but indomitable flesh.' - Referee

'Especially brilliant.' - Spectator

'These stories have a curious fascination, the longest "Erasmus"... displays in full measure Wassermann's imaginative and artistic gift.' - Morning Post

THE WORLD'S ILLUSION: 'Wassermann seems to me to be the biggest of the modern German novelists. His short historical novel, The Triumph of Youth, is entitled to rank as a masterpiece. In my opinion The World's Illusion is the finest post-war German novel yet translated into English... The major scenes are magnificent in heroic splendour. They are epical. And quite a number of the mere anecdotes related have superlative intrinsic value. In them is material for about 101 terrific short stories. And what a sweep the book has!' Arnold Bennett

'A finely imaginative piece of work... Wassermann is a novelist in the grand manner, combining immense creative power with a marked passion for ideas.' - Times Literary Supplement

'In The World's Illusion we run through the whole gamut of human experience. There are hundreds of characters, repulsive, complicated, lovable, vile, and fine, every one of whom is vigorously, if sometimes bestially, alive. The struggle of man to be free from the lust of the flesh is the main theme, but it is difficult to epitomise a book so crammed with wisdom and knowledge.' - Daily Telegraph

'Long as it is, this remarkable novel evenly maintains its vari-coloured themes; its orchestration is superb. Indeed, it has something of the effect of a Wagnerian opera... The medieval intensity of Wassermann's genius dwells on this array of aristocrats, voluptuaries, cynics, artists, dancers, princes, and apaches, till they acquire a strange richness, violence, and decorative value. This book is a tissue of horror and splendour, curling into flame at the edges.' - Spectator

'One of the greatest works of fiction of this or any other century. Wassermann poured all his amazing creative genius and literary art into it and gave the world a finished masterpiece which will surely stand the test of time as invincibly as War and Peace, Madame Bovary, and The Brothers Karamazov... A novel which is the triumphant literary crown of this age.' - Referee (And once again, the irony!)

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Jakob Wassermann, My Life As German And Jew














My Life As German And Jew was first published in Germany in 1921. Despite being the most overtly autobiographical of Wassermann’s books, it was not Wassermann’s intention – so he maintains – to write an autobiography; rather, his aim was ‘merely to describe a fateful conflict’:

‘I find myself impelled to seek a clear understanding of the nature of that discord which runs through my life and all its activities, and of which the years have made me ever more painfully sensible and conscious.’

This discord – between being German and being Jewish – is really the central theme of the book. However, there are other conflicting elements in Wassermann’s character, and in his past, that both illuminate the main conflict and explain – in part - Wassermann’s response to it.

Wassermann’s mother died when he was nine, to be replaced a short time later by a stepmother who clearly felt little affection for Wassermann and his siblings. His father was a failed businessman, whose sole ambition for his eldest son was a successful career in commerce. Wassermann was raised in impoverished circumstances - a harsh contrast to the richness of his imagination. He tells how an uncle, alarmed by the family’s poverty, would send them money, and how, as the oldest child, it was his responsibility to buy food each week for himself and his younger brothers and sisters. One of these brothers, Wassermann recalls, remained permanently mistrustful of Wassermann’s financial probity – and for good reason: Wassermann would keep some of the money to buy cheap books, which he then read in secret. In order to discourage his younger brother from revealing his suspicions to their stepmother, Wassermann would invent long, complicated narratives (bedtime stories – the two brothers shared a bed in a closet) then threaten to withhold the ending if his brother misbehaved. This storytelling, he claims, forms the basis of his art and reveals ‘an Oriental instinct in my blood’:

‘It was Scheherezade’s method transposed into everyday life; a latent seed made to grow by chance and peril. Scheherezade tells stories to save her life, and as she spins her tales she becomes the very genius of story-telling. As for me – well, my life was not at stake, but the fever of romancing took complete possession of me and determined my thoughts and my way of life.’

Needless to say this ‘fever’ was viewed as a dangerous illness by Wassermann’s parents, who then did everything they could to cure him of it. Forced into an apprenticeship with his uncle, Wassermann soon rebelled, and before long – faced with no other choice – he enlisted in the army for his year’s compulsory service. There, he encountered for the first time overt anti-semitism:

‘I encountered that dull, rigid, almost inarticulate hatred that has permeated the national organism. The word “ANTISEMITISM” does not suffice to describe it, for the term reveals neither the nature nor the source, neither the depth nor the aim of that hatred. It contains elements of superstition and voluntary delusion, of fanatical terror, of priestly callousness, of the rancour of the wronged and betrayed, of ignorance, of falsehood, of lack of conscience, of justifiable self-defence, of apish malice and of religious bigotry. Greed and curiosity play their part here, blood-lust, and the fear of being lured or seduced, the love of mystery, and deficient self-esteem. In its constituents and background it is a peculiarly German phenomenon. It is a German hatred.‘

Until that point in his life Wassermann had been spared the worst of this hatred, owing mainly to his appearance:

‘My facial type was not Jewish, nor my manner, nor my speech. My nose was straight, my demeanour quiet and unassuming. This argument sounds primitive; but people who have not had this experience cannot imagine how primitive non-Jews are in their estimation of what is Jewish and their conception of Jewish characteristics. Their instinct is silent when it is not confronted with a caricature.’

Also, his family’s somewhat relaxed attitude to worship made them less conspicuous than more devout Jews, Wassermann intimates, and therefore less of a target.

With his military service, however – really, with his entry into manhood – the full extent of anti-semitic hatred is revealed to him. From then on, inevitably, it becomes one of the most significant elements in his life – the source of a profound inner conflict and his motive for writing the book.

Ultimately, My Life As German And Jew is a response to anti-semitism; one that won Wassermann few supporters, either among his German contemporaries, or among fellow Jews.

Prompted by his experiences in the army, and by conversations with an unnamed non-Jewish friend and mentor*, Wassermann struggled with the question of his identity: was he primarily German, or primarily Jewish? His friend – a representative of the liberal element in German society, an element that nevertheless could not rid itself of its prejudices – pressured Wassermann to side with the Germans, to assimilate in other words. Wassermann was also pressured by several Zionists he knew – among them the (again unnamed) ‘author of the idea’ (Theodor Herzl ?) – to identify himself as a Jew above all else. Wassermann’s answer was to reject the idea of choosing and instead to try to contain the contradiction of being both German and Jewish. Maintaining his individuality was paramount:

‘To the demands with which people tried to do violence to my nature I could oppose only obstinacy – a dumb defiance and non-conformity...

... I will have nothing to do with argument, with vindication or indictment, nor with any sort of constructive eloquence. I take my stand upon personal experience...

... I do not ask anyone to imitate me, nor do I claim that my attitude or my actions were right; I am simply describing my experience and my conflict...

... In order to rule the intellect needs conviction. But conviction destroys reason, breaks the image, strips the form of its flesh until it becomes a skeleton, a phantom. He who is swayed by conviction can no longer see the form, and becomes detached from life and growth.’

In itself, this was probably enough to antagonise both his German and his Jewish (and his German Jewish) acquaintances.

But Wassermann then goes further. In attempting to expose the true source of German anti-semitism, he makes certain observations that many Germans and Jews doubtless found – and no doubt continue to find – deeply unpalatable.

First, from the arguments of his non-Jewish friend, he draws the following criticism of the Jews:

‘The charge against them, however, is of a more fundamental nature. It concerns their incapacity for spiritual adaptation. Their intellectual adaptability is extraordinary, even too great for their own good. But spiritually they have, as a body, as a racial entity, remained to this day what they were in Biblical antiquity...

... From the earliest times the Jews have called themselves the Chosen People. The proclamation of their faith in their election and their mission occurs in all their myths...

...a conviction cherished so obstinately for thousands of years entails quite extraordinary obligations, which the group can never wholly fulfil, and engenders a quite abnormal state of moral and mental tension, whose inevitable discharge results in a catastrophic existence; and, on the other hand, such an axiom, when made the basis of a national existence, paralyses moral development and replaces it by moral quietism, which leads to arrogance and self-righteousness...

... The tragedy of the Jew’s life is the union in his soul of a sense of superiority and the feeling that he carries a stigma of inferiority...

...I have come to realize that a race cannot be permanently the Chosen People, and that it cannot permanently designate itself as such, without conflicting with the proper order of things as seen by other nations.’

It is unsurprising that Wassermann was so unpopular – and remains unpopular to this day – among Zionists. Questioning the idea of election, of the Jews being a ‘Chosen People’, was never going to win him Jewish friends. Arguing that the spiritual inflexibility this has created – and still creates – is a legitimate cause for resentment among non-Jews, was an act of intellectual bravery bordering on the foolhardy. Wassermann knew he would be upbraided for it, yet he did it all the same. He was sincere in his attempt to understand German anti-semitism – sufficiently so that he disregarded the consequences of his honesty.

Likewise, when talking about the Germans, he risked alienating friends and readers (we should remember Wassermann, in 1921, was a successful author with a lot to lose). Three years after Germany had lost the war, when countless Germans were looking for someone to blame, and the familiar scapegoat of the Jew seemed more and more inviting ( ‘The menacing embitterment of the masses has always diverted into this convenient channel...’), Wassermann told them the one thing they did not want to hear: he pointed out the similarities between them and their perceived enemies:

‘I once dreamt an allegorical dream, but I am not sure that I can make it clear. I placed the surfaces of two mirrors together; and I felt as though the human images contained and preserved in the two mirrors must needs fight one another tooth and nail...

... Let me endeavour to interpret my metaphor of the mirrors.

That a similarity of destiny and character exists here is evident. Here as there we see centuries of dismemberment and decentralization. A foreign yoke, and a Messianic hope for victory over all foes, and for unification. Indeed, in this connection a special German God was invented, who figured in every patriotic hymn as the Jewish God figures in prayers. Here as there we find misunderstanding on the part of the outside world, ill will, jealousy and suspicion; here as there a heterogeneous configuration within the nation; dissension among the tribes. And we find irreconcilable contrasts of individual traits: practical activity and dreaminess; the gift of speculation in both the higher and the lower senses; the impulse to economize, to accumulate, to trade; the impulse to learn, to acquire knowledge and serve it; a superabundance of formulae and a lack of form; a detached spiritual life that imperceptibly leads to hubris, to arrogance and unteachable stubbornness. Here as there, finally, we find the dogma of election...

... at bottom I feel more sorrow for the Germans than for the Jews.’

Having outraged possibly every member of his audience (certainly those who were not sympathetic to start with) Wassermann now attempts to state his own particular case. Being a German Jew places him in a unique – a uniquely uncomfortable – position, he argues. He cannot simply choose to be one or the other: he is, and always will be, both:

‘A non-German cannot possibly imagine the heartbreaking position of the German Jew. German Jew – you must place full emphasis on both words...’

Unable to change what he is – and unwilling to do so should such a thing be possible – he can only insist on his individuality. As a writer, moreover, he has an obligation to remain true to himself, irrespective of how unpopular that makes him. His role in combating anti-semitism is to do precisely what he is attempting to do in My Life As German And Jew: namely, to expose the roots of that anti-semitism and then to leave it to the individual to decide if he or she is willing to dig out those roots. In other words, he is an artist, not a politician. And while this distinction often makes the politician and the politically-minded smile complacently, the fact nevertheless remains that art can have a far more profound, far more radical effect on the hearts and minds of people than ideology and dogma – something Wassermann understood very well:

‘In my field of endeavour everything depends on one’s ability to touch the hearts of men, to move them and uplift them. Not that I stand on a height and, godlike, raise up the lost. Nothing of the sort. He who opens and takes possession of men’s hearts is uplifted with them, because of love. That is why I believe that the renunciation of ignoble things will cause the ravings and frothings of hatred and injustice to grow powerless, and even the misdeeds that lie to their account will find expiation.’

Twelve years after its first publication, the same year Hitler came to power in Germany, only a year before Wassermann died in exile – his books banned and burned – My Life As German And Jew was reprinted in an English translation. To this new edition, Wassermann had added a post face, bringing the work up to date. The intervening twelve years – during which Wassermann had had ample opportunity to reflect on what he had written (and his opponents ample opportunity to berate him) – did not result in a change of mind or heart. Instead, when he came to write the post face, Wassermann only re-emphasised the importance of individualism. Anti-semitism, at that time, was reaching fever-pitch, but as ever Wassermann’s response to it was calm and dignified, further demonstrating for anyone who cared to see it, the gulf between him and his enemies:

‘In the case of every other people on the globe a few noble and outstanding individuals are taken as indicative of the merit and culture of the group; only in the case of the Jews are all judged by the basest. This would not let me rest, even if I were not a Jew; I know that I should not be able to rid myself of the sting, the reproach, the call of conscience, the feeling of a festering wound in the body of the nation. But fate has made me a Jew – that is, a man who will dedicate all his powers, his blood and his soul, his present life and future life, to the attainment of a state of balance; so that it is not surprising that the idea of justice hangs over me like an empyreal flame...

... Injustice welds one to those who suffer wrong, and the hatred that darkens the world makes an inner obligation of the external appeal.’

This inner obligation – to stand beside the victims of injustice even when the world is getting darker; the refusal to run and hide, either from others or from himself - makes Wassermann, in my opinion, one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century. His continuing neglect only confirms the suspicion that honesty and individuality, for all our protestations to the contrary, are still unwelcome traits.


My Life As German And Jew, (George Allen & Unwin, 1934)

216 pages
'Dedicated to FERRUCCIO BUSONI the friend and the artist'


* (identified only as ‘St’ by Wassermann’s first wife, Julie Speyer, in The Letters of Jacob Wassermann to Frau Julie Wassermann (George Allen & Unwin, 1935, p. 16)


Notes:

On Zionism:
‘My personal attitude toward this movement was uncertain; sometimes painfully so. I necessarily had, from the first, quite a different opinion of its significance. I had lived among quite different associations. Many of its adepts told me that I must rouse myself, that one day I too would awake to the truth and to action. They did not know me...

I was prepared to recognize the effort expended on the cause, their self-sacrifice and devotion, and even to share their hopes; but my position was not theirs. I was not sensible of the solidarity which they considered to be obligatory upon me merely because I was a Jew... Frankly speaking, I recoiled from what they called the Jewish nation, for it seemed to me that a nation could not be created by the conscious efforts of men.’

On Anti-semitism:
‘A historian who should write of Antisemitism would necessarily write the history of an important phase of German cultural history.’

'What do the Germans want?

I ought to have answered: Hate.

I ought to have answered: They want a scapegoat. Whenever things have gone badly with them, after every defeat, in every difficulty, in every trying situation, they shift the responsibility for their distress upon the Jews. So it has been for centuries...

... There must be a vital defect in a people if it can – so lightly, so habitually, so unscrupulously, heeding no appeal, admitting no sincere discussion, capable here of no generosity, although a people that incessantly proclaims itself the leader of all nations in culture, art, research and idealism – continually practise such injustice, sow such dissension, heap up such mountainous accumulations of hatred.'

Jakob Wassermann, Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence


Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence was Jakob Wasserman’s last novel. Finished in late autumn 1933, only weeks before Wassermann’s death, it forms the third part in what is now known as the ‘Etzel Andergast Trilogy’. Whether Wassermann intended the trilogy to be a trilogy, however, is debatable: a fourth volume might easily have been added (and a fifth, and a sixth, for that matter). Several loose ends remain – characters waiting to be re-introduced, themes still to be fully explored. Wassermann had hit a rich creative seam and was busy mining it for all it was worth when he died. The three novels in the trilogy form a distinct ‘mature period’ in his writing – a period characterised by a growing seriousness and urgency, which suggests that he knew – or suspected - he did not have long to live. In Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence there is at once a sense of frustration at not having enough time to finish this vast creative project and a deepening sense of resignation and equanimity. The resulting tension becomes a theme in the novel and in many ways dictates the form and style Wassermann adopted: more fragmentary and episodic than the previous two volumes, yet somehow more contemplative and profound.

Although he intended each volume to be independent of the others, there seems to be little point reading them out of sequence. There is a clear – if not exactly linear – development from one volume to the next. With Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence in particular, it is necessary to have read the preceding volume, Etzel Andergast in order to understand – and forgive – the opening.

At the end of the second volume Joseph Kerkhoven is on the brink of physical and mental collapse: he has just learned that his wife Marie has been unfaithful with his friend and former protégé Etzel Andergast. Marie, too, is close to a breakdown, having been rejected by Etzel, who has now fled. To add to his woes, Kerkhoven’s medical practice is under threat from his rivals. This is the point at which Etzel Andergast ends and Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence begins. Almost inevitably, the opening chapters of the third volume – dealing, as they do, with the aftermath of betrayal, with jealousy, anger, and recrimination - are intense and uncomfortable. If a reader new to Wassermann started here he might find the prose in the first few chapters overwrought and the novel’s structure bewildering. Only if he had read Etzel Andergast first would the opening make sense: as a deliberate effect, a necessary storm before the calm of reconciliation and the beginning of a new – for Kerkhoven, third – existence.

Having forgiven his wife, Kerkhoven leaves for Java, to help conduct medical research into ‘an endemic disease of the brain’ that is afflicting the local population. Marie, meanwhile, having finally convinced her husband that he too has a share in her guilt - that ‘in every genuinely human alliance the deadly sin is for either of the partners to rest content with the certainty that all is well’ - now attempts to escape the ‘dungeon’ of motherhood by pursuing philanthropic projects of her own. Their separation – a period for both to decide what they want from the marriage – ends when Kerkhoven returns to Germany. However their reconciliation is still incomplete. In the meantime both have attracted the attention of ‘third parties’: Marie, the unwelcome attention of a young doctor; Kerkhoven, the flattering attention of a young, married, Englishwoman. Marie rejects her suitor; Kerkhoven vacillates. In order to discourage her husband’s flirtation, Marie decides to become more generous in the bedroom (this is typical of Wassermann, who loved to throw in shocking scenes without any warning). In addition – or in contrast - to the ‘modern’ quality of the passage, there is a wry suggestion that such tactics have long been employed when the need arises:

‘Never had he held her thus, not even on the night of their reunion. He was shaken with amazement. No longer was she merely giving herself to him. This was something outside his experience, it was a liquefied glow... Nothing remained of his calm and collected Marie, whose senses were so difficult to rouse... Women were capable of greater variety in their love demonstrations than men... Dimly, Marie was aware, amid the empurpled intoxication and joyance of her passion, that now was the moment to efface for ever the visage of another woman from her husband’s mind... Strange, thought Kerkhoven, I’ve had to live on this earth for fifty years before experiencing this miracle.’

Needless to say, the tactic works. Soon Marie’s rival has disappeared. Marie and Kerkhoven begin again, a new existence for both. Kerkhoven buys a large property in Switzerland, on Lake Constance, which he turns into a sort of sanatorium. Marie establishes a centre for her child-welfare activities in the grounds. Various cases now arrive, seeking Kerkhoven’s help. Among them is Martin Mordann, ‘the lawyer and judge of his epoch’, who keeps filing cabinets full of other people’s secrets in order to wield power over them, but who is now, after a violent physical assault, suffering from a paralysing nervous breakdown. Shortly after Mordann arrives, so does Emilie Thirriot, a woman labouring under ‘a somewhat unusual form of delusion and of self-torture’:

‘She had a daughter of seventeen; but she believed that the midwife had substituted this girl for her own baby, who was, as she imagined, a boy.’

These two seemingly-unrelated cases then start to have an effect on each other through a third seemingly-unrelated case: this time, of wrongful imprisonment. Two lovers – Karl Imst and Jeanne Mallery - are serving time in prison for the murder of Imst’s wife. While many people question the verdict and believe a miscarriage of justice has taken place, any chance of a retrial seems hopeless (clearly, this is meant to recall The Maurizius Case the first volume in the ‘trilogy’). But then Kerkhoven notices that Emilie Thirriot has a strange gift – a consequence of her profound neurosis – namely, a sort of clairvoyance. Falling into a trance ‘as if some one had passed a brush’ over her face ‘and had obliterated all the characteristic traits’, she is able to see what actually happened on the night of the ‘murder’. Her testimony, though inadmissible in court, leads to the discovery of new evidence, which ultimately results in the release of Imst and Mallery. Martin Mordann refuses to believe in this gift – or in anything mysterious or supernatural – dismissing it all as ‘humbug’ and ‘idiotic, obscurantist claptrap.’ He cannot free himself from the idea that he alone knows the truth. Kerkhoven’s ‘cure’ is to make him do what he least wants to do: to hand back the files in one of his cabinets, to allow just one of his secrets to remain secret, to admit, in other words, that some mystery should be preserved. Mordann refuses and soon afterwards dies.

On the surface, this might seem as if Wassermann is advocating deliberate mystification, defending the sort of obscurantism Mordann objects to. Moreover, suggesting that a miscarriage of justice can be rectified by some semi-mystical second sight, might seem like a fudge. However, as usual with Wassermann, things are a lot more complicated. The released prisoners, far from being overjoyed at their acquittal, sink into despair; their relationship, forever marred by what has happened, now disintegrates into mutual mistrust and lasting estrangement. Even with an uncanny intervention of this sort (which, I would argue, is an indictment of the receptiveness-to-reason of criminal courts), the injustice is not undone; its effects are permanent. The ‘cure’ for Karl Imst and Jeanne Mallery - their release from prison - is really nothing more than a temporary palliative. There is no once-and-for-all solution. What Wassermann seems to be saying here is that an open, flexible mind – one willing to explore even far-fetched alternatives - is the most important factor: nothing should be ruled out; perhaps then we can overcome whatever befalls us, or at the very least, tolerate it. Becoming fixated on a single idea – such as injustice – keeps us imprisoned.

Which perhaps explains Kerkhoven’s increasing frustration with conventional methods of treatment, and his progression towards a more spiritual, heuristic approach. Without a sense of something 'beyond' us, something greater than our individual ego, we have no hope of freeing ourselves from our psychological prisons: this seems to be the central theme in the novel.

Again, this needs to be qualified: Wassermann explicitly rejects organised religion, he rejects what usually passes for religious feeling: for him, religion is something far more subtle, and the rest of the novel – as well as being many other things – is an attempt to describe his own unique faith.

The first section of the novel is entitled ‘Syneidesis’ which roughly translates as ‘conscience and consciousness’ – hinting at Kerkhoven’s/ Wassermann’s attempts to sketch a new way of existing, one based on the sort of open-mindedness described above. Typically for Wassermann, this attempt is merely an initial outline (a mere hundred and fifty pages or so) – almost an abstract of what is to follow. The section ends with the death of Martin Mordann. Section Two then begins: a longer, fuller exposition of the themes introduced in the first section.

Entitled ‘Alexander and Bettina’ it introduces us to Kerkhoven’s next patient – or patients, rather, as both are in need of his help - the novelist Alexander Herzog and his second wife, Bettina. In a precarious state of health, for reasons that are not immediately made clear, Herzog is an unwilling patient. Although a successful novelist, he is suffering from a debilitating depression. This depression has now begun to affect Bettina, too, and their marriage seems to be in danger of dissolution (a situation that recalls Kerkhoven’s earlier marital difficulties). Bettina asks Kerkhoven for help. With a sudden intuition Kerkhoven tells Herzog to write an account of his troubles, from the time they began to the present - the one thing, ironically, the successful writer is loath to do. This echoes Kerkhoven’s earlier advice to Mordann: he identifies the one thing his patient is most reluctant to attempt, thus challenging him to break the mental habit that is imprisoning him. This time, unlike Mordann, Herzog agrees. He writes an account, which is then presented to us.

(At two hundred and fifty pages this account is a novel-within-a-novel.)

‘Ganna, or The World of Illusion’ is the title Herzog gives his text. Ganna is Herzog’s first wife; the source of all his troubles; a character so disturbed and disturbing as to seem almost demoniacal. The account of their meeting, engagement and subsequent marriage – surely the marriage from hell – is an extraordinary, compelling and constrictive piece of writing. It leaves the reader thoroughly on edge; we desperately want to get to the end simply to escape Ganna’s influence – which is precisely Wassermann’s/ Kerkhoven’s intention. Only by reaching the end of the narrative are we able – with Herzog – to see a way out. The sense of relief when Kerkhoven finally opens Herzog’s eyes to the true nature of ‘illusion’ is almost palpable.

(It is no coincidence that at the time of writing, Wassermann was starting to feel the full effects of Nazi oppression, living almost in exile at his home in Austria. The atmosphere he evokes - one of helplessness and entrapment - goes far beyond anything the narrative itself might warrant: clearly, we are not just reading about an unhappy marriage.)

By chance, just before starting Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence, I read a book of Wassermann’s letters to his first wife Julie Speyer. It is alarming to see just how many details from Wassermann’s first marriage are included in Herzog’s ‘fictional’ account. Herzog is undoubtedly another of Wassermann’s alter-egos. The breakdown of Herzog’s marriage is based loosely on Wassermann’s own failed relationship. Yet just how closely Ganna is based on Julie Speyer, I cannot say. It seems extremely unlikely that the resemblance is an accurate one; more likely, Ganna displays some of Julie Speyer’s flaws, yet those flaws are so exaggerated and distorted as to become unrecognisable. Although Ganna, as a fictional character, is believable enough, you would hope – and pray! – that Wassermann’s first wife was nothing like her (you would hope that no woman could be like her). Reading Wassermann’s letters, there is no indication that he felt persecuted in the way that Herzog does. So why does he risk the misunderstanding? Why allow people to think that Ganna might be based on his first wife?

The figure of Ganna is a monstrous one, and it must have been tempting for some critics to attribute the motive for such a characterisation to personal bitterness or a petty desire for revenge. But I would argue we are meant to see Wassermann’s distortion in the same light as Herzog’s: that is, as a result of faulty vision – the root of which is a profound sense of guilt - which in time will be corrected. Just as Herzog goes through a catharsis of sorts by writing about Ganna, so Wassermann wants us to see that he has gone through a similar experience. Once, like Herzog, he was trapped in a world of illusion, but now, like Kerkhoven, he has seen a way out.

(At a different level, the act of writing becomes a way of obtaining relief, however temporary, from the suffocating presence of Nazism. Wassermann, struggling for breath, is trying to find a way out of his predicament.)

The third section of the book – ‘Joseph and Marie, or The World of Faith’ – sees the four main characters come together at Kerkhoven’s house/ clinic, where their individual friendships develop and each, in their own way, moves closer to the ‘faith’ Kerkhoven extols: surrender of the ego and an openness to possibility.

Realising that he is gravely ill and has only a short time left to live, Kerkhoven finishes a long-planned book, on ‘Illusion’. In it, are all his insights and observations regarding the psychological phenomena that subjugate us. Having found a publisher, he asks Herzog to bring him his one and only copy of the book. Herzog loses it. It is never recovered. Kerkhoven, controlling his anguish in order to spare his friend, soon regains his equanimity. He even notices a strange, unexpected consequence of the loss: the locals, who until now have stayed away from his clinic, sceptical of his unorthodox methods, are suddenly drawn to him. He realises, in turn, that the simple act of relieving suffering – even on a small scale – is as important as trying to dispel the world’s illusions:

‘It was a return to simplicity; the relief of much petty distress; helping people to escape from lesser perils and perhaps to avert greater ones’

Meanwhile, his sense of his own impending death becomes harder to ignore:

‘Often enough his physical strength gave out, and he collapsed, though as inconspicuously as possible, like a tired dog crawling into its kennel to rest.’

The loss of the great work on ‘Illusion’, and the loss of strength in his protagonist, suggest an acceptance of failure on Wassermann’s part: he knew he would run out of time before he could finish his life’s work. Although he finished Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence he nevertheless wanted to revise it, and it seems certain he would have done so had he lived longer. According to his widow, in a postface to the text, ‘the human world around him seemed to him so distressful that he (for whom the work of imaginative creation had always provided a refuge from harsh realities) felt it incumbent upon him to assume an active attitude towards his environment, instead of remaining content, as heretofore, with a merely passive one. Although Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence embodies much of his own spiritual experience, he had, for intimate reasons, kept out of the novel his sense of the call to him that he should take a part in the positive struggle...He therefore decided to write a postface to Kerkhoven, which should cross the t’s and set the dots on the i’s, and should make the novel embody a more concrete message than any of his other romances, the message of one who was a fighter as well as a sufferer.’

Kerkhoven, at the end of the novel, is still alive. His time is short, but he still has things to do. Wassermann, likewise, still had unfinished business – new directions, new struggles. Had he lived longer, he might have finished Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence to his satisfaction. He might also have taken a more active role in the struggle against Hitler and National Socialism. More than likely, he would have been hunted down and murdered.

Wassermann might have felt as if he had failed, but the ‘Etzel Andergast Trilogy’ is a crowning achievement. At a time when illusion was driving people towards as yet unimaginable atrocities, he created a world of faith.


From Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence (George Allen & Unwin, 1934, trans., Eden and Cedar Paul)

639 pages
Book One: Syneidesis
Book Two: Alexander and Bettina
Book Three: Joseph and Marie, or the World of Faith

The Letters of Jacob Wassermann to Frau Julie Wassermann


‘Jakob Wassermann and I spent many, very many, pleasurable hours in each other’s company during the winter, spring, and summer of 1900. In December 1899 I had done everything in my power to bring about a meeting with Wassermann, such an overpowering impression had been made upon me by his novel Die Juden von Zirndorf.

At last I succeeded in persuading an aunt of mine to invite Wassermann to her house, an invitation which he accepted. The high hopes I had placed in this meeting were in no wise disappointed. I was quite unconscious of all that happened around us during that evening. All the other guests were like shadows, and it seemed to me as though Jakob Wassermann and I were on an island, in a state of complete isolation. We talked for four hours and he accompanied me and my sisters home and promised to visit me.’


Jakob Wassermann was twenty six when he met Julie Speyer. After years of hardship, he had enjoyed his first taste of success three years earlier with the publication of The Jews of Zirndorf. Now a minor celebrity, whose fame and reputation were steadily growing, he was embraced by the polite society that had hitherto ignored him. Julie Speyer’s family were a part of that society – albeit a liberal, progressive part – and it was, presumably, with mixed feelings that Wassermann reacted to their acceptance of him. On the one hand, he envied the ‘sunshine and light’ in which his future wife had been raised; on the other, he retained a healthy ‘contempt for tradition and convention.’

‘In the home of his future wife he encountered a very definite tradition of culture and a mode of life which was in sharp contrast to the narrow provincial atmosphere in which his intellectual interests had been ridiculed... Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler were friends of the family.’

Ironically – though perhaps inevitably – Wassermann outgrew even this progressive environment, and separated from his wife in October 1919. They were divorced in 1926: in the intervening years Wassermann had had a son with his new partner Marta Karlweis and now wanted to remarry in order to secure his son’s legitimacy.

As a chronicle of the subsidence of love into friendship and the eventual breakdown of a marriage, these letters, at times, make for uncomfortable reading. Wassermann, clearly, was not the easiest of men to get along with. His writing came first. He took frequent, protracted breaks from his wife and children, arguing that this was necessary both for his art and for the continuation of his marriage.

‘Things that I possess, including human beings, have always lost their essential charm for me as soon as I have been allowed to possess them uninterruptedly.’

‘Yes, I am in favour of temporary breaks in married life, for a temporary break is often a safeguard against a complete break.’

The reason he wrote his wife so many letters – quite simply - was because he spent so much time apart from her. Each spring he would travel to Italy, usually for weeks at a time, typically alone or with a friend. It is difficult not to see in this a fundamental dissatisfaction with his married life. Moreover, it is hard not to sense that Wassermann was conscious of an ever-widening gulf between his intellectual range and that of his wife. On a few occasions, all of them telling, Wassermann responds to articles and reviews his wife has written; though supportive, his responses are also condescending. This, again, seems inevitable: as his success grew, so his wife’s efforts paled in comparison. While Wassermann was being feted by innumerable people in various countries, his wife was at home looking after the children: no wonder they drifted apart.

Wassermann’s betrayal is described with typical succinctness. It is the only moment his wife’s resentment shows through; a brief flash that immediately fades.

A new relationship with a woman while I was still in bed after my confinement, a relationship which later on led to a tragic break and our separation in October 1919.
His new acquaintance moved into a villa next door to our little cottage at Altaussee with her husband and children.’

The letters which follow – in which Wassermann attempts to console his wife and to persuade her that ‘intellectual comradeship, understanding, and mutual appreciation’ are a workable substitute for the intimacy they once shared – may perhaps seem like the pangs of a guilty conscience; however there is also an element of genuine remorse:

‘When I look back upon our time together, I cannot help reproaching myself for all my sins of omission, sin upon sin; but you yourself know how great and oppressive my inner difficulties have always been. And perhaps you realise how blind you are and were; but this must not lead to our needlessly going over and over our past actions and sufferings; on the contrary, let us try from now onwards to hold out our hands to each other and to look each other in the face as true friends. Life is so short, and remember how short a time we have before us, even if we reach a ripe old age – scarcely as long as the time that has elapsed since our first meeting. And how swiftly and rapidly that time has passed – just like a tidal wave! It calls for the very best will on our part, real resolution, to understand each other; it needs determination on the part of each of us not to impute evil to the other, but at least to believe that the other is acting in good faith.’

Wassermann emerges from this correspondence as a selfish man, but no more selfish than most. His weakness is no more unforgiveable than our own. It is easy to look at the disintegration of a marriage and find reasons, attribute blame, moralise; but what goes on in private between husband and wife is something no one outside can understand. These letters give a glimpse of that private life, but no more. Clearly there was fault on both sides; clearly the lion’s share was Wassermann’s. However, the sense we are left with is predominantly one of sadness: a reminder that great art has a personal cost, that not only the artist suffers.


From The Letters of Jacob Wassermann to Frau Julie Wassermann, (George Allen & Unwin, 1935, trans., Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt)

223 pages
Edited by V. Grubwieser
With Biographical Notes by Frau Julie Wassermann

Jakob Wassermann, Etzel Andergast

Etzel Andergast, the second book in Wassermann’s late trilogy (the first being The Maurizius Case, the third Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence) appeared in Germany in 1931. An English translation was published the following year.

The novel is divided into two sections: ‘The World That Was: Joseph Kerkhoven’ and ‘The World That Is: Etzel Andergast’. The first is set in Dresden in 1913, the second in Berlin fifteen years later. The First World War is the dividing line. However, it is really the threat of a second World War and the menace of a renascent German nationalism that hang over the novel as a whole. (Wassermann was writing under this shadow: two years after the novel was published in Germany he was forced to leave the Prussian Academy of Arts; his books were banned and burned; he was effectively exiled to his home in Altaussee in Austria. The novel is a despairing – because accurate – prediction of what was to come.)

Because the novel does not follow on directly from The Maurizius Case - Wassermann intended the three volumes to be self-contained - it is some time before the connection is established, before Etzel Andergast, the protagonist of the first volume, appears: page 235 to be exact. To begin with, the novel focuses on the relationship between two men - Johann Irlen and Joseph Kerkhoven. We go back in time (from the period in which The Maurizius Case is set) to 1913. Irlen, a wealthy, restless man, now forty-four, whose ‘marked strength of character made him unusually attractive’, has just returned from two years of travelling in the Congo. On his way back to Germany he falls seriously ill. At a loss to diagnose the cause, Irlen’s doctor suggests a consultation with Joseph Kerkhoven – ‘just an ordinary general practitioner like dozens of others... an insignificant little man’ who has nevertheless begun to show a remarkable, intuitive, almost mystical ability to diagnose and cure seemingly hopeless cases. A friendship soon develops between Irlen and Kerkhoven. Although Irlen – the text hints – is homosexual, his attraction to Kerkhoven is of a different nature. Irlen senses Kerkhoven’s potential greatness; and as Kerkhoven tries to effect a cure, Irlen tries to effect a metamorphosis. Kerkhoven fails, Irlen succeeds. Knowing his illness is incurable, Irlen asks Kerkhoven to end his life with a morphine injection. Kerkhoven agrees. Immediately after Irlen’s death Kerkhoven falls into a state of apraxia, from which he only recovers when he is called up to be an army doctor. Ostensibly, he has failed, but – as Irlen has foreseen – Kerkhoven, in the years that follow, realises his true potential and becomes a successful, world-renowned doctor.

This, at a glance, is the first section of the book. However, there is a great deal more to it.

While treating Irlen, Kerkhoven meets and falls in love with Marie, Irlen’s niece by marriage. As Kerkhoven and Marie are both married to other people, it seems they will have to live outside respectable society. But then circumstances bring them together. Kerkhoven’s wife Nina goes insane and is placed in an asylum, where she later dies. Marie’s husband agrees to a separation, and it seems will grant her a divorce, but is then killed in the war. Irlen leaves Kerkhoven a ‘handsome legacy’ in his will, enough for Kerkhoven to establish his own clinic, and for him and Marie to live in comfort.

All of which takes place on the surface. Beneath are darker layers of mystery and menace, which are then, in a sense, repeated and more fully explored in the second part of the book.

For the sake of clarity (and concision) it is perhaps easiest to list the various connections:

Irlen’s anxiety about the outbreak of war, his attempts to stop it (he has an almost naive belief in the ability of well-intentioned men to divert the course of history) is echoed in Kerkhoven’s later dread of a ‘new form of devastation’, and in his similarly innocent faith in a possible cure for mankind’s madness.

Irlen’s nurturing of Kerkhoven is mirrored in Kerkhoven’s nurturing of Etzel Andergast. Both relationships end with a betrayal of the older man by the younger.

It is no coincidence that for both Kerkhoven and Etzel the year 1913 is profoundly character-forming. Kerkhoven begins to realise his own potential at the same time as Etzel’s parents are going through the divorce that will ultimate determine the direction of Etzel’s life: the two men’s fates are connected.

Kerkhoven’s absorption in his work – his devotion to Irlen and neglect of Nina – is largely responsible for the breakdown of his first marriage (and the breakdown of his wife). This same absorption and neglect – this time of Marie – almost ends his second marriage.

Marie, towards the end of the novel, starts an affair with Etzel, and is nearly driven insane when he then rejects her (she almost succumbs to the same fate as Kerkhoven’s first wife).

Beneath these are yet further connections – less obvious, more primitive. Just as in The Maurizius Case, Wassermann strives to articulate the mysterious, subterranean element in human relationships; he tries to hint at what lies beyond language, the inexpressible-yet-tantalisingly-close.

For example, in the first section, Irlen comments: ‘“Whenever I walk through a dark room, I feel the whole universe pressing round me.”’

This is a familiar feeling – one most of us have probably experienced – yet what does it actually signify? Isolation? A ‘cosmic’ sense of our place in the universe? Something primitive and prehistoric in Man? Wassermann, typically, refuses to answer. To do so would be to attempt to deprive the mystery of its mysteriousness, something he is loath to do (really, this marks the limit of Wassermann’s fascination with – or faith in - psychoanalysis, the point where his mysticism asserts itself). Instead, he returns to this mystery later in the novel – some five hundred pages later – where, this time, it is Etzel who finds himself alone in a darkened room. Having just slept with Marie for the first time, Etzel is euphoric – a heightened state that again has something ‘cosmic’ or mystical about it, but which again depends on solitude and darkness to find its full expression:

‘At five in the morning he left her and went quietly up to the floor above, where Frau Janisch had made the spare room ready for him the night before... He went in and stood still in the darkness. He felt as though he were standing in the interior of some mountain. The rustling, which can be heard in all dark rooms, sounded to him like the noise of distant waters seeking an outlet... Many voices were in his blood; all the words of love were dissolved in it. All the images and memories of the senses were in the blood, dissolved in the blood as salt dissolves in water. The contact of lips, the unrestrained embraces, eyes that saw not. Flame and exhaustion, revival and gracious death. Breath that was love, tongues like fiery blades, insatiable hands, the boundless gratitude in reawakened eyes, the incredulous intimate whisperings, the discovery of the other, as though after long wandering one landed on another planet. He groped his way to his bed. He did not want light; light would be murder. He slipped under the coverlet and dropped asleep, as a stone drops into a well.’

Although the two episodes are far apart – and on the surface unrelated – they nevertheless seem connected. The latter calls to mind the former: another of many subtle links.

At its heart, the novel is about the conflict between generations; about how earlier generations try to advise and save succeeding generations, and about how these later generations – inevitably – reject the proffered advice, question the efficacy of the cure, and ultimately make the same mistakes. This pessimism – together with his scepticism about modern (i.e. fashionable, i.e. dilettantish) efforts to effect change - has led certain commentators to argue that Wassermann was essentially a conservative thinker. Yet, if anything, his novels betray a trenchant radicalism; they are, almost uniformly, anti-bourgeois in outlook; pleas for greater individual freedom. His own protracted divorce from his first wife left him at odds with respectable society; his characters are often trapped by marriage, restrained by morality. There is no condemnation, for instance, when female characters realise their desires: Wassermann blames society for prohibiting this desire rather than the individual woman for obeying it. Moreover, he refuses to place his female characters on pedestals: they are as deeply-flawed as the men he portrays.

One of the sub-plots of Etzel Andergast involves a wealthy American philanthropist – a woman named Nell Marschall – who has established a commune of sorts, in which the most deserving among the countless impoverished young Germans living in and around Berlin are allowed to seek refuge. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Wassermann reveals the truth behind Nell's philanthropy. Nell is a woman who believes in the good she is doing, so much so that she cannot or will not acknowledge the evil. Kerkhoven, Wassermann’s alter-ego, refuses to be fooled. For Kerkhoven-Wassermann, the paradise of communal living, of subordinating oneself to a shared ideal, is shown to be a hell:

‘It seemed to him a well-rehearsed parade, calculated to demonstrate the blessings of the communal spirit. He was not taken in by the air of happiness and frankness, which was, for the most part, the result of calculated training, based on a cunning system of patronage. Under a thin veneer of youthful carelessness was criticism, suspicion, envy of the favoured ones, and, above all, the stigma of contemporary youth, anxiety about the future. Nell did not know it. That is, she refused to perceive and accept it. She was innocent in a sinister sense in which many active natures are innocent; their outward efficiency far exceeds the inward, so that the machine runs empty and wears out. Hence the strain, the exaggeration, hence the self-violation, which, in Nell’s case, however, had an additional cause: a heart never fructified by love. She was a woman only in a physiological sense. Such were Kerkhoven’s thoughts...’

The idea of sinister innocence remains valid; in fact, it has a particular significance today, with the omnipresent demand for charity, the repeated exhortations to give, the pressure to take part, the numerous full-time philanthropists - champions of good causes - whose ‘outward efficiency far exceeds the inward’.

Wassermann-Kerkhoven resists this pressure, reiterating again and again his unwillingness to conform:

'Formalism will always enslave us; the mind must go into its pen, the heart is on the proscribed index... Personally I don't matter. I belong to no clique, and no school either. That is just what you cannot forgive me. I never wanted to be anything but a simple physician, so modest is my ambition.... I hardly dare say how modest it is... a remnant still left in me of simple faith in human discernment. My whole life's work was aimed at prevention, prevention of worse things coming.'

For me, this is further proof of Wassermann's progressiveness. His pessimism was a call for greater intellectual rigour, his negativity a way of destroying illusions, in order to see what, if anything, remains as a cause for hope.

The novel reminds us, frequently, of ‘the uncanny repetitions that occur sometimes in a single human life, repetitions of experiences that are essentially the same, and that evidently have their origin in character.’ The character of the individual and the character of successive generations both have something ‘uncanny’ about them – in the sense that the repressed continues to return despite our efforts to prevent this. ‘The world that is’ increasingly comes to resemble ‘the world that was’. Yet that does not mean it will never improve. The situation, though bleak, is not hopeless.

The second part of the book – twice the length of the first – is clearly intended as a prolonged echo of what has come before, a warning that we seldom if ever learn from past mistakes. Even when we remember the past we are condemned to repeat it - unless, that is, we undergo a change so profound that it breaks us down and forces us to start again.

The novel ends with Kerkhoven a broken man: his reputation and practice, once thriving, are now threatened by jealous rivals; his unfaithful wife is on the verge of insanity; his friend, former protégé and now betrayer, Etzel has fled; war is again threatening Europe; yet somehow we know he will survive.

Kerkhoven, over the course of the novel, has become the unlikeliest of heroes. We desperately want him to succeed, to overcome adversity. His powerlessness - paradoxically - gives us hope. Isolated, defeated, betrayed, he is nevertheless free.

The stage is set for the next volume, for Kerkhoven’s ‘third existence’ to begin.


From Etzel Andergast,(George Allen & Unwin, 1932, trans., Cyrus Brooks)

601 pages
Part One: The World That Was: Joseph Kerkhoven
Part Two: The World That Is: Etzel Andergast

A decubitus of the heart, or, the prevention of worse things coming

'A god has died, at least so it is stated, and his heaven is being rebuilt as a barracks.'

'Things grew worse and worse. The thought of some universal doom that must be hanging over humanity came back to him, some "cosmic disorder" which - so one might assume - acted on the solar plexus, that most star-like of organs, which is at the same time the seat of fear. Like the plague in past centuries, like yellow fever in the tropics, a sickness of mind and soul was raging, a disintegration of the will, something like a decubitus of the heart. A new form of devastation.'

'The purer the intention, the worse the construction put on it. Formalism will always enslave us; the mind must go into its pen, the heart is on the proscribed index... Personally I don't matter. I belong to no clique, and no school either. That is just what you cannot forgive me. I never wanted to be anything but a simple physician, so modest is my ambition.... I hardly dare say how modest it is. I pleaded that an old man should be allowed to die in peace, a man who has richly deserved such consideration; you must attribute that, my dear colleague, to a remnant still left in me of simple faith in human discernment. My whole life's work was aimed at prevention, prevention of worse things coming.'

From Etzel Andergast (George, Allen & Unwin, 1932, tr., Cyrus Brooks)

Despite being one of the most popular and successful authors of his generation, Jakob Wassermann died disillusioned and impoverished. The year before - 1933 - he had been forced to leave the Prussian Academy of Arts; his books had been banned by the Nazis; many of his books, presumably, had already been burned; he was living as an exile at his home in Altaussee.

Details of his life - in English - are extremely hard to come by. His books are likewise difficult to find in translation. The wikipedia page contains some information, but not much; even the German wikipedia page seems sketchy. The latter does contain one or two illuminating details. The computer-generated translation makes for strange reading; nevertheless, it adds a certain poignancy:

'After the book burning in Germany in 1933 his books were banned, although he was one of the most widely read authors... This meant for him not only the physical ruin, but especially the collapse of his life-long cherished hopes, through his work can help, a world of peace without national tensions... Robert Neumann reported in his autobiography that one may intentionally false connection - telephone calls had to be manually put through at that time still - must have been to blame for the loss stroke. Wassermann had wanted to ask his publisher to a much needed advance of 2,000 marks and was precipitated by the false information over.'

Translating this translation: Wassermann needed money; he tried to phone his publisher to ask for an advance; whoever was supposed to put him through decided, for possibly nefarious reasons, not to; the disappointment and frustration precipitated the stroke that killed him.

He died on New Year's Day, 1934. He was sixty years old.

Henry Miller, Reflections on The Maurizius Case: A Humble Appraisal of a Great Book


I first heard about The Maurizius Case – as I seem to hear about so many great books – from Henry Miller. I was reading Brassai’s book on Miller, Happy Rock – a collection of reminiscences and conversations in which Brassai and Miller swap ideas on a range of subjects. The Maurizius Case is mentioned in a conversation about American ‘types’ – Miller’s contention being that the only writers who have ever accurately captured these types have been non-Americans. Foremost among these writers, for Miller, is Jakob Wassermann:

‘...as usually happens, it took a foreigner, fresh eyes, to give us the most accurate picture of our continent’s soul. No author of American stock has aimed as accurately as Jakob Wassermann, a German. He was the only one, in "The Maurizius Case", to pin down a few truly American types.’

Miller was so impressed by Wassermann’s ‘rich, fascinating book’ and ‘torrential style’ he felt compelled to write a short book of his own in response. Eager as I was to read Miller’s book, I was more eager to go directly to the source of his enthusiasm. I read The Maurizius Case first, then sought out Miller’s Reflections on The Maurizius Case – luckily, as it turned out.

While Miller’s Reflections provides an invaluable companion to Wassermann’s novel, it should not be read first – not only because it spoils some of the novel’s surprises, but because Miller, when he came to write Reflections in the 1940s, had also read the second and third volumes in the ‘Etzel Andergast’ trilogy (The Maurizius Case being the first volume) and resorts to this additional knowledge when making certain observations. His appraisal of the character Etzel Andergast, for instance, is informed by his reading of the later volumes. A newcomer to The Maurizius Case can have no idea of the kind of person Etzel will eventually become by reading the first volume alone. Moreover, Miller’s book is influenced by the period in which it was written. Miller was a conscientious objector, of sorts, and his reading of The Maurizius Case becomes, in places, a plea in his own defence.

These reservations aside, Reflections on The Maurizius Case is a fascinating insight into a hugely important novel, as well as being a great read in its own right. At just sixty-two pages it can easily be read at a single sitting. Needless to say, it has all of Miller’s trademark enthusiasm and vibrancy, while at the same time remaining clear and carefully-reasoned. The subtitle – ‘A humble appraisal of a great book’ – may be slightly misleading (nothing Miller wrote can be described as humble) but nevertheless the scope of his reflections are sufficiently limited, the focus sharp enough – occasional digressions notwithstanding - to make this an incisive piece of writing.

I cannot imagine a better blurb for Wassermann’s novel than the following:

‘Nothing can explain its seduction. It is not the greatest book I have ever read, nor the best written. Neither is its theme the highest. It is a piece of propaganda to which a man like myself is particularly susceptible. It haunts me, as the Sphinx haunted the men of old. For it does contain a secret in the form of a riddle. It is mysterious in that despite all explanations, those of the author, those of the interpreters of it, nothing is truly explained. Is it because it is about justice, of which we know almost nothing? Is it because the description of human justice awakens in us intimations of a divine justice?’

This haunting quality is precisely what Miller tries to understand. Anyone who has read The Maurizius Case will instantly comprehend what he means, and will follow closely his attempts to put this mystery into words. The characters – even supposedly minor ones – become more inscrutable the more we attempt to pin them down. There is something subterranean – almost primordial - in the relations connecting one character to another; something Wassermann hints at again and again through images of swamps, soil, stagnant water, darkness, caverns, sea-shells. Even when secrets are revealed, or characters are unmasked, other, deeper secrets are exposed, additional masks are uncovered.

The novel clearly permits – even invites – a sort of Freudian analysis. Miller sees in Etzel’s search for justice an unconscious quest for love – the love of his absent mother, denied him by his authoritarian father. Etzel’s ostensibly ‘chivalrous deed’ - trying to secure the freedom of Leonhart Maurizius - is actually ‘prompted by a spirit of vengeance’ Miller argues: Etzel ‘wants to destroy his father’s work... Justice, divorced from love, becomes revenge.’

Yet rather than unravelling as Miller pulls on this one narrative thread, the novel seems to become even more tightly woven, even harder to pick apart. Leonhart Maurizius and Sophia Andergast, in Etzel’s mind, are both victims of injustice, and both are victims of his father’s implacability. Yet neither see themselves as such – or rather, both have moved on from this. Sophia, Wassermann intimates, is doing far better since her divorce than at any point during her marriage; when she reappears she looks ‘unexpectedly young’ – more like thirty-two than thirty-eight - and seems to be enjoying her freedom (admittedly, she yearns to be reunited with her son, but she is not ‘bowed with grief’). Maurizius, too, though languishing in prison for something he did not do, insists that in other ways he was guilty of murdering his wife, and seems to accept his wrongful imprisonment as a deserved punishment. His stoicism – or fatalism – renders Etzel’s desire for revenge meaningless.

After Maurizius is released – in one of the best and strangest episodes in the novel – he meets ‘an attractive woman of perhaps thirty’. ‘What sort of a woman was she?’ he wonders. ‘Divorced? Childless? Strangled by fate, driven to a last refuge? He did not learn; he was not curious; just as she had no desire to learn what would happen to her during the next few hours. At all events, she was not among “the dead”; that was quite certain; she stood before him a living woman, with a sort of high-heartedness, soft, ironical and heedless, such as many women have when their hopes are at an end (when they are hanging half over an abyss); a certain sweet phlegm as of a soul redeemed.’

In addition to being beautifully written, this passage is significant because it gives a sense of how paradoxical Wassermann’s aesthetic can be. The mystery woman is alive, ‘high-hearted’ and ‘heedless’ even though – or because – she is ‘hanging half over an abyss’; she is like ‘a soul redeemed’ even though – or because – her hopes ‘are at an end.’ Are we meant to pity her? Envy her? Both?

Wassermann refuses to answer for us. There is a deliberate ambiguity throughout the episode. By tacit agreement Maurizius goes back to her flat. There, he tells her his real name. The mystery woman falls ‘on her knees before him, and taking his hand’ presses ‘her lips to it almost reverently.’ They go to bed, where they lie side by side for hours, until Maurizius breaks down in tears – ‘...hoarse, hard, desperate sobbing... The nameless woman sought to console him. No; no consolation. Sex had been murdered. One had therefore – here was the proof – no further share in the world.’ The next morning Maurizius leaves without a word. Shortly afterwards he kills himself. The woman – who is clearly Sophia Andergast – is not heard from again (she is only ‘sent for’ at the very end of the novel, and as such never arrives).

Why does Wassermann refuse to name her? Why leave only clues (Maurizius’ intuition that she might be divorced, or childless, seem obvious enough pointers to her identity)? Why does she look younger – only thirty now - even though more time has passed?

Wassermann is not being deliberately difficult; he is trying to suggest, in every way he can think of, that ‘the truth’ – about a person, a crime, a relationship - is something almost impossible to grasp, let alone convey in words. As the character Klakusch says of the word justice: ‘It is a word like a fish, it slips away from one when one seizes it...If one had the voice, what could one not attain? But the voice is lacking.’

This is where Miller’s book really comes close to identifying the ‘haunting’ quality in Wassermann’s novel: it is in the acknowledgement – hinted at by Wassermann himself – that he has reached the limit of what can be said, the limit of his powers as a writer. As Miller argues: ‘It is as if Wassermann were dissatisfied with his own verbal skill, his own inventiveness, as if he were tired of these perpetual human problems which can never be answered directly through art; as if he were challenging himself to a last supreme effort... With ‘The Maurizius Case’ Wassermann is approaching the end of his own life. He seems to have mustered all his forces for this final work.’

The novel, Miller suggests, ‘fills one with sadness and despair not because there has been a miscarriage of justice but because society itself is revealed as a vast web in which all its members, good and bad, are pinioned and squirm helplessly.’

The Maurizius Case, for Miller, is an impasse, from which Wassermann moves on ‘to the more involved and even more desperate impasse of Doctor Kerkhoven, the chief figure in the second book of the trilogy. But what does Kerkhoven find? Exactly what all our healers today are up against – the fact that he cannot cope with the multitude of sick people who besiege him. Psycho-analysis is no solution, any more than the second coming of Christ would be. To cure the sick conscience of the world a totally new outlook on life is necessary. Not a saviour. Each man will have to save himself, now if never before. Because now we know that no other solution is possible. We have tried them all, again and again. That is the lesson of history – the futility of all other attempts. That is the meaning of the rat-trap which is called the cyclical interpretation of history. No matter if some perceive within the cycle repetitions an upward or a downward spiralling... the cycle must be broken. There must be egress or man as we know him will revert to some sub-human level... Every birth of consciousness demands an agony supreme and heretofore unequalled. And we are, without a doubt, at the threshold of a new vision of things.’

Wassermann reached this threshold. Whether he could have gone beyond it will remain in question: he died before he could complete the Etzel Andergast saga. The haunting quality Miller identifies is precisely this tantalising nearness to ‘a new vision of things.’ Frustrated with his own abilities and aware there was no direct answer to the ‘perpetual human problems’ he saw all around him, Wassermann attempted an indirect response. Hence the slippery, elusive nature of The Maurizius Case.

We are left to conclude – with Melchior Ghisels, another of Wassermann’s fictional alter egos - that ‘we can only move forward very, very slowly, and step by step... It is not a means of salvation, not a tremendous truth which I have in mind, but perhaps, as I have said, it is a hint, a useful suggestion... What I mean is this: good and evil are not determined by the intercourse of people with one another, but entirely by a man’s relations with himself. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, I understand,’ Etzel replies. But then he asks the one question Ghisels cannot answer: ‘if my friend, or my friend’s father... or anyone closely related to me... or for that matter even someone who is not closely related to me... if he is imprisoned unjustly, and I... what am I to do... how does my relation to myself help me in such a case? Surely there is only one thing that I can and must demand: right, justice! Am I to leave him in torment? Am I to forget about him? Am I to say, how does it concern me? Because... what is justice if I don’t see it through, I, myself, Etzel Andergast...?’

Ghisels sits up in his seat. ‘For a time he steadily returned the boy’s glance; then he looked at the fading sky, and said gently, as he stretched out his arms: “I have nothing to reply to that, except... Forgive me; I am only a feeble creature.”’

Ultimately, The Maurizius Case is a plea for forgiveness. Wassermann went as far as he could; he knew it was not far enough. But at least he tried. Where we go from there – as Miller points out - is up to us.



From Reflections on The Maurizius Case: A humble appraisal of a great book, (Capra Press, 1974)

62 pages
Rear cover has a quote from The Maurizius Case: 'Good and evil are not determined by the intercourse of people with one another, but entirely by a man's relations with himself.'