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

Jakob Wassermann, The Maurizius Case

The Maurizius Case was first published in Germany in 1928.  An English translation appeared the following year.  Although the novel enjoyed critical and commercial success in the 1930’s and was championed by many of Wassermann’s contemporaries – most notably, Henry Miller – it has, since then, slipped into obscurity: an injustice which, given the novel’s subject, is more than a little ironic.

The novel begins in 1923, in an unnamed German city (Hanau, according to Miller). Sixteen-year-old Etzel Andergast is the only son of the city’s Attorney-General, Wolf von Andergast. Herr von Andergast is an austere, authoritarian figure who, since divorcing Etzel’s mother nine and a half years earlier, has raised Etzel according to a ‘system of silent control.’ His manner is cold and despotic; he believes absolutely in the rule of law, in the infallibility of the legal system, in the old pre-war certainties. Etzel, in contrast, belongs to the post-war generation, over whom these supposed certainties no longer hold sway. So far Etzel has been an obedient son, but with the arrival, first, of a letter from his mother – from whom he has been separated by his father – and then by the appearance of a strange old man, Etzel feels a ‘presentiment of evil'.

The old man is Peter Paul Maurizius. His son, Leonhart, has been imprisoned for the last eighteen years, wrongfully convicted of murder. The prosecutor in the case was Etzel’s father. Peter Paul Maurizius has spent the last eighteen years trying to prove his son’s innocence. Herr von Andergast refuses to accept that any mistake was made, either by him personally or by the system he defends. Etzel, however, on learning more about the case, becomes convinced there has been a miscarriage of justice. He runs away in search of the eyewitness whose testimony convicted Leonhart, hoping to prove that this eyewitness has perjured himself. (The eyewitness – Gregor Waremme - is in many ways the central character of the book. See below.) Etzel’s disobedience prompts a crisis of confidence in his father, who then feels compelled to re-examine the Maurizius case, and to visit Leonhart in prison. As Etzel’s certainty grows, so, at the same time, does Herr von Andergast’s doubt.

On one level, Etzel and his father are representative figures: Etzel, of the search for justice; his father, of ‘the law’. The conflict between them is an ongoing dialectic, one carried on even when they are apart. Yet neither is as two-dimensional as this might suggest. Both are flawed, both change. Herr von Andergast, although a tyrant, earns our sympathy at times; while Etzel often seems less than heroic.

The novel’s conclusion is deeply unsettling – a deliberate refusal to resolve the dialectic between father and son, between law and justice. Where a lesser novelist might have opted for a happy ending, or a note of optimism, or simply walked away with a cynical shrug, Wassermann, after exposing this great tension at the heart of society, chooses to leave that tension intact. Both father and son are driven mad by the situation – the father irremediably so, the son temporarily. The final scene – of a near-catatonic Herr von Andergast sitting opposite a blood-soaked Etzel – remains an open wound.

Wassermann, perhaps inevitably, has attracted accusations of sensationalism. Yet to suggest that The Maurizius Case is shocking merely for the sake of entertainment or notoriety is to do it a disservice.  Rather, the novel is a cry of outrage; a compassionate defence of wronged innocence; a plea on behalf of all those caught up in the inhuman machinery of so-called justice systems.

That it happens to be great entertainment is almost secondary: at its heart, it is a provocation, an attempt to undermine the status quo.

This critical element - the challenge posed to ‘respectable’ society to examine itself - gives the novel a philosophical and ethical urgency. It poses more questions than it answers, precisely because answers allow or even invite complacency. The dialogues between the various characters are full of such questions, and while they might not be to every reader’s taste – the novel’s naturalism tends to break down at these points – these dialogues, and the ideas expressed in them, constitute an additional narrative impetus. Just one example:

‘“...a human being should not condemn a human being.” – “And what about punishment?” I objected. "Isn’t punishment necessary? It has been since the world began.” He leaned towards me and whispered: “Then we must destroy the world and create people who think differently... He who punishes lies away his own sin.”’

It is an obvious temptation for writers to put their own opinions in the mouths of their characters; similarly, to cast themselves – or fictionalised versions of themselves – as the heroes of their books. Wassermann is not immune to either. The character of Leonhart Maurizius is Wassermann’s heroic, or anti-heroic, alter ego. Wassermann's attempt to think himself into the position of a man wrongfully imprisoned for eighteen years succeeds partly due to sheer imaginative ability, but mainly because Leonhart's ordeal represents a more profound experience of helplessness and entrapment. The condition Wassermann describes is one not confined to a prison cell.

Yet what truly sets The Maurizius Case apart is the figure of Gregor Waremme. If Leonhart Maurizius is Wassermann-as-hero, then Waremme is Wassermann-as-villain. It makes Waremme an extremely interesting – and extremely problematic – character.

Born Georg Warschauer, a Polish Jew, Waremme, as a young man, becomes virulently anti-semitic. Owing to his non-Jewish appearance (fair hair and pale eyes) and his mastery of different languages he is able to pass himself off as a 'true' German, becoming in the process Gregor Waremme. Only later in life, having seen his ambitions come to nothing, and having lived among poor Jewish immigrants in America, does he rediscover his original identity.

Wassermann, himself, was ambivalent towards his own Jewishness. As we see in the creation of Waremme, the figure of the self-hating – or at least, self-questioning - Jew was something that both horrified and fascinated him. Waremme is a monster, yet at the same time, strangely seductive:

‘His gait was careless, slow and heavy. He took a few steps into the room before he removed his broad-rimmed felt hat, revealing a head covered with a few wisps of iron-grey hair, a head so massive that from that moment he looked a good five inches taller. His eyes, and their expression, were completely concealed by a pair of dark glasses, and these black circular spots threw the deathly whiteness of the massive, heavily lined, beardless, flaccid face into such sharp relief that it looked like an artificial mask, painted white for the purpose of arousing terror.’

The image of a mask is significant: paradoxically, despite ‘arousing terror’, it draws us closer, increasing our curiosity to see what lies beneath.

Etzel’s efforts to see beneath the mask, to discover the truth, add an essential element of suspense to the narrative. Wassermann keeps us guessing almost to the end what it is that Waremme is hiding. The effort to unmask Waremme is also, in a way, an attempt by the author at self-understanding. And typically, rather than present us with answers, Wassermann leaves us with more questions. Waremme recounts the story of his life not to give Etzel an insight, but rather to discourage him, to prevent him from uncovering what he chooses to keep hidden. His supposed confession becomes a sustained act of evasion (hinting that for Wassermann the self resists exposure). Even after revealing the secret he has kept for eighteen years, he still eludes us (and punishment). His motives remain opaque. He embodies injustice: his heaviness and immobility are physical barriers to something essentially unknowable: justice, itself, is fugitive. Despite every attempt to explain or understand him, he still manages to escape, reminding us of our powerlessness. Persuasive and charming, his true aim is to encourage apathy. He arouses our indignation, then tells us there is nothing we can do about it:

‘One may demand anything of human society; it will make all kinds of concessions; but to demand justice is pure nonsense, for it has not the means of granting it. Nor is it organized for this... when and where in history were kingdoms ever established, religions founded, cities built or civilizations propagated with the help of justice?... Where is the forum which will pass judgment on the criminal extermination of ten million Indians? Or the poisoning by opium of a hundred million Chinese, or the enslavement of three hundred million Hindus? Who stopped the ships full of captive negroes that sailed in fleets to the North American continent between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries? Who ever lifts a hand for the hundreds of thousands of people who perish in the copper mines of Brazil? What judge will undertake to punish those responsible for the pogroms in Ukraine? Do you want more examples? I am well stocked. You will object – it is indeed your moral panacea: one must improve things, one must change things. Stuff and nonsense!... the undertaking is too great, the individual too small... What is the use of crying for justice if the crass reality with which we are surrounded constantly and shamelessly reminds us that we live upon the fruits of injustice? Every mouthful of bread I eat, every mark that I earn, every pair of shoes I wear is the result of a complicated system of injustice and unrighteousness.’

For a novel written in 1928 this is disturbingly prescient: it anticipates later post-colonial writing. Likewise, in an earlier section of the book, Wassermann, in describing the youthful Waremme, anticipates the rise of Hitler:

‘With all the passion that was in him he proclaimed Germany’s mission in the world, declaring that Germany would be stifled in her state of confinement, would perish through the destructive elements within the State, unless she secured breathing-space by means of a war. This war was to him a matter of religious faith; it was a holy war.’

Yet to see Waremme’s views as echoes of Wassermann’s is to miss the element of irony in the text. Wassermann is different to Waremme because he still cares – and despairs - whereas Waremme does not. The act of writing proves this. In creating Waremme he made a fictionalised version of himself, but one he sought to leave behind on the page. His lengthy diatribes against justice - through the mouthpiece of Waremme - are an attempt to see if anything can be salvaged.

Did he succeed? To some extent, perhaps. Can we give a name to what emerges? Can we describe it? Possibly not. Yet in spite of Waremme’s survival – that enduring figure of injustice – the text leaves us with a sense of possibility. Faced with a choice between accepting injustice, going mad, or committing suicide, we reject all three. Because, in one sense, the three are synonymous: all signify defeat. Instead, like Etzel at the end of the novel, we have to go on. It could well be futile, but it is all there is: a refusal to give in.

From The Maurizius Case, (George Allen & Unwin, 1930)

516 pages
Part One: The Preciousness of Life
Part Two: Interregnum
Part Three: The Irrevocability of Death

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