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, Gold

Ulrike Woytich, the third of Wassermann’s ‘Wendekreis’ books, was published in Germany in 1923. An English-language translation, given the title Gold, appeared the following year.


The novel begins in Vienna, on a December night in 1881. Fifteen-year-old Josephine Mylius is visiting the theatre for the first time. This visit – to see ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ – has been secretly arranged by her mother, Christine, as a birthday present for her favourite daughter. The secrecy is not only to give Josephine a pleasant surprise, but also to prevent Josephine’s father – a miserly antiques dealer who keeps his family’s expenditure under vigilant scrutiny – from prohibiting such a gift. Josephine’s older brother and sisters - all of whom are jealous of Josephine’s place in their mother’s heart – are likewise kept in the dark. Fearful of their reaction should they find out, Christine smuggles her daughter into the performance.

As Christine waits anxiously at home for Josephine to return she hears ‘the fire trumpet sounding down the street’, followed shortly afterwards by excited voices announcing that “The Ring Theatre is burning up!” (Wassermann, here, uses the actual historical event to locate his story). Christine rushes to the theatre, where she finds a nightmarish scene as hundreds of people flee the burning building.

‘The sky gleamed purple, the whole atmosphere was like a black face hung over with a veil of moving sparks.’

Eventually she finds her daughter, ‘exhausted and shuddering’ but unharmed. Josephine has been saved by a young woman who now has the presence of mind to find them a cab. As the cab drives them home, Christine tries to express her gratitude.

‘The unknown woman, sitting slim and quiet, opposite her, strangely with almost no damage done her, and without any excitement, waved away the thanks modestly. Then Christine asked her name. She gave it. Her name, she said, was Ulrika Woytich.’

Ulrika – seemingly a guardian angel – reveals how, before the concert, while sitting in the balcony, she had been struck by Josephine’s face; so much so that it seemed ‘a coincidence’ when she then saw her again ‘on the narrow stairway, in the dangerous crush.’ ‘Her resolve to save her had been purely instinctive’ she admits. Similarly, something uncanny - ‘a presentiment of danger’ – had driven Ulrika from her seat before the fire broke out:

‘She said she had been suddenly overcome by a violent beating of her heart, such as she had never felt before. The orchestra had just begun to play, but the tempting strains of Offenbach’s music could not quiet her; on the contrary she was frightened lest she lose consciousness and hastened as quickly as she could into the Promenade outside. While she was walking up and down, she heard a sound like a downfall of pebbles and the glass roof broke. Then every door burst open, and screaming people rushed out; in an instant she was in their midst; but had it not been for the heart attack she would have been imprisoned in the auditorium...’

Ulrika’s survival – and hence her rescue of Josephine – thus appears to be the work of fate. Christine, understandably, is won over: she accepts Ulrika’s additional offer of help, allowing the young woman to manage the immediate care of Josephine. Ulrika takes charge – seeing to Josephine’s needs, smoothing things over with the other members of the family, even standing up to Josephine’s domineering father. But in a very short time we realise that all is not as it seems. Far from being a guardian angel, Ulrika has something demonic about her: the fire at the theatre now becomes ‘a sinister omen’.

A suggestion of what is to come appears in the following passage:

‘There was one picture in Josephine’s mind that she could not banish. While she was still in the Promenade of the theatre and the first panic of the fleeing people from the auditorium burst forth, she had experienced something which made a deeper impression upon her than the devastating scenes afterward and her own danger. Among the first who rushed out upon her, for she stood right at the entrance door, was a man who held both fists high in the air; his mouth was wide open but he did not scream; his eyes, glassy with fright and fury, looked only to see how he could get ahead of others... but now it happened that he found himself completely barred on his way to the staircase by the mass of bodies. In his raving fear he tore out his pocket book, seized a package of bills with his trembling fingers and, his arm raised high, he offered them in flattering, whining, moaning tones. That was the horror of it! Money in this moment! It seemed more horrible to Josephine than all the rest; a manifestation of pollution and rottenness beside which the physical danger which threatened her seemed hardly worth consideration... Money! when humanity was passing in torture! That any one should think he could buy his way free of the general destruction! This was hell.’

As Josephine’s horror of money – and its effect on people – grows, so does Ulrika’s greed. Over the following weeks and months, Ulrika ingratiates herself, one by one, with the various members of the household. She installs herself in the house, making herself seem indispensable, all the while taking what she can, striving constantly to discover the true nature of the family’s financial situation. Cunningly and patiently, she wins the confidence of Josephine’s father, who at last admits that his miserly lifestyle conceals a vast fortune – over nine million gulden. This revelation exposes Ulrika’s true nature, and prompts her to redouble her efforts:

‘... at once there broke from her wide-opened eyes a diabolic flame, devastating, yellow, like a jaguar’s eyes... in a low, full voice she said: “Now, Ulrika, gather all your forces together. There is work and reward both for you.” ’

Slyly, she begins to sow discord between the family members; first revealing their father’s secret wealth, then encouraging Christine and the children to make up for lost time by spending as much as they can. Needless to say, the children need no further encouragement. Christine, too, begins to see her husband’s miserliness as an injustice, and soon establishes herself in a palatial new home, where she immediately adopts the role of society lady, inviting the most fashionable and influential figures in Vienna to weekly soirees (along with numerous hangers-on and freeloaders, all hand-picked by Ulrika). Ulrika’s ultimate aim is to divide and conquer the family; to encourage crises in which she can act as mediator and thus earn their (financial) gratitude.

The only people who are not deceived by her plan are Josephine and her father: the former becoming more ‘devout’ in her distaste for wealth, the latter effectively broken and marginalised now that his long-cherished secret has been revealed.

Unable to control the forces she has unleashed, Ulrika’s solution is to separate the family members physically: she marries off the two eldest daughters - Aimee and Esther - to friends of hers; Josephine’s brother, Lothar, is sent abroad after a spree of debauchery (a spree begun by Ulrika, who takes his virginity and thereby initiates him into the delights of amorality); Josephine’s father – persuaded by Ulrika that he is mortally ill – soon succumbs to this imaginary illness and dies, leaving Christine in control of the fortune.

Knowing that Christine will be easy to manipulate, Ulrika must now remove the last remaining obstacle - Josephine. Ulrika’s plan is to marry Josephine to Edward Melander, ‘a born fascinator’, as cynical and self-serving as Ulrika herself. To give himself a respectable public appearance – to disguise his personal corruption – Melander needs an innocent, devout wife. Josephine therefore seems the perfect choice. She, however, takes an immediate, instinctive dislike to Melander and refuses him. Ulrika then works on Christine – poisoning the mother against the daughter. And only then, under the combined pressure of Ulrika and her mother, does Josephine submit. She and Melander marry. Christine realises, too late, what she has done, and immediately becomes ill. As she lies dying, Ulrika – slowly and painstakingly – walks through the house labelling everything she intends to take with her. She leaves the following day, having stripped the house of its most valuable objects. Christine dies, and there the first part of the novel ends.

We expect the second part to follow on almost immediately from the first. However, Wassermann has other ideas. When we learn that the narrative has now jumped forward forty years – to February 1921 – and we discover that for thirty-six of those years Josephine has been trapped in her marriage to Melander, the effect is shocking. It outrages – quite deliberately – our sense of justice.

According to typical narrative formulae, Josephine’s ordeal should have been short-lived. Moreover, Ulrika should have received her comeuppance. Yet neither has happened. Josephine has only been freed by the death of her husband, while Ulrika is still a wealthy woman. Nor does the injustice end there: in the intervening years, Josephine has had a son who, thanks to his father’s baneful influence, has turned out corrupt and ‘evil’, and who has now fled abroad, leaving Josephine to care for a nine-year-old granddaughter, of whose existence, until that moment, she had been unaware. ‘The constant endurance of force and injustice’ which has characterised her life for the past forty years shows no sign of relenting.

Justice, for Wassermann, is an intolerably slow process; something that can take a lifetime, if it happens at all. Forty years can pass with no sign of hope or redemption. Yet faint glimmers are there, he suggests: in the figure of Fanny, Josephine’s granddaughter; a beautiful, precocious child whose ‘cataract’ of blonde hair suggests a different kind of gold – one more valuable than the metal so coveted by Ulrika. Then, in the figure of Ulrika herself – still immensely wealthy, yet now completely withdrawn from society, hoarding her treasure with a miserliness that recalls Josephine’s father at the start of the novel. History slowly comes full circle – the text hints - and with it the elusive spectre of justice.

When Ulrika meets Fanny for the first time her covetousness is once again aroused. She yearns to possess the child, feeling an unwonted need for love. She tempts Fanny with a mechanical doll – one of the many objects that had formerly belonged to Josephine’s father. Fanny is fascinated by the doll, which can walk and talk, and nearly succumbs to the temptation. But the influence of Josephine – this time – proves stronger. Josephine’s love is non-possessive, and therefore genuine; whereas the love professed by Ulrika is in reality another aspect of her greed. Josephine denies Ulrika access to the child, which then prompts Ulrika to suggest a trade: she will give Fanny the doll, in return for Fanny’s companionship.

(The symbolism of the mechanical doll seems plain enough: for Ulrika, Fanny is herself a sort of doll, to be possessed and admired, jealously guarded, hidden from others. Fanny’s humanity is unrecognised.)

Fanny senses the threat behind Ulrika’s apparent affection and recoils. Ulrika then becomes more and more desperate to get what she wants. Her increasing monomania causes her to lose sight of her material concerns. Her immense fortune – entrusted to the management of her son-in-law, a supposed financial genius – is suddenly lost. Her son-in-law, exposed as an embezzler, commits suicide. Yet still Ulrika can think only of pursuing Fanny.

At the novel’s conclusion Ulrika and Josephine, at last face to face, effectively fight for Fanny. Josephine - the figure of renunciation and self-sacrifice – emerges victorious. Our sense of justice is finally appeased... yet not entirely. Wassermann’s happy ending is tinged with ambiguity. The consolation he offers is not an altogether easy one.

After forty years of oppression and injustice, Josephine finally accuses Ulrika. Yet rather than accept that she is to blame, Ulrika seems mystified. She cannot – or will not – see that by forcing Josephine into a loveless marriage she condemned her to a life of unhappiness and degradation. The long-awaited comeuppance is hardly that. Ulrika, faced with what she has done, basically shrugs her shoulders. There is no sense of guilt or repentance. Instead, a fundamental incomprehension remains between the two women. Even when Josephine attempts to explain that ‘all loving and all being loved is grace’, Ulrika dismisses this as ‘one of your wishy-washy pieties.’

Fanny chooses Josephine – as we know she will and must. The novel ends happily in that sense, with non-possessive love vanquishing greed. However, it is through Ulrika’s eyes that we see the novel’s final image –

‘There lay the valley before her with its gradations, its peaceful roads, its houses, its churches with their steeples, all its green and blue and red and grey, its trees and water, and life and death, and all the sadness and joyousness of the darkening world.’

Yet how much of this Ulrika takes in – how much she understands – remains open to question. She stands above the world, looking down, perhaps uncomprehendingly, perhaps scornfully, perhaps – at last – repentantly: the text does not make it clear. Moreover, Ulrika’s financial ruin is not complete – she still has a large house full of valuable objects, worth more than she will ever need. Perhaps it is her world alone that is darkening; or perhaps the wider world is failing with her; perhaps her greed is the norm, whereas Josephine’s renunciation is the exception. The conclusion does not allow us to feel complacent.

By setting the second part of the novel in what was, for him, the present day, Wassermann signals his intent to diagnose the financial malaise of post- World War One Austria (and by extension, his native Germany). Times were hard; resources were scarce; society was in turmoil. Conditions were ripe for the sort of avarice and cunning epitomised by Ulrika. Yet conditions were also ripe for the generosity and humility epitomised by Josephine. The novel is essentially dialectical: a struggle between these two opposing sides; a struggle that continues without a definite resolution.

From Gold, (Grosset & Dunlap, 1924, trans., Louise Collier Willcox)

431 pages