The novel is divided into two sections: ‘The World That Was: Joseph Kerkhoven’ and ‘The World That Is: Etzel Andergast’. The first is set in Dresden in 1913, the second in Berlin fifteen years later. The First World War is the dividing line. However, it is really the threat of a second World War and the menace of a renascent German nationalism that hang over the novel as a whole. (Wassermann was writing under this shadow: two years after the novel was published in Germany he was forced to leave the Prussian Academy of Arts; his books were banned and burned; he was effectively exiled to his home in Altaussee in Austria. The novel is a despairing – because accurate – prediction of what was to come.)
Because the novel does not follow on directly from The Maurizius Case - Wassermann intended the three volumes to be self-contained - it is some time before the connection is established, before Etzel Andergast, the protagonist of the first volume, appears: page 235 to be exact. To begin with, the novel focuses on the relationship between two men - Johann Irlen and Joseph Kerkhoven. We go back in time (from the period in which The Maurizius Case is set) to 1913. Irlen, a wealthy, restless man, now forty-four, whose ‘marked strength of character made him unusually attractive’, has just returned from two years of travelling in the Congo. On his way back to Germany he falls seriously ill. At a loss to diagnose the cause, Irlen’s doctor suggests a consultation with Joseph Kerkhoven – ‘just an ordinary general practitioner like dozens of others... an insignificant little man’ who has nevertheless begun to show a remarkable, intuitive, almost mystical ability to diagnose and cure seemingly hopeless cases. A friendship soon develops between Irlen and Kerkhoven. Although Irlen – the text hints – is homosexual, his attraction to Kerkhoven is of a different nature. Irlen senses Kerkhoven’s potential greatness; and as Kerkhoven tries to effect a cure, Irlen tries to effect a metamorphosis. Kerkhoven fails, Irlen succeeds. Knowing his illness is incurable, Irlen asks Kerkhoven to end his life with a morphine injection. Kerkhoven agrees. Immediately after Irlen’s death Kerkhoven falls into a state of apraxia, from which he only recovers when he is called up to be an army doctor. Ostensibly, he has failed, but – as Irlen has foreseen – Kerkhoven, in the years that follow, realises his true potential and becomes a successful, world-renowned doctor.
This, at a glance, is the first section of the book. However, there is a great deal more to it.
While treating Irlen, Kerkhoven meets and falls in love with Marie, Irlen’s niece by marriage. As Kerkhoven and Marie are both married to other people, it seems they will have to live outside respectable society. But then circumstances bring them together. Kerkhoven’s wife Nina goes insane and is placed in an asylum, where she later dies. Marie’s husband agrees to a separation, and it seems will grant her a divorce, but is then killed in the war. Irlen leaves Kerkhoven a ‘handsome legacy’ in his will, enough for Kerkhoven to establish his own clinic, and for him and Marie to live in comfort.
All of which takes place on the surface. Beneath are darker layers of mystery and menace, which are then, in a sense, repeated and more fully explored in the second part of the book.
For the sake of clarity (and concision) it is perhaps easiest to list the various connections:
Irlen’s anxiety about the outbreak of war, his attempts to stop it (he has an almost naive belief in the ability of well-intentioned men to divert the course of history) is echoed in Kerkhoven’s later dread of a ‘new form of devastation’, and in his similarly innocent faith in a possible cure for mankind’s madness.
Irlen’s nurturing of Kerkhoven is mirrored in Kerkhoven’s nurturing of Etzel Andergast. Both relationships end with a betrayal of the older man by the younger.
It is no coincidence that for both Kerkhoven and Etzel the year 1913 is profoundly character-forming. Kerkhoven begins to realise his own potential at the same time as Etzel’s parents are going through the divorce that will ultimate determine the direction of Etzel’s life: the two men’s fates are connected.
Kerkhoven’s absorption in his work – his devotion to Irlen and neglect of Nina – is largely responsible for the breakdown of his first marriage (and the breakdown of his wife). This same absorption and neglect – this time of Marie – almost ends his second marriage.
Marie, towards the end of the novel, starts an affair with Etzel, and is nearly driven insane when he then rejects her (she almost succumbs to the same fate as Kerkhoven’s first wife).
Beneath these are yet further connections – less obvious, more primitive. Just as in The Maurizius Case, Wassermann strives to articulate the mysterious, subterranean element in human relationships; he tries to hint at what lies beyond language, the inexpressible-yet-tantalisingly-close.
For example, in the first section, Irlen comments: ‘“Whenever I walk through a dark room, I feel the whole universe pressing round me.”’
This is a familiar feeling – one most of us have probably experienced – yet what does it actually signify? Isolation? A ‘cosmic’ sense of our place in the universe? Something primitive and prehistoric in Man? Wassermann, typically, refuses to answer. To do so would be to attempt to deprive the mystery of its mysteriousness, something he is loath to do (really, this marks the limit of Wassermann’s fascination with – or faith in - psychoanalysis, the point where his mysticism asserts itself). Instead, he returns to this mystery later in the novel – some five hundred pages later – where, this time, it is Etzel who finds himself alone in a darkened room. Having just slept with Marie for the first time, Etzel is euphoric – a heightened state that again has something ‘cosmic’ or mystical about it, but which again depends on solitude and darkness to find its full expression:
‘At five in the morning he left her and went quietly up to the floor above, where Frau Janisch had made the spare room ready for him the night before... He went in and stood still in the darkness. He felt as though he were standing in the interior of some mountain. The rustling, which can be heard in all dark rooms, sounded to him like the noise of distant waters seeking an outlet... Many voices were in his blood; all the words of love were dissolved in it. All the images and memories of the senses were in the blood, dissolved in the blood as salt dissolves in water. The contact of lips, the unrestrained embraces, eyes that saw not. Flame and exhaustion, revival and gracious death. Breath that was love, tongues like fiery blades, insatiable hands, the boundless gratitude in reawakened eyes, the incredulous intimate whisperings, the discovery of the other, as though after long wandering one landed on another planet. He groped his way to his bed. He did not want light; light would be murder. He slipped under the coverlet and dropped asleep, as a stone drops into a well.’
Although the two episodes are far apart – and on the surface unrelated – they nevertheless seem connected. The latter calls to mind the former: another of many subtle links.
At its heart, the novel is about the conflict between generations; about how earlier generations try to advise and save succeeding generations, and about how these later generations – inevitably – reject the proffered advice, question the efficacy of the cure, and ultimately make the same mistakes. This pessimism – together with his scepticism about modern (i.e. fashionable, i.e. dilettantish) efforts to effect change - has led certain commentators to argue that Wassermann was essentially a conservative thinker. Yet, if anything, his novels betray a trenchant radicalism; they are, almost uniformly, anti-bourgeois in outlook; pleas for greater individual freedom. His own protracted divorce from his first wife left him at odds with respectable society; his characters are often trapped by marriage, restrained by morality. There is no condemnation, for instance, when female characters realise their desires: Wassermann blames society for prohibiting this desire rather than the individual woman for obeying it. Moreover, he refuses to place his female characters on pedestals: they are as deeply-flawed as the men he portrays.
One of the sub-plots of Etzel Andergast involves a wealthy American philanthropist – a woman named Nell Marschall – who has established a commune of sorts, in which the most deserving among the countless impoverished young Germans living in and around Berlin are allowed to seek refuge. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Wassermann reveals the truth behind Nell's philanthropy. Nell is a woman who believes in the good she is doing, so much so that she cannot or will not acknowledge the evil. Kerkhoven, Wassermann’s alter-ego, refuses to be fooled. For Kerkhoven-Wassermann, the paradise of communal living, of subordinating oneself to a shared ideal, is shown to be a hell:
‘It seemed to him a well-rehearsed parade, calculated to demonstrate the blessings of the communal spirit. He was not taken in by the air of happiness and frankness, which was, for the most part, the result of calculated training, based on a cunning system of patronage. Under a thin veneer of youthful carelessness was criticism, suspicion, envy of the favoured ones, and, above all, the stigma of contemporary youth, anxiety about the future. Nell did not know it. That is, she refused to perceive and accept it. She was innocent in a sinister sense in which many active natures are innocent; their outward efficiency far exceeds the inward, so that the machine runs empty and wears out. Hence the strain, the exaggeration, hence the self-violation, which, in Nell’s case, however, had an additional cause: a heart never fructified by love. She was a woman only in a physiological sense. Such were Kerkhoven’s thoughts...’
The idea of sinister innocence remains valid; in fact, it has a particular significance today, with the omnipresent demand for charity, the repeated exhortations to give, the pressure to take part, the numerous full-time philanthropists - champions of good causes - whose ‘outward efficiency far exceeds the inward’.
Wassermann-Kerkhoven resists this pressure, reiterating again and again his unwillingness to conform:
'Formalism will always enslave us; the mind must go into its pen, the heart is on the proscribed index... Personally I don't matter. I belong to no clique, and no school either. That is just what you cannot forgive me. I never wanted to be anything but a simple physician, so modest is my ambition.... I hardly dare say how modest it is... a remnant still left in me of simple faith in human discernment. My whole life's work was aimed at prevention, prevention of worse things coming.'
For me, this is further proof of Wassermann's progressiveness. His pessimism was a call for greater intellectual rigour, his negativity a way of destroying illusions, in order to see what, if anything, remains as a cause for hope.
The novel reminds us, frequently, of ‘the uncanny repetitions that occur sometimes in a single human life, repetitions of experiences that are essentially the same, and that evidently have their origin in character.’ The character of the individual and the character of successive generations both have something ‘uncanny’ about them – in the sense that the repressed continues to return despite our efforts to prevent this. ‘The world that is’ increasingly comes to resemble ‘the world that was’. Yet that does not mean it will never improve. The situation, though bleak, is not hopeless.
The second part of the book – twice the length of the first – is clearly intended as a prolonged echo of what has come before, a warning that we seldom if ever learn from past mistakes. Even when we remember the past we are condemned to repeat it - unless, that is, we undergo a change so profound that it breaks us down and forces us to start again.
The novel ends with Kerkhoven a broken man: his reputation and practice, once thriving, are now threatened by jealous rivals; his unfaithful wife is on the verge of insanity; his friend, former protégé and now betrayer, Etzel has fled; war is again threatening Europe; yet somehow we know he will survive.
Kerkhoven, over the course of the novel, has become the unlikeliest of heroes. We desperately want him to succeed, to overcome adversity. His powerlessness - paradoxically - gives us hope. Isolated, defeated, betrayed, he is nevertheless free.
The stage is set for the next volume, for Kerkhoven’s ‘third existence’ to begin.
From Etzel Andergast,(George Allen & Unwin, 1932, trans., Cyrus Brooks)
Part One: The World That Was: Joseph Kerkhoven
Part Two: The World That Is: Etzel Andergast