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


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

  1. I saw the commentary on Tom’s blog and this looks really good!

    Thanks for the clarification. I am a little bit of a completist and like to read things in their entirety. It looks like it is available both ways in English. 1600 pages is indeed long!

    • Yes, it is very long but I know they are read separately too, at least part I The Case Maurizius is often read as a standalone.
      I think I might still read only the part called My First Wife, it sounded so good.

  2. You are so fortunate to be able to read books both in the original and in the translation. It would be infinitely interesting to me to be able to do so! I especially love learning about words that are untranslatable concepts, seeing what a translator does with them, that is. And translating Perec’s book without an e – what an amazing achievement. Translations just fascinate me!

    • Translations are fascinating. I like those words too, there are some untranslatable words in every language. It takes a lot of decisions as well. Do you go for the more literal, closer to the source language or do you adapt it more to the target language. Very interesting indeed.

  3. Thanks for doing this Caroline. I looked at the author’s other books in English and found Casper Hauser which I am curious about (yes the film), but I ordered My First Wife. The only thing I can say is that I hope Penguin does the honorable thing and publishes the rest for us. I won’t be reading it for German month, however, as I already have my selections.

    • I thought it might even be interesting for English readers. It’s a bit peculiar to cut out a part of a novel like this, right? It’s well possible that it works. I’m very tempted to read it but since I’m not going to read the while trilogy I might as well read only the “Genna” chapters.

  4. I’m trying to think if I’ve heard of something like this before. I recently read Interview with the Vampire, and Anne Rice turned one of her short stories into a novel, but don’t know many cases like this one. That’s interesting and at least it reintroduces the author.

    • It’s an unusual approach but I’m sure they were thinking something when they decided to do it like this. I felt it was importnat to know that it’s part of a larger canvas, especially since there may be other people reading in German and equally hunting for this without any success. That an author turn a short story into a novel is something I heard before. Some stories have such a lot of potential.

  5. How intriguing, to ‘carve out’ a novel from a longer work. Whatever does that say about the publisher’s attitude towards readers? And yet, I can see where they are coming from – publishing a three volume work in translation would be a risky venture these days, which is very sad to admit. Still, perhaps this will raise his profile in the UK market and more translated work will follow.

    • I was thinking the same, 1600 pages would have been risky. It’s also possible that this part is like an interlude in the whole. But I thought it was very unusual. I hope they don’t do that often. It’s like Best of CDs, I don’t like that much either.

  6. I agree. Hopefully, the publishers will see that this is selling and will publish translations of the other volumes. Thanks for the great detective work, Caroline–this one sounds well worth reading.

    • Yes, I think it sounds really interesting and worth reading. My mother always said she liked the author but, as said, the books we had were so big, I never really felt like giving them a try.

    • Thanks, obooki. Das Gänsemännchen, yes, I have that somewhere too. Just checked amazon de It is the story of a love triangle which leads to a tragedy. A musician caught between two women… Not the most original plot but maybe well written.

    • It’s interesting, yes. It’s abit like a “teaser”. I know that part one of the trilogy must be very good. I’m not sure I’ll get to it this month but I’m tempted.

  7. This is really interesting, Caroline! I can’t believe that the translator took one part of a trilogy and then took a small part of it and published it as a standalone novel! Wow! I wish the whole trilogy is translated and published too. It looks like the German version of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ in terms of size, but with such raving reviews, I am sure many readers will be interested in reading it. Thanks for telling us about Jakob Wassermann and this masterpiece of his.

    • It’s puzzling, right? I suppose he is well worth reading and I’m going to dig out my grandmother’s books one of these days. While I find it strnage to “carve out” a portion, seeing how little is translated or rediscovered these days, i think it’s better to have this than nothing and if it’s a success, I’m sure they will go on translating other works.

      • I do hope it becomes a success so that readers can enjoy more of Wassermann’s works. Your grandmother’s books sound so fascinating! I am sure there are going to be many treasures in that collectiion. Hope you can post a picture of it one of these days when you are exploring it.

        • Yes, I hope so too.
          I’ll try to take a picture but they are at a friend’s house. It’s quite a huge collection and I own so many already…
          But I hope I can keep them, they are all hardbacks and some really nice editions too.

  8. This sounds like an intriguing book. I am, just like you, curious of how the translator can turn part of trilogy into standalone book. I am eager to know your final thought wheter the story fits or full of holes.

    • I can sort of understand. It would be very risky to publish a 1600 pages trilogy in one go and just the first part as well as they have no guarantee anyone would be interested. However a topic like the one in this book will atrract readers. I’ll let you know what I think. 🙂

  9. Thanks for doing the investigative work on this and explaining how this has worked out. I’ve not come across this before and it does seem a strange way to go about it, yet as you say with the length of the whole perhaps they were interested to see how popular this part would be.

    • I think that must have been the reason. I suppose it’s risky to publish a whole trilogy of an author who has totally been forgotten.
      I’m sure it will work as a standalone, still, I suppose it’s interesting to know that it is only a part.

  10. What an interesting sounding book–but what a weird publishing history. It would be nice if they at least published all the volumes at once (or in waves) so the reader could decide whether to read them all or just one section. He is new to me-I thought maybe my library would own something by him, but we don’t. So, was it originally published in German but is just now out of print?

    • I have a feeling you would like him very much.
      He is not out of print in German, maybe this volume, I’m not sure, but part I is available and still read and studied by students and academics.
      The book was already available in English as well a long time ago but many books which came out in the 20s and 30s, if they have already been translated at the time, are now retranslated.
      I started this volume (in German) to see what it’s like and I liked the writing very much.

  11. I don’t know if I’m sad or angry or at awe at the downright realism of the publisher.

    It seems a great story (I don’t know if I can say book or novel given the circumstances.) but it’s not available in French.

    • Yes, I know how you feel. I could imagine that it will work like this and that that might be beginning of a “Wassermann wave” who knows. Maybe it had historical reasons as well.
      I checked, all three parts of the trilogy are available, some like L’affaire maurizius as a paperback.

  12. I found another novella by Wassermann in English called Clarissa Mirabel (or maybe it’s an excerpt from a longer work?). Anyway, I’m signing up for the German Literature Month, and will read this amongst others.

  13. Pingback: My First Wife by Jakob Wassermann, tr. by Michael Hofmann | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. I’ve just posted my thoughts on My First Wife, including a link to this piece – many thanks for this background. It does work well as a standalone piece by offering a fictionalised account of Wassermann’s own marriage. I must take a look at Tom’s review as I’d been avoiding other posts/reviews until I’d collated my own thoughts on it. Quite a remarkable piece of writing and an intense story.

    • I’m glad you found it helpful. I still haven’t picked up any of his novels. He was such a popular writer once but almost completely forgotten now. It doesn’t seem fair.
      I remember Tom’s review well. He was quite taken with the book.

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