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.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Worlds' Ends






















The first volume of Wassermann’s book series ‘Der Wendekries’ ('The Turning Circle') was published in Germany in 1920. This volume – a collection of six stories, entitled The Unknown Guest after the first story - was later translated as World’s Ends and published in English in 1929. Because the title story ‘The Unknown Guest’ had already been translated and published in a different volume (Oberlin’s Three Stages in 1926), it was left out of Worlds’ Ends. The English version is therefore comprised of the remaining five stories: ‘Adam’s Son’ (‘Adam Urbas’ in the original); ‘Golovin’ (‘Golowine’); ‘Lukardis’; ‘Erasmus’ (‘Ungnad’); and ‘Jost’.

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‘Adam’s Son’, unusually for Wassermann, is written in the first-person. The narrator is one ‘Chief Justice Diesterweg... a shrewd, intelligent criminologist of the type of the great Anselm Feuerbach’. The reason we know this is because of the additional narrative framework Wassermann creates around Diesterweg’s account: an unnamed narrator introduces the story by informing us that Diesterweg has recently died. The story we are about to read was found among Diesterweg’s papers.

This story deals with a murder:

‘Late one evening in October a Franconian peasant named Adam Urbas appeared at the police station in Gunzenhausen and declared that on that very day, in his native village of Aha, he had cut the throat of his eighteen-year-old son, Simon.’

So we have a narrative within a narrative within a narrative – which gives some clue as to Wassermann’s intention with this story. At first, according to Diesterweg, the case is clear-cut, almost disappointingly so. There seems to be no mystery, nothing to resolve: it is a straightforward matter of a murder followed immediately by a confession. However, the very simplicity of the case arouses Diesterweg’s interest. His initial disappointment gradually gives way to curiosity and a growing sense that things are not as they seem:

‘Suppose yourself to be walking along a wall which seems like any other wall in the world. Suddenly, you become aware of faint markings on the wall. As the inscriptions grow gradually clearer, the temptation to decipher them becomes more and more irresistible. You begin to make out one group after another until in a flash you have a revelation of the secret realm lying behind that wall. Something of this sort was happening to me.’

In order to gain access to this secret realm - to gain Adam Urbas’s confidence, in other words - Diesterweg decides to drop his official persona, ‘to put off my professional attitude and confront him man to man.’ By degrees, this tactic works, until eventually Diesterweg uncovers the truth. Nevertheless, as he warns us, this truth cannot be ‘explained in words’ – the full depth of it can only be hinted at. Adam Urbas’s guilt is both less and more than it first appears: less, because his son Simon is revealed to be a monster; more, because Adam is responsible for making him that way.

For thirteen years after their marriage Adam and his wife were childless. While Adam’s wife accepted this, Adam remained ‘rebellious of the decree of nature’. The form his rebelliousness took was a disturbing, unnatural one: ‘once each month he would chance to look squarely at his wife, and from his eyes would emanate a force that would grow and wax independently of his will, to no apparent purpose... Never any anger; never a threat; never a word of reproach... There he stood with that unfathomable look.’

Somehow, this silent watchfulness has an effect: Adam’s wife becomes pregnant and Simon is born. However, far from the Godsend he imagines him to be, Adam discovers that Simon is an abomination:

‘“Of his mother it is true to say she carried him thirteen years. I insisted that she bear him; I insisted that God send him. I determined everything about him before he was born. He shall be this to me, and this, I said to myself. Like a lump of clay you dig up out of the earth and mould and knead to your liking. Suddenly you see that you are holding mere mud in your hand. You throw it down on the earth out of which it came... Bad from the beginning. Bad blood; I smelt it with my nose... With him, the crooked grew ever crookeder. Then I saw that much wrong would ensue. And so it was. Every day a grain of sand; finally, a mountain”’

Diesterweg remains unconvinced by this explanation. He continues to push Adam, cajoling him to reveal what actually happened the day of the murder. Finally, the truth – or a hint of it – emerges: Simon’s disobedience is a reaction against his father’s coldness; the more Adam pulls away, the more his son misbehaves. It is Adam’s fault that Simon has become a monster. And this is why – as we eventually learn – Adam takes responsibility for the death of his son, even though the ‘murder’ was nothing of the sort: Simon, in despair, cuts his own throat; Adam, finally realising his guilt, assumes the blame.

Before Adam can be cleared of the charge he is found hanging from the window beam in his cell. And there the story ends.

Just as the deeper truth remains hidden – we never really understand how Simon comes to be born, or how, if at all, Adam’s silent staring contributes to the birth – so the deeper levels of meaning in the story remain elusive. Clearly, Wassermann is evoking the story of Abraham and Isaac: the childless couple, the miraculous birth of a son, the demand for a sacrifice (Simon cutting his own throat is an obvious hint). Yet just how Wassermann wants us to interpret this is open to question. Is Simon sent by God? Does Adam fail to see this? Does his rejection of Simon show a willingness to sacrifice his son? Does it show that, in his heart, Adam has already made this sacrifice? And if so, why does God allow it in this case? Why is Simon not spared, as Isaac is?

My own reading of it is that Adam is punished by God because he sacrifices Simon before he is commanded to do so. In other words, he usurps the role of God: he acts unnaturally by first judging his son, then by rejecting him. Such decisions are God’s alone: it is not up to us to condemn others.

Needless to say, different interpretations are possible: Wassermann invites doubt and ambiguity; to do anything else would have been self-contradictory; it would also have lessened the impact of the story.

‘Golovin’ is a much longer story: the pattern for Worlds’ Ends seems to be a deliberate alternation between long-ish and short-ish stories, a strategy which works effectively. At the same time, by repeating certain themes from story to story, Wassermann creates a sense of unity – albeit a subtle one. The conflict between youth and authority – which is also, on another level, the confrontation between the devil and God – forms the most prominent of these themes. And it is hardly surprising, given the period in which Wassermann was writing. Two events, in particular, had had a profound effect on him: Germany had lost the war, and Russia had undergone a revolution.

I think it is fair to say that with regard to both, Wassermann was deeply ambivalent. While he welcomed the overthrow of the ‘old order’, both at home and abroad, he was nevertheless wary of what would replace it. With remarkable prescience, he anticipated the lure – fatal, as it turned out – of youthful extremism. The devil replaces God, which for a time brings excitement and possibility, but ultimately both the devil and God – both rebels and the ‘establishment’ - wish to subjugate us. Wassermann, as always, opts for freedom.

‘Golovin’ begins in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, five months – or thereabouts – after the outbreak of the revolution (Wassermann does not specify which revolution this is – I assume, as the story opens in mid-May, it is the October revolution of 1917). German-born Maria von Krudener, ‘a lady of the highest society, an officer’s wife, the bearer of a celebrated name’ is searching for her husband Alexander who, when the revolution broke out, ‘escaped to the Anglo-Russian front in Persia’. In tow, Maria has her four children, as well as three maid servants. After a perilous train journey, they arrive at the Palace Hotel, where other wealthy refugees are hiding out, in a kind of glittering limbo, while outside the country tears itself apart. The position of these well-heeled guests is a precarious one: at any moment they might be arrested, or worse; yet many still pretend to be unaware of the danger.

Maria, in contrast, seems more firmly rooted in reality. She has an almost instinctive ability to empathise with others, regardless of background or status. This ability attracts the attention of another guest, Princess Nelidov. The two women talk one evening, a conversation which forms the first major episode in the story.

Princess Nelidov - out of something other than idle curiosity, the text hints - asks Maria how she manages to remain faithful to her absent husband, a man who, throughout their marriage, has exercised a strict, paternalistic authority over Maria. ‘“Tell me,”’ the Princess asks, ‘“wasn’t it an unbearable despotism? Occasionally, only occasionally? Don’t you feel deep within you a sense of freedom, or at least spaciousness? Has not a burden been lifted from you despite all your love?”’ After some evasion, Maria answers:

‘“Your question was like a sudden flare. It blinded me. The truth? If I only knew. I believe it is to be found in fear. Wherever the abyss lies, there lies the truth. My free will had indeed been taken from me, but I had not the slightest desire or cause to make any further choice. My choice had been irrevocable. You remarked that the devil had no place in my house. That is appallingly true; and, therefore, I have to be very brave, criminally brave, perhaps, for I have chosen the side of the angels. I do not deny that temptation might exist for me. Who is ever free of temptation? Blood is a terrifying power. But if I were forced to choose again, I should have to make the entire circle to the other pole from my first choice. One cannot choose the divine twice, any more than one can grope around and experiment with it. If ever I have to choose again, there will be only one choice possible: the devil. Only the devil could lead me into temptation.”’

Even given the context, this is a strange conversation for two wealthy women taking refuge in a luxurious hotel. Wassermann doubtless wants us to interpret the deeper significance of the scene. Maria’s absent husband symbolises God, but also the old order, which, at that moment, is crumbling all around them. Maria has the chance to free herself from both – she is under no compulsion to find her husband, and might easily, owing to her gift of empathy, find a place in the new order – yet for now she resists temptation.

At the first opportunity, she leaves the hotel with her children and servants in order to continue her search. As the journey becomes more hazardous so their new surroundings become less respectable. The refugees are forced to take shelter at an inn. The scene is now set for the arrival of the devil.

He appears in the form of Igor Golovin, leader of a group of sailors who have taken control of the city. When Golovin walks into the inn demanding a room, he is told that Maria and her family have taken the only suitable quarters. In the confrontation that follows, Maria and Golovin reveal an instinctive, mutual dislike. But as the story shifts it becomes clear that Golovin, at least, has other feelings. He threatens Maria with arrest – hinting that her life and the lives of her children are at risk – unless she agrees to spend one night alone with him in the garret room he has meanwhile moved in to. Maria refuses, assuming he intends to rape her. But Golovin assures her he will not touch her, or molest her in any way. Still thinking he plans to assault her, but realising she has no choice, Maria sneaks into his room in the middle of the night. They talk – and the conversation between them forms the second major incident in the story, a deliberate counterpoint to Maria’s conversation with the Princess.

This time, it becomes clear that Maria is talking to someone far more diabolical (albeit, attractively so). The question, now, is will he succeed in tempting her?

Golovin’s life – revealed with breezy insouciance – is a direct contrast to Maria’s orderly, submissive existence:

‘“I shall be as concise as an encyclopaedia. Born in Warsaw. Father a Pole with some German blood; mother English, a minister’s daughter. Age: thirty-six. Educated at the military academy. Kicked up my heels. Fired out. Drifted about idly; lived with the dregs of humanity. After the death of my parents left without a cent. Pulled myself together one day, studied electrical engineering; went hungry; moved on to Sweden, then Norway. Shipped on a whaler; spent two winters in the ice of Greenland. Went to Edinburgh; became a mechanic. Went to Iceland and built an electric power-house at Reykyavik. Married a shipowner’s daughter. Travelled with her to London. Was infernally cuckolded and made short work of her – a bullet through the head. Beat it in the dead of night to America. Worked in a steam laundry, on a coal dock at Montreal, in a sausage factory in Chicago, with the Illinois Central Railroad, and finally as draughtsman and engineer in San Francisco. Great scandal: seduced two daughters of a lumber magnate; almost murdered by hired assassins; six months in hospital. Sent to Petersburg in 1912 and joined the secret societies. Conscripted into the navy in 1914; became confidential man of the crew; helped bring about the revolution... .’

All this is merely a preamble. Golovin’s true purpose, hidden by the flow of words, only slowly becomes apparent. Finally, he admits what he really wants:

‘“To put it in a word: I was longing for my equal, my equal in sensuality. And there you are, Maria Yakovlevna. It is you I long to possess.”’

‘“Isn’t it strange?”’ Maria replies: ‘“Since you spoke that word I have grown perfectly calm. Now there is no unknown between us. I even feel rather sympathetic towards you. And all because of one insensate, brutal, violent word. Suddenly I have become incomparably the stronger of us two... You say you want to possess me... Can one simply possess a person without further thought about it? Like picking an apple from a neighbour’s tree, because it is there and one wants it? Can one take a woman merely out of desire and because the prey seems worth the bother? Is a woman a mere mouthful, a kind of booty? The pleasure of an idle hour? If you think so... help yourself... Do you seriously imagine that you would really possess me if you took me that way?”’

But Maria has misunderstood, and the devil has other plans:

‘“I sensed that you were thoroughly and entirely moulded, and that was, of course, what attracted me to you. I have to wrestle something away from somebody who stands opposed to me. I have an invisible opponent before me... Whoever said that I wanted to forego the gradual unfolding petal by petal? Or the bliss of winning you bit by bit?”’

‘“You may be capable of doing what you say,”’ Maria answers, ‘“but you cannot transform one substance into another; you cannot destroy the governance of a life.”’

To which, Golovin laughs in response:

‘“I had a good deal to do, at one time, with the Chinese. There is a race that knows something about these matters... they possess an old tradition which endows the initiate with the power to implant physical love in the most obstinate breast... There is a sort of gliding in, an unobserved entwining about the glowing body of the beloved; meanwhile, one is playing the slave, the inaudible shadow, the indispensable familiar demon, the despised and rejected self, the fiendish, alluring chimera. And thus one draws the muliercula magnetically into one's arms, and so far in that she can never escape. The caresses are like velvet; the ear, the eyelid, the tip of each finger, the multitudinous surface of the skin, the armpit - each of these is bred and trained in preparation for the appropriate caress, and at each caress it shudders with gratitude. Every nerve in the caressed body writhes gratefully. Each nerve succumbs to its particular lust; each one awakens individually like an exultant, flaming little animal; and what one holds in one's arms is a being free of shame or lies, free of spirit and of fear, as abysmal as the heavens.'

Golovin succeeds in ‘gliding in’, in tempting Maria, because what he offers her is a glimpse of freedom.  Paradoxically, this glimpse is enough to enthral her for the rest of her life. When morning comes, Maria leaves, physically untouched, yet forever changed. She goes on searching for her husband (the absent patriarchal figure), but knows now that, should she find him, there will still be doubt in her mind.  As Golovin says:

‘“How do you intend to keep me from you hereafter? How shall you break the power I now have over you? You will throw yourself upon your charges, your duties; you will try to solve problems; you will attract people; you will begin to rebuild the wreckage; but I shall always be found in the background of your preoccupations. Neither struggle nor effort can prevail over that.”’

Freed from certainty, Maria is now, in a sense, imprisoned by doubt.  Golovin - and his promise of liberation - remains tantalisingly in the background; ever-visible yet always out of reach.

A heaven that cannot be inhabited eventually becomes a hell.  And thus the devil wins.

‘Lukardis’ continues the themes of temptation and sensuality; it too is set in revolutionary Russia (this time the 1905 revolution); but unlike ‘Golovin’, the drama here is strictly secular. The breakdown of authority and morality is enacted on a personal level, in the character of Lukardis herself – ‘a nineteen-year-old girl of unusual beauty’ who lives ‘in a sphere of gentle dreaming, with the dolls of her past and the jewel-cases of her present, with echoes of the comical gallantries of married men and the careful protestations of scented, unmarried men.’

Lukardis, the text makes clear, is on the verge of sexual awakening; she is merely waiting for the catalyst: ‘there was something in her of the young animal in the forest that listens to the sound of the distant hunt, the tremendous commotion of pain and blood and death. She was ready for action, but unaware of her expectancy. There were moments when she was seized by a vehement unrest, an unreasoning desire, an impulse to escape from the realm of hypocritical calm in which her life was taking shape.’

Wassermann, here, cleverly links Lukardis’ sexual unrest with the political turmoil going on around her. Aside from the obvious links between proximity of danger and heightened sexual desire, there is also a suggestion that violent social revolutions are essentially libidinous – a consequence of repressed energies finally becoming intolerable. In Lukardis’ case, her repressed sexual desire is unleashed when the revolution, for the first time, directly intrudes on her ‘sphere of gentle dreaming’ – in the figure of Eugene Pavlovitch Nadinsky, a twenty-three-year-old officer in a regiment of dragoons.

Following the arrest and summary deportation of his sister, the disillusioned Eugene decides to desert from the army and join the uprising. No sooner has he reached the barricades, however, than he is shot in the back by his former comrades. Seriously, though not fatally, injured, he is helped first by sympathetic doctors, then by Anastasia Karlovna, ‘a woman whose courage was as great as her kindly spirit.’ To avoid arrest, Eugene must be moved from place to place; but as the hunt for him intensifies, and as fewer and fewer people are willing to risk their lives hiding him, Anastasia finds herself running out of options. Then one afternoon she sees Anna Ivanovna Schmoll and her daughter Lukardis. Out of desperation, Anastasia approaches the latter – whom she does not know – and asks her, without her mother’s knowledge, for help. Lukardis agrees, though her motives for doing so remain obscure (perhaps even to herself): she acts, so the text tells us, from a sense of duty; but it is no coincidence, we are left to infer, that she has recently become engaged to an older man (out of a similar sense of duty). The fact that neither her fiancĂ© nor her family would ‘dream for a moment that she might do anything evil or ugly’ seems to be her real motivation.

Eugene, if he is to stand any chance of recovering, must be allowed to rest for two days. Lukardis must stay with him the whole time, to nurse his wounds and to protect him from discovery. The only place they can stay without suspicion is in a house of ‘ill-repute’. The virginal Lukardis must pass herself off as a prostitute and spend the next forty-eight hours in a room with a man she has never met.

What follows might easily have become lurid or farcical; however, in Wassermann’s hands, it becomes something exquisite. The relationship that develops between Lukardis and Eugene is a masterpiece of subtlety and restraint. There is nothing overtly sexual between them – Eugene is far too ill and Lukardis is far too timid – yet there is an unspoken desire and sensuality, in particular when – to avert the suspicions of the staff – Lukardis must climb into bed with the semi-naked Eugene. Lukardis finds her world disappearing, her past swallowed up by the mirrors on the walls around her:

‘Nadinsky gazed searchingly into her face; then he stretched forth his arm in such a fashion that she held out her hand to him. At that moment they both grew frightened. It was like some blissful but disastrous transformation which each underwent in the eyes of the other.’

This last phrase – ‘blissful but disastrous’ – really encapsulates the story. Lukardis is transformed, but her awakened desire cannot be satisfied: Eugene must flee the country; Lukardis must stay behind. They part – and never see each other again.

On returning to her previous life, Lukardis ends her engagement and withdraws from society. Fearing that she is ill, her mother takes her to France, where, one night, she finds Lukardis lying outside ‘on the flagstone terrace of her room. Hands folded behind her head, the girl was gazing with wide-open indescribably brilliant eyes, upward at the starry heavens. In her face was an expression of infinite loneliness.’

Lukardis is left wanting – the promise of fulfilment still only a promise.

The ‘social’ significance of this seems straightforward enough: even violent revolution eventually fails those who believe in it; it becomes, in its turn, another orthodoxy. The longing of the individual is as painful as ever.

‘Erasmus’, like ‘Lukardis’, establishes the sort of situation usually found in works of comedy; and like ‘Lukardis’ it cleverly subverts this situation to make a far more serious point.

Erasmus Ungnad is wealthy and irresponsible. A confirmed bachelor, he has been having an on-off affair for the past twelve years with Countess Marietta Giese, a woman whose beauty and dubious reputation (the two things are linked in the minds of her enemies) has made her the nemesis of Erasmus’ sister Francine. Despite numerous attempts, Francine has never managed to separate her brother from Marietta. But then, unexpectedly, Marietta ends the relationship herself. She tells the commitment-averse Erasmus he should look for a wife, then informs him she has also decided to marry. When pressed to reveal her real reasons, she admits:

‘“Often, during our happiest moments – and they were happy moments, I don’t mean to be ungrateful – I used to say to myself: You have stolen him from himself and he resents the theft. Yes, I would say to myself, he is storing up resentment, grudges against you, and one of these days he will turn up with a long account for settlement. And that being so, why not make an end of it all before he presents his account?”’


Suddenly and unwillingly free, Erasmus now at last allows himself to be guided by his sister. Francine persuades him to spend some time with the Rienburg-Rheda family, who – it just so happens – have four unmarried daughters. Erasmus, inevitably, now falls for each one in turn and cannot decide which of them he wants most: ‘If he could have fused all four into one, he would have been able to make up his mind. And yet he craved the caresses of each of them individually... Everything was sublimated as in a dream and as violent as pain.’

Again, Wassermann hints at what is to come: Erasmus is living in a dream, ‘a mingled stream of fiction and reality, which was his true element’. His life, so far, has been one of infinite delay. Decisions are postponed, responsibilities avoided. But soon all that will change. Violence and pain are edging nearer. The world – as Erasmus knows it – is ending.

At first, this is only dimly sensed:

‘There was a threat in the air. Something uncanny was happening, and there seemed no defence against it. A man like Erasmus had been standing on a certain height, unassailable, unattainable. Tradition, charters, had been his age-old source of protection... Of a sudden all this that had been accepted was now contested. Privileges which had reigned in the finest domains of life... were now attacked.’

Gradually, this threat becomes more real. One evening, while sitting down to dinner, Erasmus and his hosts are interrupted by news of an outbreak of violence:

‘They had reached their dessert when the steward of the estate came in and reported that trouble had broken out in the surrounding villages. An armed mob had attacked the forestry station of Prince Colalto the night before.’

This intrusion of the outside world (during dessert – such a telling detail!) is further compounded by the arrival of a young medical student, Eugen Sparre, a man who ‘challenges the value of all hitherto existent science and follows his own method.’ Sparre is the embodiment of the new spirit of scepticism sweeping post-World-War-One Germany. He and Erasmus, it seems, are natural enemies. Sparre threatens to undermine Erasmus’ complacency, his aristocratic belief that the existing order is somehow pre-ordained, that ‘“all legitimacy exists by the grace of God.”’

This phrase – and the sentiment it expresses – will soon return to haunt Erasmus. Unbeknown to him, he has an illegitimate son. During one of their periods of separation, Marietta gave birth. She then decided to keep their son’s existence a secret. This, the text hints, is why she really ends her relationship with Erasmus: she has been waiting – in vain - for him to mature, to show signs that he is willing to accept responsibility for his actions.

Erasmus only discovers he has a son by accident: Marietta is staying with friends at a house nearby. When the house is attacked, the occupants flee to where Erasmus is staying. There Marietta falls ill. Eugen Sparre offers to help, but Erasmus forbids him from touching the woman he still clearly loves. Sparre obeys. He agrees not to treat Marietta; he also agrees not to reveal that he is following Erasmus’ instructions – to the bafflement and consternation of the other people present. (Effectively, Sparre shows greater dignity and nobility in this encounter than the cowardly Erasmus, something which leads to a reconciliation between the two men and points to the ultimate ‘moral’ of the story.) Initially, Marietta’s friend claims that the boy they have with them – Wolf – is her charge, but it soon becomes obvious to everyone (except Erasmus), owing to their physical likeness, that Wolf is Erasmus’ son. Finally, Erasmus realises this. When Marietta dies Erasmus takes responsibility for his son, acknowledging the relationship openly for the first time, and thus conferring legitimacy on Wolf.

The broader message is clear: the old order are responsible – however unwittingly – for the creation of the new; whether they like it or not, they have to accept their share in what follows.

‘Jost’ begins with a commandment from God to the Archangel Michael:

‘I am perplexed about mankind. Never has so much sorrow filled the earth. Lamentations and accusations rise in an endless cloud. I cannot determine whether all these souls are lost or not; whether the divine spark which was breathed into them in the beginning is extinct in all of them or not. I have decided to make an experiment. Go down among them, thou sharp-eyed scout; seek out the most hardened among the hardened, the narrowest among the narrow. Remember that the doer of evil is of no consequence; only the indifferent matter. Seek out the insignificant among men, one who has become petrified in idleness and dwells in the enchanted circle of inactivity, whose left hand knoweth not what his right hand doeth. If, on your return, you can say: I have stirred him; I have torn the veil from his eyes and made him to see; then mankind shall once again be granted divine mercy, and the Day of Judgement shall once more be postponed.’

The story then cuts to a group of civil servants (the narrowest among the narrow!) getting drunk in a tavern. They sit and talk about the war, relating stories, contrasting ‘the doleful present with the brilliant past’: again, the theme of post-World-War-One disillusionment forms the backdrop. Among the drinkers, quieter than the rest, is Siebold, a local councillor. His lack of interest in the conversation soon arouses the scorn of the others, and he is pressured to tell a war story of his own. Reluctantly, he begins to describe an incident in which he played a role – the arrest and execution of seven people suspected of espionage. Among these people were a ‘seventeen-year-old Polish girl, a twelve-year-old boy,’ and ‘an old man of seventy-six.’ Although there were ‘grave indications’ that most of the group of seven were the ‘victims of malicious informers’, all of them are subsequently hanged. Siebold ‘had served as a clerk in the affair.’

The story is told – and received – almost with indifference:

‘A mere drop in the sea of events, a few more lives gone the way of millions of others. Meaningless at the time when it occurred, this incident, threadbare with repetition, could not now create any greater stir of interest than that prescribed by courtesy towards the story-teller.’

In fact, the only person who seems to take any interest in the story is Jost – a ‘little tradesman or middleman’ – who has apparently been asleep on a bench the whole time, but who, it transpires, has heard – and counted – every word:

‘“...you won’t believe it, but to-night I counted every word you used to tell your story. Isn’t that mad? Eight hundred eighty-nine words all told, carefully counted. I pretended to be asleep and was counting all the while... Eight hundred eighty-nine words. A full newspaper article. It was thrilling, councillor. I congratulate you; really, a thrilling story. But at night, when I lie and stare into the darkness, all those words will march past my bed and stand in rows, like tin soldiers. Only then do I really understand the meaning of the words. Then everything grows clear, and I see the road to Golgotha.”’

Jost, from now on, becomes an almost demonic reminder of everything Siebold is trying to repress: Siebold’s guilty conscience. He follows Siebold around, appearing at unexpected moments, leaving coded messages, and generally driving Siebold into a rage. Siebold goes to the police, issues threats, seems ready to kill Jost given half a chance. But then he sees Jost’s daughter being run down and crushed beneath the wheels of a carriage, and in that moment his compassion is awakened. He helps Jost carry the girl home, waits – in vain, as it transpires – for a doctor. Amid the squalor and degradation of Jost’s home life, Siebold finally acknowledges suffering. He sees himself in the man who ran down Jost’s daughter:

‘“Why does not that beast come and sink down in terror and fear and pity at the writhing and groaning of the poor little thing? Why does he not come to accuse himself? Why do they say no word: “Forgive us, we knew not what we did.” What sort of world is this in which they are allowed to sneak away and act as if they knew nothing about it? Oh, what people, what people! They know not what they do; that’s what it is. Therefore, they shall not be forgiven. No, and again no! Never forgiven... The man who acts ought to know the meaning of his action. It is all a matter of knowing. Oh, no! You are not going to shake off your responsibility. You are not going to seek a subterfuge in laws and regulations. You may be blind, you dog, you louse, you nonentity, but you have got to know, know, what you have done, and sink down and join in the groaning and wailing that echoes to the ends of the world.”’

(Given what the world later saw in the aftermath of World War Two, the ‘Nuremburg defence’, and its subsequent widespread adoption, this passage seems eerily prescient.)

Siebold finally knows what he has done – he accepts responsibility for the deaths of the innocent people he helped condemn. His indifference deserts him, likewise his former identity: a new man has taken his place. At that moment, Jost’s daughter dies:

‘She was smiling. Her white skin was illumined from within. It was her heart that sent this glow through her body, and soon the two men could see nothing but her heart: a sparkling, throbbing ruby, gleaming in shadow like a figure in a rose window.’

The spirit of the Archangel Michael – which has previously been inside Jost, now passes through Jost’s daughter and returns to heaven. Siebold falls on his knees before the vision. His private world has ended – replaced by a new one. The wider world, for now, is safe: the Day of Judgement has been postponed.

-

For each of the protagonists in the five stories there is a similar transformation: their worlds end as they enter new ones. The tone throughout is one of hope in the face of disillusionment, violence and upheaval. Wassermann’s sympathy, always, is with the individual; his concern is for lasting freedom. He does not offer easy solutions, but insists that the path to happiness – and redemption - lies in greater personal responsibility, both for what we do and what we fail to do.


From World's Ends, (George, Allen & Unwin, 1929, trans., Lewis Galantiere)

278 pages


Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Jakob Wassermann, The Jews of Zirndorf


The Jews of Zirndorf was first published in Germany in 1897. An English translation – by Cyrus Brooks - appeared in 1933 (in America, this translation was given the alternative title The Dark Pilgrimage).

In many ways, The Jews of Zirndorf was the novel that established Wassermann’s reputation. It granted him access to the ‘higher’ literary circles of his day. It even led to his first marriage: his soon-to-be wife, Julie Speyer, was so impressed by the novel she engineered a meeting with the author, after which their relationship quickly flourished.

The reason for the novel’s initial success probably had more to do with its subject matter than with Wassermann’s growing mastery of technique. A book about the tensions between Christians and Jews, published at that time, would no doubt have seemed daring: the topic was a particularly sensitive one.

Wassermann’s own attitude – as reflected in the strange, allusive quality of the narrative – was deeply ambivalent. Neither Christians nor Jews are shown in a flattering light; and the question of whether there will ever be a satisfactory resolution of the tensions between them is left largely unanswered. Indeed, the novel as a whole has something deliberately unfocused about it, as if Wassermann were loath to impose any sort of clarity on what, for him, remained an obscure situation.

The novel is divided into two parts: ‘Sabbatai Zevi’ and ‘The Jews of Zirndorf’. The first is a prelude to the second, yet the connection between them is not immediately made clear.

Starting in Furth, Bavaria in October 1665 - ‘seventeen years after peace had been signed’ ending the Thirty Years’ War - Wassermann attempts to re-create the atmosphere of the period. Christians and Jews live uneasily side by side. Memories of the war have left both groups weary of conflict. As a testament to this, a tower of stones left behind by the invading Swedish soldiers has been allowed to remain standing. The tower, ostensibly, is a symbol of peace, but for Wassermann it represents something more:

‘Not far from the Chapel of Charles the Great, on the Schiessanger at Furth, a mighty pile of stones towers towards the sky. It is said this pile was erected by the Swedes as a memorial of their victories, and each stone, they say, is taken from a plundered house... Among many other stones in this monument by the chapel was a polished block of granite, engraved with strange, outlandish characters. It was an inscribed Jewish gravestone; the Swedes had stolen it from a Jewish burying ground and piled it up among the stones that belonged to orthodox Christians. Yet no Christian dared remove it, for its embellished characters inspired an awe in them, and they feared that if they touched it they might fall under some magic spell... For a long time it was a great trial to the Jews to see a stone from their sanctuary thus exposed to desecration... Yet they did not dare remove the stone, for the memorial was looked upon in some sort as a symbol of peace, and it was thought that any damage inflicted upon it would be the sign of a fresh outbreak of war.’

The significance of the image seems clear enough: the Jewish presence – something ‘strange’ and ‘outlandish’ in an otherwise Christian edifice - is tolerated, but only reluctantly, and only because the Christians are, for the moment, sick of fighting. The Jews, on the other hand, are trapped somewhere they do not want to be, yet they can do nothing about it. For neither group is peace really a consideration: fear is what holds them together. The tower is a symbol of defeat – as, it might be argued, assimilation is for Wassermann.

Into this uneasy truce walks the mysterious and slightly sinister figure of Zacharias Naar, an old ‘red-bearded Jew’ who has come to spread the news of Sabbatai Zevi, the ‘true’ redeemer of the Jewish people:

‘“For behold, a man has arisen in the town of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and he is the true Messiah, and the Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand!”’

Persuaded by Naar’s proclamations, and by Sabbatai Zevi’s prediction that ‘the year sixteen hundred and sixty-six’ will be the year which will ‘bring new triumphs to the Jews and lead them back to Jerusalem’, the Jewish inhabitants of Furth – like countless other Jews across Europe - decide to leave en masse in order to follow their Messiah. Their route, however, takes them past Nuremburg, a city notorious for its persecution of Jews. No sooner are they on the road, it seems, than they are attacked by soldiers. Those who survive the attack set up a makeshift camp, from which they prepare to start again on their dark pilgrimage. But then news reaches them that Sabbatai Zevi has – inexplicably – converted to Islam. Their Messiah has revealed himself to be a fraud. With no reason to go on, and no reason to return to Furth, the Jews decide to settle where they are. They make a new home for themselves: Zionsdorf, or Zirndorf as it later becomes.

Here, the first part of the novel ends.

The second part begins in the year 1885. Prolonged, heavy rain has left much of the countryside under water, ruining crops and causing considerable damage. Fortunately, most of the town of Zirndorf has been spared. God’s punishment seems to have relented – at least for the time being. The persecution of the Jews by their Christian neighbours nevertheless remains as implacable as ever. The tensions from the earlier part of the novel reappear here – two hundred years later – in a form that has barely changed. The Jews of Zirndorf are still viewed with suspicion and hostility, just as their ancestors were.

The second part of the novel begins with a confrontation: a boat carrying a group of Christian men almost collides with one carrying Jewish men; one of the Jews – Agathon Geyer - is knocked into the water and nearly drowns; the Christians row away laughing. Vowing revenge, Agathon refuses to get back into his boat, resolving instead to wait until his attackers return. He climbs on to the branches of a half-submerged tree and sits there shivering, deaf to the pleas of his friends and family members in the boat. They eventually row off, leaving him there alone. While waiting, Agathon has a vision – the first of several:

‘Out of the water arose a body, its arms thrown wide into the air, its face raised yearningly upward. Noiselessly the figure grew, and its muscles swelled as though under some terrific exertion. By its side a little man appeared, wee, peaky, with a complacent grin on his face, bowed again and again and held out his hand to the huge figure. And as the latter took it, he sank deeper and deeper into the water, recoiled as though in fear, staggered and dissolved into the vapour that lay everywhere over the surface of the water.’

The ‘huge figure’, it would seem, is Agathon himself – young and hopeful, with his arms ‘thrown wide’, ready to embrace life, his face ‘raised yearningly’, to God perhaps. The ‘little man’ represents ‘the Jew’: complacent and servile, wishing to pull Agathon down, to deprive him of his strength and make him dissolve into vapour.

From a non-Jewish writer, such a characterisation would seem deplorable. From a Jewish writer it seems like self-hatred – and might easily be dismissed as such. However, from Wassermann – though there is clearly an element of self-hatred, or more accurately, self-frustration in his writing – this attack on the stereotypical Jew is not quite so easy to dismiss. Wassermann’s animosity – as gradually becomes apparent – is directed towards the religion rather than the individual. Judaism and Christianity are both reviled as weakening, ‘dissolving’ powers; they belittle us by making us - or allowing us to become and remain - dishonest:

‘“God has lost hold upon our time; it has fallen out of His hand, nebbich! You hear them shouting of Jews and Christians, but what they mean is money, and what they do not mean is piety. What is God? Is it God when I make the sign of the cross? Is it God when I pray in the Thorah? Is the paper God? Is the wood God? Is God the sky? Is God the moon? Nothing is God; God is my goodness of heart and my poverty. I am God, you are God; God is a ghost, a thing of poverty and suffering.”’

Slowly, as the novel progresses, the connection between the two parts becomes clearer. Agathon, like Sabbatai Zevi before him, is an extraordinary individual, one who could easily pass himself off as a seer, even possibly a Messiah. But whereas Sabbatai Zevi succumbs to self-delusion, or dishonesty, or both, Agathon resists. He rejects not only established religion, but also his role as a prophet. Although others are drawn to him, he does not want followers. Indeed, what he actually does want remains obscure, even to himself. He is torn between love and loathing of mankind. His piety, likewise, is constantly disturbed by carnal desires. He remains, to his consternation, all-too-human:

‘He hated the time he lived in, which rolled by without meaning, a breathless time, stirring hopes which survived till death, striking the limbs with sickness when the spirit tried to conquer the body.’

Agathon’s spiritual dilemma is plainly Wassermann’s own:

‘“What I want is more than I can put into words. What I want – I want to rob mankind of its heaven and give it the earth... I know that many have the earth already, but, having it, they know that they lack Heaven. That is different. Do you understand me? They must have the pure earth, without cross, without apostasy, without renunciation, without any reckoning with One above. They have nothing but enjoyments and pain. But it is with them as with a bird in a cage. The bird has no pleasure even from the daintiest food, even from the most comfortable, most convenient, most highly gilded cage in the world. In the same way Heaven has become a cage for humanity. And it has been one so long that they do not even see the bars, and imagine they can fly. But while a single prayer arises from the world they cannot fly. I want to break the bars... or at least one of the bars; after me will come another perhaps who will break more of them.”’

This urge – to free himself and others – lies at the heart of Wassermann’s writing; he returns to the theme again and again in later novels. His interest in imprisonment – his concern for prisoners, and for those trapped by poverty – can be traced to this belief in the importance of freedom for all. His modesty, similarly, reappears throughout his writing: self-doubt; questioning the extent of his influence; not wishing to impose solutions on others, yet feeling, nonetheless, that he has something to offer.

The Jews of Zirndorf ends irresolutely. There is a palpable sense of defeat - Agathon has found no meaningful way of setting people free, yet there remains a note of hope: human beings are not yet ‘ripe’ for the vision and greater knowledge he offers, but a time will come when that will change.

The novel – as mentioned earlier – has an allusive quality that is hard to grasp. Although Wassermann rejects religion, he is not averse to using religious imagery: the flood at the beginning of the second part, and the image of a tree of knowledge with which the novel ends, are just two of the more prominent examples. Despite setting the novel in a specific place at two specific times – the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries – and despite basing the first part – albeit loosely - on actual historical events, Wassermann’s narrative seems predominantly dream-like – more an internalised drama, with its own private mythology than a representation of reality. The religious images – and the attempt to use them to create a new world – reveal Wassermann’s internal conflict: his ambivalence towards his own Jewishness. The final note of hope is also an attempt at self-reassurance: Wassermann is consoling himself for his failure to find a way out. The past is still there; likewise, his cultural and racial inheritance. For now, he cannot free himself entirely. But one day – his own Messiah – he will overcome all hindrances and obstacles, and will finally be redeemed.


From The Jews of Zirndorf, (George, Allen & Unwin, 1933, tr. Cyrus Brooks)

The Prelude: Sabbatai Zevi
The Jews of Zirndorf

320 pages