The Man Who Wrote Too Much

Nick Richardson

Jakob Wassermann, who published nearly a book a year for the last thirty years of his life but died broke and exhausted, soon to be forgotten, on 1 January 1934 at the age of sixty, was well acquainted with the dangers of literature. My First Wife, which first appeared a few months after his death, is a cautionary tale. Belloc might have called it ‘Ganna Mevis, who read too much and ruined her marriage’. The fifth of the six daughters of haute-bourgeois Viennese parents – an academic and his wife – Ganna is rarely without a book. She takes Nietzsche on picnics, reads Hölderlin as she makes pancakes, has a group of friends-in-literature with whom she ‘rapturously shares her finds’, and sees herself as ‘marching at the head of the true cognoscenti’. Literature, she believes, enables her to live life in a ‘higher reality’; and she becomes obsessed with Alexander Herzog, the book’s narrator, when she reads his first novel, ‘avidly, the way you guzzle an elixir’, and assumes he’s someone who could live in that higher reality with her. She cuts his picture out of a publisher’s catalogue and pins it up next to her bookcase, fires off letters to him, and persuades one of her friends to invite him to a salon so that she can meet him. But Herzog is more worldly than Ganna will ever be able to bring herself to believe. He’s charmed, at first, by her bookish eccentricities, but feels compelled to marry her only when he finds out that she comes with a dowry of eighty thousand crowns. He’s also sceptical about higher reality: ‘It was a fact with Ganna that her notions of life came out of books, and they stood to reality like a painted tiger to the beast that lays your shoulder open with a swipe of its paw.’

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