I reserved a copy of this novel at the library after reading Jacqui’s review of it on her blog JacquiWine. We meet young writer Alexander Herzog after his move to Vienna where he is escaping a failed love affair and debts. Once there, he is pursued by Ganna. One of six daughters, she is the ‘difficult’ one of the family: eccentric, wild, ambitious, hard to manage and disobedient. She is devoted to Alexander and they end up marrying. But, once married, Alexander finds he cannot control Ganna – she expects the unrealistic from her servants, she fanatically controls the household accounts, she turns insignificant events into crises. When Alexander falls in love with another woman and requests a divorce from Ganna, he is met with a barrage of unrealistic financial demands, a tidal wave of letters and court orders, and his reputation under attack.
It took me a while to get into the book, and I found I lost interest easily at first. I did read this shortly after finishing The Luminaries and in a busy few weeks so that initial reaction could be a result of this. But I found that when I sat down and spent some time with the book I got pulled into the story and into the pair’s relationship. The book is an intense, intimate portrayal of their relationship which makes it hard to read at times. It reminded me a little of Stoner’s relationship with his wife in Stoner, but significantly more intense. I watched with fascination and bewilderment as events unfolded. Ganna’s attack against Alexander is relentless, with any glimmer of hope quickly quashed, so I found I was quite worn down by the events of the book. Perhaps this is why I found it so hard-going. When I finished the book, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was away from their relationship.
Throughout the book, my sympathies kept shifting between Alexander and Ganna which I think is interesting. The novel’s written from Alexander’s point of view so I sided with him most, but it’s important to note that we don’t get Ganna’s thoughts or version of events. I can’t help but feel that Ganna’s behaviour is, in part, a product of her upbringing and while I dislike her for her actions, I pity her too. Alexander doesn’t help himself throughout the novel with his decisions and I found myself frustrated by him at times, but is inability to do the ‘right’ thing shows the power Ganna has over him.
The novel is very well-written, with the precise and astute prose insightfully observing the human condition. Alexander almost analyses himself, his motives and his emotions, and while it feels at times a little against the rule of ‘show not tell,’ it does work well here, making the novel feel as if Alexander is writing about what happened in order to understand it himself. Some sections are written in the past with the position of hindsight, and this gives a palpable sense of inevitability to the story which I enjoyed. The novel’s topic doesn’t make this an easy read, but the prose is lovely. It’s an excellent translation by Michael Hofmann; each sentence is perfectly balanced and flows seamlessly.
My First Wife is part of a longer novel, Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz (published in German in 1934) so the ending understandably felt unfinished. But even on its own, it’s a devastatingly sad novel where we witness the disintegration of a marriage, the strain Ganna puts on Alexander, and how he is left broken by what happens. It’s even more horrifying when I remember that this novel is only a lightly fictionalised account of Jakob Wassermann’s own marriage. I wouldn’t say this novel is an enjoyable read, but it is a powerful one.