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 on Jakob Wassermann

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).