Some Background Information on Jakob Wassermann’s Newly Translated My First Wife

A recent excellent review of Jakob Wassermann’s novel My First Wife (just published by Penguin Classics) by Tom (A Common Reader) led me to hunt for the book in German. You know the feeling, you read a review and you think: “I want to read this now!” or rather not “now” but”NOW”. Only, I couldn’t find the German book. It took me quite a while to figure out which novel this was and only the review in the guardian which mentioned that My First Wife was “carved out” of another novel, solved the mystery.

I have inherited quite a lot of books of my late grandmother and a few of them are by Jakob Wassermann (1873 – 1934), an author widely read and admired until the 50s but then, I would say, slowly forgotten. I wouldn’t know of anyone, not even in Germany or Switzerland, who knows or even read him. What kept me from reading his books is the fact they are substantial. When I read Tom’s review I was pleased to see that there was one shorter novel to be discovered but I was wrong.

My first Wife doesn’t exist in German. The novel is a part of the much longer novel Joseph Kerkhoven’s Third Existence, which is part III of a 1600 pages long trilogy. Part I is The Case Maurizius, Part II Etzel Andergast. The Case Maurizius or Der Fall Maurizius which was published 1928 is considered to be his masterpiece and I hope it will be retranslated soon. It was a great success when it was published, Henry Miller was very fond of it.

According to the blog jakob wasserman, a blog which is entirely dedicated to the German author, many of his novels have been translated but are long out of print.

Judging from Tom’s review, The First Wife works very well as a standalone novel. I’m not going to discuss here whether I think it is legitimate or not to publish a part of a novel, which is part of a trilogy, as a standalone. I just thought I might be able to save other German reader’s the trouble to hunt for something that doesn’t exist in this form in German.

The best news for German readers however is that all of Jakob Wassermann’s novels are available free for the kindle. I’m very tempted to read the part which is called My First Wife in English and have already downloaded Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz.

English readers who are still looking for something to read for German Literature Month may consider My First Wife, it seems a great choice.

Here’s the blurb but don’t hesitate to visit Tom’s blog and read his review.

It is the story of Alexander Herzog, a young writer, who goes to Vienna to escape his debts and a failed love affair. There he is pursued by book-loving Ganna: giddy, girlish, clumsy, eccentric and wild. Dazzled and unnerved by her devotion to him, and attracted to the large dowry offered by her wealthy father, he thinks he can mould Ganna into what he wants. But no-one can control her troubling passions. As their marriage starts to self-destruct, Herzog will discover that Ganna has resources and determination of which he had no idea – and that he can never escape her.

Posthumously published in 1934 and based on the author Jakob Wassermann’s own ruinous marriage, My First Wife bears the unmistakable aura of true and bitter experience. It is a tragic masterpiece that unfolds in shocking detail. Now this story of rare intensity and drama is brought to English readers in a powerful new translation by Michael Hofmann.


‘Like something out of Chekhov – it’s all there, the ennui, the preening etiquette, the intellectual posturing … painfully heartfelt … My First Wife is a devastating indictment of the choices we make out of convenience against our hearts and instincts, and the tragedies that ensue’ Independent

‘You won’t find a more agonising, fascinating literary account of a marriage hitting the rocks’ Mail Online