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

As a first point of reference, the excellent German website 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

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:

‘ 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.'

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