Wassermann, Jakob

views updated May 11 2018


WASSERMANN, JAKOB (1873–1933), German novelist and essayist. In his autobiography, Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (1921; My Life as German and as Jew, 1933), Wassermann reviews his life from his birth in Fuerth, an industrial center of Franconia and the seat of an ancient Jewish community. He had an unhappy childhood and youth and, during his years of penury, found escape from despair in literary visions. In Munich, Wassermann joined the staff of Simplizissimus; from 1898 he lived in Vienna. In time he became friendly with Hugo von *Hofmannsthal, Arthur *Schnitzler, and Thomas *Mann. For his first novel, Die Juden von Zirndorf (1897; The Dark Pilgrimage, 1933), Wassermann utilized personal experiences interwoven with old myths and legends of Franconian Jewry to present a vivid portrait of changing Jewish life in his native province. He won wider recognition with Caspar Hauser oder die Traegheit des Herzens (1908; Caspar Hauser, 1928), the tragic story of a foundling. The unusual individual at odds with society was also the main theme of Das Gaensemaennchen (1915; The Goose Man, 1922), a novel about a musician and composer burdened with guilt and tragedy through his concentration on his art and withdrawal from life.

Wassermann's international vogue dates from Christian Wahnschaffe (2 vols., 1919), a grandiose epic of Europe on the eve of World War i, which became an American best seller under the title The World's Illusion (1920). The novels that followed include Ulrike Woytich (1923; Eng. Gold, 1924), a critical analysis of materialistic greed; Der Fall Mauritius (1928; The Mauritius Case, 1929), which castigated the worship of legalism; Etzel Andergast (1930; Eng. 1932) and its sequel, Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz (1934; Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence, 1934), clinical studies set against the political and moral chaos after the German defeat of 1918; and many other less profound, but popular, works. He also wrote biographical sketches of Christopher Columbus (1929) and Hofmannsthal in Hofmannsthal der Freund (1930).

Wassermann was preeminently a gifted storyteller. In his long prose epics he drew characters from various social strata who seek God despite their horrible experiences, and eventually find salvation after perilous adventures.

Wassermann was an articulate exponent of German-Jewish assimilation and an implacable foe of Jewish nationalism. He believed in a Jewish priestly and prophetic mission among the nations, yet held the "Chosen People" idea to be "plainly absurd and immoral." In his view, the Jews were unfitted for common action and had no talent for politics. Reconstituted as a nation in line with Zionist aspirations, they would be an international laughingstock. Wassermann insisted that his own work exemplified the synthesis of Germanism and Judaism which others should follow, but he abhorred apostasy. The triumph of Nazism and the burning of his books in German towns brought Wassermann back to the spiritual ghetto from which he had always fled and to a common destiny with the eastern European Jews with whom he had always denied kinship. Wassermann published a second autobiographical work, Selbstbetrachtungen (1933), but Ahasver, a novel intended to describe the epic history of the Jews, was never completed.


E. Poeschel, in: G. Krojanker (ed.), Juden in der deutschen Literatur (1926), 76–100; A.L. Sell, Das metaphysischrealistische Weltbild Jakob Wassermanns (Thesis, Marburg, 1932); S. Bing, Jakob Wassermann (Ger., 19332); M. Karlweis, Jakob Wassermann (Ger., 1935); J.C. Blankenagel, The Writings of Jakob Wassermann (1942; includes bibliography); W. Voegeli, Jakob Wassermann und die Traegheit des Herzens (1956), includes bibliography; S. Liptzin, Germany's Stepchildren (1944, repr. 1961), 173–83.

[Sol Liptzin]

Jakob Wassermann

views updated May 29 2018

Jakob Wassermann

The German author Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) combined a romanticized psychoanalysis with an almost journalistic sensationalism. He used a narrative technique that verged at times on the surrealistic and was heavily laden with symbol and constructed myth.

Jakob Wassermann was born on March 10, 1873, in Fürth, the son of a Jewish merchant. After a childhood with many restrictions, he began his career as an office clerk, in Munich and then in Freiburg. In 1898 he moved to Vienna and eventually established himself as a writer. Derivative and imitative, Wassermann's novels showed from the outset a strong dependence upon Fyodor Dostoevsky— particularly in his fondness for the psychological probing of criminals and social outcasts—as well as the influence of the master of the romantic horror and detective story, E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Wassermann's first significant work is Die Juden von Zirndorf (1897; The Jews of Zirndorf), in which his deep knowledge of his own community in Fürth and Nuremberg stands him in good stead. As in many of his other works, Wassermann's preoccupation with innocence and redemption is here interleaved with a somewhat crass depiction of depravity and superstition. Der Moloch (1902) pays tribute to the contemporary literary cult of the great city (here Vienna), seen as an all-devouring monster of sin and perversion. Caspar Hauser (1908) is probably the author's best novel; the book, based on fact, deals with the case of the mute youth who appeared one day in 1828 on the streets of Nuremberg. Resemblances to Dostoevsky's The Idiot may also be noted in this tale of the rejection and contamination of innate purity by corrupt society.

After Caspar Hauser Wassermann's novels and short stories become increasingly preoccupied with bizarre and perverse anecdotes and intrigue, often initially drawn from biography or the newspapers. Das Gänsemännchen (1915; The Goose Man) illuminates the problem involved in simultaneous cohabitation with two wives. Christian Wahnschaffe (1919) exploits the theme of the rich man's son who rejects the world to turn toward Buddhism. Der Fall Maurizius (1928; The Mauritius Case) is a type of detective novel made colorful by excursions into hypnosis but also weighed down by a tedious mass of psychological dissection. Like Honoré de Balzac, whom he imitated, Wassermann introduces the same characters into different novels; thus Etzel Andergast (1931) is a sequel to The Mauritius Case, and its hero, Joseph Kerkhoven, reappears in Joseph Kerkhovens dritte Existenz (1934; Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence).

Wassermann is a somewhat uneven and labored writer, and he cannot in any sense be considered a stylist. His novels are often marred by diffuseness and miasmic obscurity. At the same time his extensive output is of considerable historical interest and illuminates rather well the consequences of marriage between the new depth psychology and the popular novel of sensation and crime. He died on Jan. 1, 1934, in Alt-Aussee.

Further Reading

The standard study in English is John C. Blankenagel, The Writings of Jakob Wassermann (1942). A penetrating account of Wassermann, placing him in his tradition and period, is also in Jethro Bithell, Modern German Literature (1939; 3d ed. 1959). □