While browsing in Tallaght library I chanced upon a new Penguin edition of an old classic by the German writer, Jakob Wassermann. It’s called My First Wife. It was published in the early part of the twentieth Century and is largely based on Wassermann’s failed first marriage. I was drawn to the book because I had previously read a book by him on the case of Kaspar Hauser, the child brought up in isolation in the nineteenth century Germany. This book is quite different but no less interesting. The story is told in retrospect by a young, impoverished writer living in Vienna where he has taken up residence to avoid debts from his life in Munich. The story opens with a description of Ganna, an eccentric daughter of a wealthy family. We see how she immerses herself in literature and encounters the work of the aforementioned young writer with whom she becomes besotted. The young writer is initially not especially drawn to her but he can see how they could come to some accommodation. Unfortunately their relationship falters badly and Ganna’s troubled nature comes to the fore.
Overall it is a tragic story but there is also a kind of wry humour in the telling of the story. Ganna’s character is revealed in all its complexity and although on the surface her nature may seem to be at fault in the foundering of the relationship, Wassermann gives such a detailed and sympathetic portrait that as a reader you may view the events from all sides.
The book is probably more ‘literary’ than many works I have read, but I enjoyed challenging myself. Vienna was the centre of several significant movements in art and literature at that time and the book offers a portrait of a very particular milieu, but at the same time the style is very lively and contemporary, which may be down to the translator’s work from the original German. Wassermann was a German Jew and his writings were later outlawed and burned by the Nazis. He seems to have been quite drawn to marginal figures in his literature and he manages to balance some intellectual and literary qualities with a deep sympathy which is rare and brings to mind Dostoyevsky. Anyone thinking period writing is dull should think again with this work, as his characters and descriptions leap off the page!