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.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Faber, or The Lost Years

Faber, or The Lost Years - first published in Germany in 1924 - was the fourth and final volume of the ‘Wendekreis’ series. An English translation appeared in 1930.


The novel begins in July 1919. The protagonist, Eugene Faber, returns to his native city after five and a half years’ absence. Captured in the first month of the war, then imprisoned in Siberia, from where he subsequently escaped to China, he has slowly made his way back to Germany.

He is among the ‘last stragglers’ to return home; yet in contrast to the excitement and ‘excessive sentimentality’ of his comrades, Faber shows a curious reserve. Asked if his wife will meet him at the train station, he declines to answer. Later, instead of going home, he takes a room at a hotel. He visits an old friend, Jacob Fleming, ostensibly to renew their friendship, but really to ply the other man for information.

During the ‘lost years’ something has happened to Faber’s wife, Martina. From their intermittent correspondence Faber has sensed a change in his wife, a subtle yet significant transformation. Behind this transformation is the mysterious figure of ‘The Princess’, a wealthy, charismatic philanthropist.

Hoping to understand the true nature of the Princess’ influence, Faber assumes an ‘affected and carefully planned calmness.’ He circles his wife, wary of approaching her, fearful he might lose her entirely to the Princess.

When at last he and Martina are reunited, it becomes clear their marriage is now irremediably altered. The ‘complete harmony’ which existed prior to Eugene’s absence has disappeared. What was formerly effortless now becomes forced, and their estrangement deepens.

The presence of another woman, Faith - a sort of live-in housekeeper and nanny to Eugene’s and Martina’s son – further complicates the situation. While Martina is out all day helping the Princess, Eugene and Faith are at home together. Almost inevitably, they fall in love. Martina guesses, yet says nothing. For Faber, this is intolerable. Having avoided the Princess he now agrees to meet her. The stage seems set for a battle of wills. However the outcome is far more surprising and far more subtle.

Far from the charlatan Faber imagines her to be, the Princess has an unmistakable spiritual authority. Her philanthropy is likewise genuine – shockingly so, for Faber, who now sees, first-hand, the very real social evils with which the Princess and Martina are trying to contend. Stripped of his scepticism, Faber is touched to ‘his very inmost self’ by what the Princess has to say:

‘ “I was guarding your most precious treasure, the sum total of your existence; I realised this to the fullest extent. When you returned I would have to give back a possession just as precious to me and irreplaceable; I would have to open the hand that held it; I would have to sever my heart from that to which it had grown fast. I had no doubts about that. And then you came. I was prepared to have Martina step before me and say, according to her feelings: ‘Now I have again my true mission, let me go free.’ I expected it day after day. I waited in vain. In place of that her being changed in a way that troubled me more and more. No one but myself suspected it; I saw her perplexity and how it almost smothered her... And yet nothing had happened between you and Faith at that time. She fell into my arms and wept her heart out. I had never heard her weep. It was unspeakable, her weeping. I determined that we two, you and I, must come to an understanding... I want to turn to you, to have you find a solution within yourself. Everything hangs on that, solely on that.” ’

Faced with the realisation that he is responsible - through his own reserve - for Martina’s estrangement, Faber must decide how to act in order to save his marriage. Rather than keep on trying to restore what he has lost, he sees he must now accept the new, altered relationship:

‘ “It follows that I must win Martina or take myself out of the world. If I am to win her there is perhaps but one way, and that is to separate myself from her. To give up my right to her. Perhaps I must first withdraw my hand, my greedy hand... perhaps I must first loosen what I would like to bind. Perhaps that is the remedy, Princess. What do you think?” ’

To which the Princess replies:

‘ “It may be. There is something convincing in what you say. There is hardly likely to be any other way. To loosen, in order to bind: yes, it may be, that is the way.” ’

Both the Princess and Faber effectively renounce their claims to Martina, leaving her free to decide for herself. Her decision remains unresolved, however, because the novel ends on a typically ambivalent note.

Martina confronts Faith and effectively bestows her blessing on any future relationship between Faith and Eugene. Faith immediately protests. But before the issue can be settled Eugene appears and tells them he is leaving:

‘ “I am going to leave the house. I cannot take Faith with me. Take Faith! Would Faith go with me? And leave you alone, Martina, alone with the child? She would never do that. And can I remain with you, Martina, and see Faith cast off through my fault? Absurd idea. You two must not part. At least not until one of you knows that the flame which she innocently kindled and which has made a new man of me has died out, and the other is ready to feed the fire that nourishes three human lives by its warmth... I will wait, and wait patiently for this future, even if twenty years must go by before it comes to pass...” ’

Faber leaves, Faith stands motionless ‘sunk in thought’, while Martina dashes wildly about the house. The novel ends as Martina throws her arms around Faith and cries

‘... in a tone divided between suffering and rejoicing, childlike suffering and radiant, mystical rejoicing: “Faith, wake up! Faith, wake up! Do you know about it? Have you heard? He has gone, my beloved! My very best-beloved has gone from me...”

And she kissed Faith and laughed and sobbed at once. She seemed as if demented.

Faith, amazed, watched her with a troubled look and bowed her head.’

Compared to some of Wassermann’s other novels, the plot of Faber seems slight – hardly enough, in fact, to warrant a 347 page treatment. Yet the novel never feels sluggish or padded; partly due to Wassermann’s skill as a writer, but mainly because there are broader themes which hold our attention.

The anxiety of men returning from war to find their wives and girlfriends changed is a familiar theme: more common after the Second World War than after the First, but nevertheless a recognisable concern. Here, Wassermann addresses the crisis – essentially a paternalistic one – from both sides: Faber’s fear that Martina may have become more independent during his absence is proved to be well-founded; yet her greater independence, though empowering (in the sense that it helps her cope and reveals a strength and determination she was not aware of ) does not exclude her need for her husband. It is possible, at the same time, to be both independent and to rely on another person, Wassermann suggests. After all, men have acted that way for centuries. To deny the same power – or at least, potentiality - to women is absurd. Faber’s tragedy is that he realises this too late; only after he has convinced himself that Martina no longer needs him.

Linked to this is the idea of possession. Believing he has a ‘right’ to Martina – believing, in other words, that he owns her – Faber finds the influence of the Princess tantamount to theft. Hence his – as it transpires, wholly unwarranted – animosity. The Princess loves Martina. For that reason, though she knows it will result in suffering, she is prepared to let Martina go. Faber, on the other hand, is not (or not at first). This might seem as if Wassermann is saying that a man’s love is essentially possessive and self-aggrandising, whereas a woman’s is essentially self-sacrificing; however, these ‘essences’ are also thrown into question. Faber is capable of change: he decides to let Martina go in order to win her back. Martina, conversely, realises she has lost a possession when Faber leaves, and experiences a profound anxiety over this loss. Again, Wassermann is suggesting that supposed opposites can be reconciled, that contradictions can be contained. Love is both possessive and selfless; the loved object present when absent, absent when present. Moreover, a third person may be involved – in this case, Faith – without in any way diminishing the nature or quality of that love. The love triangle is truly that: each loving the other two.

An alternative ending might have been for Faber to live with both women, yet not only would this have seemed scandalous, even prurient, it would also have lessened the novel’s impact. A ménage-a-trois would have reduced the problem to a merely social one; it might have shocked (and secretly delighted) a bourgeois audience, but in its implication that we can get what we want from life if only we subvert certain prejudices it would have painted a false picture. Life delights in revealing our powerlessness; it mocks all our solutions: without this realisation tragedy loses its power.

Wassermann’s characters are trapped. Love does not release them, it only tightens the bonds. The only possible thing to do – as Faber eventually sees – is to try to cut oneself free, then wait and hope that those we love will do the same.

From Faber, or The Lost Years, (George, Allen & Unwin, 1930, trans., Harry Hansen)

347 pages