‘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)
Edited by V. Grubwieser
With Biographical Notes by Frau Julie Wassermann