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, 21 November 2011

Jakob Wassermann, Wedlock

Laudin und die Seinen was first published in Germany in 1925. It appeared in English the following year, re-titled Wedlock, translated by Ludwig Lewisohn.

Set in the years 1923-1924 in an unnamed city (possibly in Germany, possibly in Austria – one of the only geographical references is to Kottingbrunn), it describes a period of crisis in the life of its protagonist Dr Friedrich Laudin. Now forty-eight, Laudin is a partner in a successful law firm. Following a landmark case in 1910, he has become ‘one of the leading lawyers of his country, especially in matters of domestic difficulties.’ Renowned for his ‘incomparable tact... judicial acumen and profound learning’, he appears, on the surface, to be leading a calm, steady, irreproachable life. His marriage to Pia – twelve years his junior – seems a happy if uneventful one. His relations with his three children likewise seem untroubled. However, for some time Laudin has been experiencing a growing discontent. His near-constant entanglement in other people’s ‘wretchedness and dissatisfaction’ appears at last to have affected his own domestic happiness, prompting him to question not only his marriage to Pia but the institution of marriage itself.

Laudin’s discontent at first takes the form of a wish to become another person: ‘ “I’d be perfectly satisfied if only I weren’t myself”’ he admits at one point.

Over time his desire to escape his present existence becomes more intense: ‘Why not throw aside this old and weary and threadbare creature that one was and become and be another? Vanish from one’s own self, as it were, and be reborn out of that vanishing.’

His profession, once a source of satisfaction, now frustrates him: ‘ “A man tied to a profession is in a groove which he is not free to leave, bound for a goal in the determination of which he had no voice... We seem to will, but that is appearance not reality. Free obligation and sordid compulsion have become identical. And few of us attain a spiritual height where will and duty merge into that higher compulsion which is the impulse of the master, not the obedience of the slave.” ’

Clearly, he is waiting for a catalyst, for something to provoke the inevitable crisis.

The catalyst proves to be the suicide of a friend’s son. Driven to despair by an actress with whom he has fallen in love, Nicolas Fraundorfer shoots himself in the head. His distraught father, Egyd Fraundorfer - Laudin’s best friend - asks Laudin to investigate. He shows Laudin a photograph of the actress – Louise Dercum – hoping for Laudin’s ‘incorruptible spiritual penetration’; hoping, in other words, for confirmation of his own negative appraisal. Laudin, however, sees something else entirely. He is captivated by the image. Where Fraundorfer sees only a ‘play-actress’, Laudin sees ‘ “a face of indescribable, of quite astonishing veracity and innocence.” ’

The scene is significant not only because it poses the question, whose evaluation is correct? – (a source of dramatic tension only resolved later in the novel) – but because it reveals the projections of both men. Fraundorfer wants to see nothing but Louise Dercum’s guilt and duplicity; Laudin, nothing but her innocence. Neither man has met her but already they have formed judgements. Fraundorfer keeps the photograph in his coat pocket, together with ‘a few bank-notes... a piece of chocolate to which breadcrumbs were sticking... [and] a few cigar stumps’ – proof that, for him, Louise is purely a physical, material being and hence unworthy of special treatment. Laudin, when he first handles the photograph, blows away ‘the dust, ashes and tobacco’ and only reluctantly, the text hints, does he hand it back to Fraundorfer, who stores it ‘away again in its former unclean receptacle.’ The word ‘unclean’ is all-important (not least because it anticipates what is eventually revealed). Fraundorfer wants proof of Louise’s degradation; Laudin – desperate for something to help him escape his daily experience of wretchedness – wishes to elevate her.

As if to confirm its importance, the scene is repeated later in the novel. Fraundorfer takes the photograph from a draw, where ‘it lay amid bills and letters and banknotes. ’

‘He threw it over to Laudin. “Take it,” he said, with ill-restrained rage, “it may serve you as an identification.”

Laudin regarded the picture. The expression of the face seemed as gentle and thoughtful as it had on the day when he had seen it first. He talked as though to himself. “It is easy and obvious to assume deceit or self-deception, but the very illusion of certain qualities is a delightful thing. How much there can be in a human countenance! And think of the masks that we have to put up with in daily life. Every evening when I leave my office I feel like washing my body with a powerful acid and laving my eyes and scrubbing my hands.”

“You have become Dyskolos,” Fraundorfer murmured. “Were you not once Eukolos?” ’

Laudin realises that what he sees in the photograph may indeed be a mask, that the gentleness and thoughtfulness may be illusory, yet he chooses to be fooled. He trusts in the delightfulness of the illusion – seeing in it paradoxical evidence of a noble character. When he meets Louise his fascination with her intensifies, so much so that he believes her protestations of innocence. Her relationship with Nicolas had never become physical, she maintains. The attraction had been entirely on his side. His decision to kill himself had shocked her.

Reporting his conclusions to Fraundorfer, Laudin is greeted with scornful mockery:

‘ “Our friend here is wholly ignorant of the true character of lying. He neither knows its power nor its significance! He is aware neither of its shameless self-sufficiency, nor of its eel-like slipperiness. All he knows is the common or garden variety of lies, which can be aimed at and hit at a distance of three paces. He does not know the lie which is implicated with the rooted evil at the core of space and time, the lie of the world demon, the lie for its own sake!” ’

As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that Fraundorfer is right and Laudin mistaken. Louise reveals herself to be as mercenary and deceitful as Fraundorfer suspects. Laudin’s former acumen has apparently deserted him: his professional conduct becomes erratic; he is persuaded to lend Louise and her coterie larger and larger sums of money; he avoids Fraundorfer; grows more distant from Pia and his children; leaves himself open to gossip and scandal. Yet he is not wholly blind to this. He knows he is being used. (‘ “I was deluded and sought to be so” ’ he later admits.) If he does nothing to stop it, it is partly because he wants to expose what he still maintains is the ‘truth’ beneath Louise’s mask, and partly because he wants to be humiliated.

His deception and self-deception are weapons turned against his former life. He wants to cause a scandal among his former peers – ‘the watchmen of the ordinary’ – and to lower himself in their eyes so that he can finally break free of them and the order they represent (initially this desire is unconscious, only gradually does he understand it). Louise – although a liar – is independent, a quality ‘that impressed him above all things.’ She represents a fundamental challenge to bourgeois society because she refuses to abide by its rules. Her independence – however questionable its cause – encourages Laudin’s rebellion:

‘Thus it had been. Laudin, imprisoned in his rigidity, unredeemed from himself, met at the crossroads of life, Louise Dercum, the eternally changeful, the daily changeable. Here was a miracle of fate. Nothing of settled character was here; everything was fluid and discontinuous and this seemed to Laudin, by contrast, tending toward salvation.’

What, to bourgeois society, seems like dissolution and damnation, seems to Laudin to be a path to salvation. Only by sinking under can he rise above. Personal pleasure, he realises, outweighs professional duty:

‘He had come to a conclusion something like this: that he had denied himself these noble relaxations from the ordinary slavery of life on principle; that he had been too cowardly, too confused, too downtrodden, to enjoy them; his education had petrified him, and the uninterrupted expenditure of strength without equivalent inspiration had disillusioned him. Thus the overburdening of his motor system had revenged itself by crippling his capacity for impressions and for inspiration.’

Yet his final illusions must still be stripped away. Fraundorfer at last confronts Louise with the truth – the truth Laudin still believes is essentially noble. Fraundorfer’s son, a virgin until he met Louise, not only slept with her but contracted syphilis. Unable to defend herself against this accusation (her usual wiles prove ineffective against the pitiless – because grieving - gaze of Fraundorfer), Louise stands exposed for what she really is:

‘Perhaps it was because horror and fear had gotten hold of her entirely, or perhaps it was because the mere bodily appearance of that huge judge and recorder drove her forth from all her accustomed means of defense; perhaps it was because the enormity of his threat, the unthinkableness of an attack upon her body, almost robbed her of her reason (dark pictures from her earliest past undoubtedly rose before her) – whatever the cause, she began to tremble like an aspen leaf; she let the glass fall on the carpet and bowed her head into her hands and began to cry with the whining crying of a school-girl.’

Her maliciousness and duplicity are thus revealed as childish irresponsibility, the reaction of the powerless to the threat of the world. Wassermann is not as pitiless as Fraundorfer: the phrase in parentheses hints at an abusive father, unwittingly re-embodied by Fraundorfer, the ‘huge judge and recorder’ (the father figure could also represent patriarchal society). We feel no great delight in seeing Louise exposed: she becomes in that moment as much an object of pity as of scorn. ‘ “[T]his is no criminal court which can examine or condemn a culprit” ’ observes one of the onlookers – and we perhaps read here Wassermann’s own reservation: rather than condemn Louise outright – by humiliating her further - he leaves the scene on an ambivalent note. Laudin, now fully aware of his own self-deception, leaves with Fraundorfer, who has done as much as he can for his son’s sake. Louise and her hangers-on remain behind, drunk, in disarray, temporarily stunned, but perhaps unchanged in any significant sense.

Laudin now undergoes a complete breakdown, and is only saved by the ministrations of his wife. Aware of everything Laudin has done, and fully prepared to grant him his freedom should he ask for it, Pia reveals the true nature and extent of her love for him. She proposes that Laudin abandon his career, move to the country and recuperate. In time, she maintains, he will find his true calling. Laudin, still reluctant to admit defeat, only gradually accepts what she is saying:

‘One must not earn money with half justice, with justice that miscarries, with justice that fails, with justice that is its own contrary. Though he could say to himself that he had, to the best of his ability, defended the ignorant and the defenseless against the arbitrariness and false assumptions of those powers of stone, yet he had himself become too profoundly the victim of those powers to continue to draw self-respect from so poor a consolation.’

Should he want a divorce, Pia intimates, she will not fight him. Should he ask her to go with him to the country, she will gladly follow. She will happily live with less, she tells him. The judgement of society means nothing to her: let other people sneer, it does not matter as long as Laudin is happy.

Thus Wassermann shows Pia’s rebellion to be as radical as Laudin’s: she is willing to sacrifice as much, if not more. Indeed, her transformation seems even more profound for having been effected in silence and obscurity. Laudin suddenly realises that his former wife has disappeared, and that the woman in front of him is a new person. The struggle he has undergone in public, she has undergone in private:

‘... it was something different and wholly new, a new form, a new eye, a new face, a new mind, which had grown up without his knowledge or his intervention and which now came to companion him, between one moment and the next on the decisive crossroads between his old life and his new.’

Laudin realises that what he has been seeking has been his all along. Rather than an obstacle to change, his marriage becomes the means of attaining it. Pia does not chain him to society: she will help him free himself.

From Jakob Wassermann, Wedlock (Boni & Liveright, 1926, tr. Ludwig Lewisohn)
344 pages


‘But the fates and confusions of men are not always so simple, nor their characters so easy to judge, that any man, even the most experienced and the most schooled in knowledge of the human heart, can, by the mere purity of his own character, avoid situations in which he finds himself at variance with his own convictions.’

‘People were generally of the opinion that man needs things. But this opinion seemed utterly foolish and perverse; in reality, the matter stood quite differently. It is things which shamelessly and impudently and importunately stand in need of man, and demand and misuse his strength and his time, as seems fitting to them.’

‘ “People who are always dealing with irreconcilable contradictions make me quite tired,” he growled. “They are usually pirouetting on the dash that separates their antinomies.” ’

‘... one cannot revoke what one has seriously uttered. The spoken word is irrevocable.’

‘All that she did, desired, demanded, her very life and breath, was the final result of regulations and conventions having no substantial nature of their own: of all those iron rules which had gathered rust in the course of the centuries, of all the agreements, bulls, enactments, prescriptions and charters which, from the very invention of the state on, had been decreed and petrified in order to change right into compulsion, security into terror and good custom into the spirit of the eternal penitentiary. It might be asserted without fear of contradiction, that through the slow and industrious digging and corroding of this representative and her followers, all noble spontaneity had been destroyed and was being destroyed more and more. To her and to her like, the whole of humanity, men, women and children, were but a single debtor. She conceived of herself as having a perpetual lien on law, morality, love, fidelity, good faith, on God himself. And in so far as she conceived of herself as having been disappointed in her claims upon happiness and satisfaction – in precisely that measure she believed all human society to be in her debt.’

‘The pain that a created thing suffers is something absolute. It is alone with that thing and with God.’

‘What is evil? It is the discouraged submission into which untruth weaves us with a subtle lightness of touch, thread by tiny thread; amiably playing with us and – God protect us from that – sustained by an apparently magical element.’

‘ “... the institution of marriage can no longer bear us up and no longer possesses the principle of life within itself. Anarchy would be better or chaos or universal nothingness. Away with it! We must begin anew, whatever this new thing be. Only let us do away with this lie, this evil caricature, this world-shame. This unblessed mixture of compulsion and revolt, of public morality and of vice, which in a more modest age was secret but which is now perfectly public. It makes people evil; it makes them stiff-necked and vulgar; it does so more and more each day.” ’

‘ “The central point of all our thinking and action is the I, is the self. We are drowning in self-assertion and self-consciousness. We are concerned over the extinction of the I or its separation into component parts or its deliquescence and reformation. If an individual is dissatisfied with the form of its existence, it will seek a new one, a more joyous one, one that is more conformable to its needs. I can no longer resist the conviction that the individual personality, in consequence of the modern overemphasis of it and especially since Christianity has ceased to function effectively, has lost its significance. We must prepare a new loam from which new creatures are to grow. I find that the individual is no longer important to society, in so far as we are dealing with society’s spiritual and moral state. The pair is important. I am thoroughly persuaded that for each man and each woman there exists but a single possible complementary personality. It surpasses all imagination what human society would gain in peace, in delight, in elasticity, in purity and cleanliness, through the constant multiplication of such truly constituted pairs. And it is for this reason that I want all barriers to choice to fall. Neither men nor women must be hindered in their choices. No moral odium, no burden of paternity, neither motherhood nor premiums on virtue, must prevent them from testing and experiencing all the forms and even the fancies of love that they either desire or imagine. If they possess any true instinct, that instinct will be sharpened; if any social willingness stirs in them, they will be led to the same goal. And be that goal what it may, it must not be what is now called marriage. Nor should we be concerned over a possible dissolution of morals and a so-called lapse into savagery. Nothing more evil is conceivable than that which now weighs on our hearts and darkens our spirits. No price is too high to pay for the mere attempt at transformation. In every human being, even in the most apparently lawless, there is a natural inclination toward some sort of equilibrium. It is this inclination which will, in the end, conquer all temporary and dangerous forms of eccentricity. It is a mere hysterical convulsion that ties our present world to laws and customs, which were once significant and necessary, but which to-day have left behind them only the empty forms. The abolition of capital punishment decreases the number of murders. Crimes create criminals; penalties create criminals. There is something wonderful in the spirit of man – an inextinguishable longing to trust the good that is in it, even if of that good there is but the tiniest seed.” ’

‘A man does not realize the number of his own conventional attachments until others begin to throw theirs aside.’

‘The state was obviously the biggest and most unscrupulous of all counterfeiting concerns. Behind the notes it issued there was a promise, and this promise was generally a lie.’

‘Man becomes inured to nothing as quickly as to the inadequate.’