First published in Germany in 1915, The Goose-Man appeared in English in 1934.
It tells the story of Daniel Nothafft, a composer born in 1859, in Eschenbach, near Ansbach.
Eschenbach, so Wassermann reminds us, is the birthplace of Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose epic poem Parzival was later turned into an opera by Wagner. Parzival’s search for the Holy Grail becomes, in Wassermann’s text, the artist’s search for formal perfection and critical recognition.
As if to demonstrate the arduous nature of this quest, the novel has a dense, complicated plot, albeit a compelling one.
The mutual hostility between artist and society forms the major tension in the narrative. Daniel is a restless, troubled figure, unable to conform to the demands of bourgeois society. From earliest childhood he is marked as different, ‘driven by a force beyond his control to cling to all and sundry who had the power of making music.’
His own musical talent is recognised by only a few. Most of the people around him – including his family - have no appreciation of his art, or his character. (We see here clear parallels with Wassermann’s own troubled childhood.) This incomprehension results in the ‘despairing passion, the rebelliousness, the fierce and sullen rage’ that over time shape Daniel’s life. His intransigence – born of artistic integrity – wins him few friends but many enemies.
The first – and one of the bitterest – of these enemies is the brother-in-law of Daniel’s mother. Jason Philipp Schimmelweis plies ‘his trade as a bookbinder in the Cornmarket of Nuremburg.’ Having ‘won the respect of all by his ready command of language’, Jason Philipp appears to be a respectable businessman. In private, however, he is discontented, ambitious and cruel. When Daniel’s father approaches him for a favour, Jason Philipp is quick to exploit the situation.
Sensing that he does not have long to live, Daniel’s father decides to entrust his modest life savings – three thousand thalers – to Jason Philipp, on the understanding that Jason Philipp will guard the money and in time become a father to Daniel. The deal is struck in secret between the two men. When Daniel’s father dies shortly afterwards, Jason Philipp conveniently forgets their agreement, using the money instead to branch out into bookselling. At the same time - out of guilt and a ‘bad conscience’ – his aversion to Daniel increases. Rather than help his nephew, he does everything in his power to thwart him. Daniel is desperate to pursue a career in music, so Jason Philipp attempts to force him into a business career. He enlists the help of Daniel’s mother, convincing her of her son’s worthlessness.
Daniel, eventually, is forced out on to the street – a ‘fugitive’ who must now make his own way in the world. Penniless and hungry, he lives an itinerant life, working and composing when he can. He settles, uneasily, in Nuremburg, where his frustrated ambition becomes the object of ridicule and derision among his neighbours.
He is saved by his friendship with Doctor Friedrich Benda, whom he meets by chance, and in whom he at last finds a kindred spirit. Like Daniel, Benda is misunderstood, unappreciated, maligned. A Jew, he is treated with contempt by others in his field (biological research). He too lives in opposition to bourgeois society, ‘defiant and lonely.’ To make matters worse, he is in love with a married woman with whom, he knows, he can never have a physical relationship.
(Out of despair he leaves Germany for Africa, only to return towards the end of the novel.)
A shared sense of hopelessness and frustration bring Benda and Daniel together. As does their affection for Lenore Jordan.
Lenore is seventeen when she first meets Daniel; her temperament and beauty are ‘like a lamp that is carried through dark chambers’:
‘People disapproved of her because her eyes were so radiantly blue, and because her astonishingly regular white teeth were always flashing between her soft, peach-like lips. She was flighty, a regular butterfly, they said... whose heart was set on finery and worldly trifles.’
In fact, Lenore is quite the opposite: the world does not concern her; at least not in a materialistic sense. Her ‘temperament was such that life never quite touched her... she dwelt in the centre of a crystal sphere. If she was in trouble, if painful doubts oppressed her, if the vileness of a base and perverted world reached out for her, all that happened was that the crystal shell expanded and the things that whirled round its periphery became still more impalpable.’
The accusation of covetousness thus reveals more about the nature of her accusers than about Lenore herself. She cannot be possessed by society – its vileness cannot touch her – so she must therefore be made ‘palpable’ through slander.
Like Daniel and Benda, Lenore is an outsider – something underlined by her decision to go out to work and also by her refusal to contemplate marriage (she rejects the proposal of a suitor, Eberhard von Auffenberg, another ‘outsider’ who will be discussed later). Her independence is precisely what society most distrusts. Non-conformity has something unnatural about it, as far as the petits bourgeois are concerned; whenever it arises it must be transformed into something more easily dismissed.
Lenore’s sister Gertrud is similarly ‘withdrawn from the ordinary affairs of life’, but in her case this is due to religious piety:
‘She went to church every day, and had a secret leaning towards Catholicism, by which her father, a convinced Protestant, was greatly troubled.’
Gertrud is in many ways the opposite of Lenore: she represents darkness; her eyes, rather than being radiant, seem to be permanently downcast; she is ‘indifferent, if not hostile’ to Daniel’s presence, unlike Lenore who, from the first, seems to sympathise with him.
Yet strangely it is Gertrud, rather than Lenore, who attracts Daniel’s attention. Gradually, almost reluctantly, Gertrud’s feelings change. Gertrud and Daniel marry, but not before Daniel has seduced – and unknowingly fathered a child with – a domestic servant.
Through the discreet intervention of Lenore, the presence of this child remains hidden from Daniel and Gertrud for several years. The child – a girl named Eva – is raised by Daniel’s mother and in time becomes the means for reconciliation between mother and son.
(Eva eventually disappears one day in her eleventh year, having run away with a troupe of travelling performers, never to be heard from again... until she reappears as a major character in Wassermann’s later novel The World’s Illusion. Wassermann, here, was emulating Balzac, re-introducing characters to vivify his fictional world.
Herr Jordan - Lenore’s and Gertrud’s father, a retired insurance inspector - spends most of his days alone in a tiny attic room, working on a secret project. This project is eventually revealed as the construction of a walking, talking doll. The doll – or a derivative of this prototype – reappears in Gold [Ulrike Woytich in the original]: further evidence of Wassermann’s growing command of his medium.)
Owing to their restricted financial circumstances, the newly-married Daniel and Gertrud must share a house with Lenore and Herr Jordan. Almost inevitably – given their close proximity and their natural affinity – Daniel and Lenore fall in love. Their mutual acknowledgement of this coincides with the revelation that Gertrud is pregnant. When the child - another girl, named Agnes – is born it seems that Daniel and Lenore will never consummate their passion.
But then Daniel confesses to his wife. Out of love for her husband and sister, Gertrud effectively gives them her blessing, and the three now form a sort of ménage-a-trois (typically, Wassermann treats this with sensitivity: he clearly disapproved of monogamy, yet did not feel the need to force this opinion on his readers). The local rumour-mill, already sensing something unusual and possibly scandalous in Daniel’s relationship with Lenore, becomes even busier.
Daniel, unwittingly, earns the nickname ‘the goose-man’.
The Goose-man fountain stands in a marketplace in Nuremburg. On top of the fountain, which is surrounded by metal railings, a male figure, made from bronze, poses with a goose beneath each arm. From the mouths of the geese come streams of water. The figure looks slightly comical, yet the expression on his face, according to Wassermann, is serene and hopeful.
In the minds of the locals, Daniel is a ludicrous figure; his musical ambitions derided as futile. The geese beneath his arms are Lenore and Gertrud; clearly ‘silly geese’ as far as the locals are concerned, having ruined themselves for Daniel’s sake. Together, the three of them have offended against the rules of so-called respectable society. Their downfall is eagerly anticipated.
Drawn to this potential spectacle are two of the strangest and most sinister characters Wassermann has created. The first, Herr Carovius, is described as ‘the Nero of our times’:
‘The death of others, the discomfiture of others, the misery of others, the treacheries committed, the tyranny of the powerful, the oppression of the poor, violence done to justice, and the sufferings that thousands have to bear every day – he was gratified by all these things; they engrossed his attention and gave him a pleasant sense of security... He was a petit bourgeois with uninhibited instincts. He was a rebel of conservative behaviour. He was a Nero without slaves, without power, and without an empire... He was moved not by grief, nor by brotherly love, but by hatred of a world in commotion in the midst of which he stood condemned to immobility.’
Carovius is attracted equally by his loathing for Daniel and his attraction to Lenore. His desire to see both humiliated has a strange, almost sexual undertone: the voluptuousness of corruption.
The second character is Philippine Schimmelweis, daughter of Jason Phillip, and cousin to Daniel. When, as a child, she overhears her parents mockingly dismiss the idea that she and Daniel should be intended for one another, it paradoxically implants the notion in her mind. From then on she harbours the secret conviction that she is destined to be Daniel’s wife. She does everything she can to ingratiate herself with Daniel, Lenore and Gertrud. When she discovers that her father has cheated Daniel of his inheritance she exposes the fraud, using this act as a pretext for winning favour. She installs herself in Daniel’s home as housekeeper and nanny to Agnes. Once there, she exerts a malignant influence on all around her – an influence that will contribute to more than one tragedy.
Gertrud, despite her best efforts, cannot continue to share her husband. She becomes increasingly convinced she is in the way, prohibiting a closer bond between Daniel and Lenore. She commits suicide, hanging herself in the attic. Philippine discovers the body, and – in a sort of sexual frenzy – sets a fire (the first of two she will set). The neighbourhood gossips are appeased by the tragedy, seeing in it divine condemnation of Daniel’s and Lenore’s transgression.
Over time this transgression is forgotten, if not forgiven. It is widely expected that Daniel and Lenore will marry. They do - to the mortification of Philippine. Meanwhile, their financial circumstances continue to worsen. Daniel still cannot make money from his music, so Lenore must work. She manages to sell bouquets of flowers on behalf of a local florist, little realising that the bouquets are all being bought by the same person: her former suitor, Eberhard von Auffenberg.
Eberhard is the son and heir of the Freiherr Siegmund von Auffenberg, an immensely wealthy baron. For years, however, father and son have been estranged. Eberhard has forsworn his birthright, eschewing all contact with his father. Rather than swallow his pride and ask for help, he accumulates more and more debt – his main creditor being Herr Carovius.
Eberhard’s position is thus similar to Daniel’s, Lenore’s and Benda’s: he is an outsider, despite his background. His rejection of wealth makes him suspect in the eyes of society. His attachment to Lenore in some ways parallels Daniel’s pursuit of his craft: both men cling to an ideal discounted by the commercially-minded.
When Lenore dies in childbirth the two men are drawn to each other. In one of the most beautiful and remarkable passages in the novel their likeness to one another is revealed:
‘Eberhard rose and signed to Daniel to follow him. They went along a narrow passage and ascended a tiny staircase. On the landing Eberhard opened the door of the attic.
An overpowering smell of decay assailed their nostrils. Daniel recoiled involuntarily, but the Baron pointed in silence to the walls.
“What’s all this? What does it mean?” gasped Daniel.
The four walls were completely covered with bouquets, garlands and wreaths of withered flowers. From most of the blooms the petals had long since fallen, and now lay strewn about the floor. The green leaves had become brown and wrinkled, the grasses were reduced to threads, the stems had rotted. Many of the bouquets and wreaths were bound with ribbons of faded red or blue; many had golden threads on which the rust had set its mark; many, like the engraving downstairs, were illumined by the setting sun, in whose ruddy beams danced a thick stream of dust.
It was a floral burial vault, a mortuary of dead memories. Daniel guessed the explanation. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, a shiver ran down his back, and his eyes swam with burning tears as Eberhard began to speak.
“These flowers were plucked and arranged by her hands, by Lenore’s hands,” said Eberhard. Then, after a pause: “She made the wreaths for a florist, and I bought them all, without her knowledge.” That was all he had to say.
Daniel looked back over his life, as from a pinnacle up which he had been dragged by an invisible hand. He looked, and his soul was filled with dismay and anguish and remorse.
What was left to him now? Two graves were left; and a broken harp; and withered flowers; and a plaster mask.
He saw the dead stalks and the mouldering blooms. Once Lenore’s fingers had touched them all, and, like ghosts, her fingers hovered still about the lifeless blossoms. The dusty cobwebs harboured the wasted hours, the omitted words of kindness, of consolation, encouragement, and sympathy; the missed opportunities of happiness. Oh, this neglect of the present, of a living life, of the wonderful day, the breathing hour! This stumbling, falling, weltering in the night of desire and delusion! This vain, this criminally vain discontent! Oh, angel, angel, where are you now, and how can one invoke you?’
In time both men move on; both marry (Daniel for the third time); yet neither marriage proves successful. Eberhard still clings to the memory of Lenore, something his wife realises and is unable to change; while Daniel commits an even greater blunder in marrying a woman much younger than himself, a woman who proves to be frivolous, self-centred and – ultimately – unfaithful.
Daniel confronts his wife and her lover. A violent struggle ensues. Meanwhile, Philippine – who has had a hand in exposing this infidelity – decides she has waited for Daniel for too long, promptly returns to the house and sets fire to the musical scores Daniel has worked on for years. She then disappears, leaving Daniel in a near-catatonic state, utterly devastated by the loss of his life’s work.
And now, finally – after 500 pages - the full significance of the novel’s title becomes clear. In a strange, dream-like passage, Daniel is visited by the Goose-man. Wearing ‘quite a pleasant expression’, the Goose-man sits by Daniel’s bedside, gently chiding him for having lived his whole life in an ivory tower. Daniel’s mistake, the Goose-man tells him, was to see himself as above other people, to see art as something removed from the world. The admonishment seems ill-timed, yet proves to be precisely what Daniel needs in order to recover. Reviewing his life, realising his art until now has been completely misconceived, paradoxically allows him to carry on:
‘ “Had you been more sensitive and less thickly armoured! Had you only lived, lived, lived, truly and wholeheartedly, like a naked man in a thicket of thorns! You would have been trodden underfoot, but your love would have been real, the hatred you inspired real, your misfortunes real, the lies real, the mockery and treachery real, even the ghosts of your dead ones real. And the poison of the Nessus shirt would not merely have burnt your skin, it would have made its way into your blood, into the most silent, most sacred depths of your soul, and then your work would not have been accomplished in wrestling with your own darkness and your narrow sufferings, unfree in the eyes of mankind, unblessed by God. Do not imagine you have borne the sorrows of the world; you have but borne your own – loving-loveless, selflessly-selfish superman that you were – no true citizen!... How can a man create if he stint and defraud the humanity within him? It’s not a question of ability, Daniel Nothafft; it’s a question of character.” ’
This call for generosity, for greater immersion in the life of the world, comes as a profoundly ironic blow at the end of a novel about a struggling artist. Everything leading up to this point is thus thrown into question. Daniel’s tragedy is revealed as unnecessary and self-inflicted. Which is not to say that his journey is unnecessary. The greater the disillusionment, the greater the eventual reward, Wassermann seems to be saying. We have to fail in order to succeed.
The conflict between artist and society can only be resolved by a renunciation of ego on the part of the artist. Believing oneself to be better than humanity ‘stints’ and ‘defrauds’ the humanity within oneself.
This is not simply a banal call for greater populism in art; it is about recognising the fundamental connectedness of artist and audience, about responding to incomprehension, philistinism and resistance with patience and wisdom. Art that turns its back on the world loses something invaluable in the process, and perhaps ceases to be art at all.
We should perhaps remember that Herr Carovius, Philippine and even Jason Philipp are all outsiders too; yet because they succumb to their hatred of the world, they each become destructive, rather than creative.
One must be like a statue, Wassermann suggests: standing still, in the middle of a marketplace, watching life, absorbing everything.
The holy grail thus proves to be something visible rather than hidden; something commonplace rather than extraordinary. It cannot be located through selfish struggle, but only through openness and acceptance.
Daniel, at the end of the novel, is fifty years old. He has returned to Eschenbach, where he teaches music:
‘He exercised a mysterious influence over everyone with whom he came into contact, and there were many who sought counsel from him in their troubles. His pupils idolized him; he had the gift of arousing their interest and inspiring them with enthusiasm. The means he employed were of the simplest: his luminous personality, his harmony of word and deed, his earnestness, his kindly glance, his whole-hearted devotion to whatever he took in hand.’
When asked by one of his pupils about his work, Daniel only smiles in response.
The serene, hopeful smile of the Goose-man.
From Jakob Wassermann, The Goose-Man, (George, Allen & Unwin, 1934)