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, 21 December 2010

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