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Wassermann Holds an Audit

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

Oberlin’s Three Stages. By Jacob Wassermann; translated by Allen W. Porterfield. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

German writers seem to have a habit comparatively rare among literary artists in other tongues. From time to time they give the world an open audit of their account with the Muse. Such stock-taking usually marks a creative crisis met, frequently announces a change of aesthetic concept. This Goethe did in the “Zueignungen” in which he reveals the working of the poetic mind; this, Schiller by a cold dip into history, or by a still colder plunge into Kantian metaphysical aesthetics. And. this Wassermann does in the first of the three stories in the volume which bears the title of “Oberlin’s Three Stages.”

Even without the author’s fore-word, the personal application of “The Unknown Guest,” the introspective, mystical story with which the volume begins, would be evident. Whether with all its perfect analysis of one creative mind’s reaction to the confusion of the modern world, with its polished, pregnant felicity of abstract thought made concrete, it will appeal to the casual reader is a question. Some there are though who realize that great fiction does not just happen, that the epic prose poet is a conscious artist. Such have read Wassermann seriously—it’s hard to see how one could read him otherwise—and to these the story will possess absorbing interest and give insight into the marked development between “The Gooseman” and “Faber, or The Lost Years.” For I cannot but feel that the crisis, met and conquered by new light in “The Unknown Guest,” lies between “Gold” and “Faber,” rather than between “Faber” and “Oberlin.”

“Oberlin’s Three Stages” is the longest of the three stories that make up the volume, the only one that could be called a roman, rather than a nouvelle. There have been many serious stories of childhood, some of adolescence, but comparatively few of the critical period of male youth between seventeen and twenty. I should like to have a review of “Oberlin’s Three Stages” by some great headmaster or by some Dean Briggs, who knows youth and loves truth and the beautiful expression of both. Dietrich Oberlin is not German; he is human. Those whose vocation it is to deal with youthful personality in an American college, will recognize him. American, English, French mothers will have agonized over a son in these years from boy to man, as Dorina Oberlin does over Dietrich. Dorina is a very great and wise and lovely lady. And she too is as internationally human as her son, as internationally human as the most sordid wastrels of “The Gooseman” or of “The World’s Illusion.”

This thought suggests a question. Is Jacob Wassermann to be an internationally read novelist—like Balzac, like Dickens, like Dostoevsky? Since Goethe’s “Wilhelm Met-sters Lehrjahre” there have been great German novels: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich” Theodor Fontanel “Effi Briest,” Schnitzler’s “Frau Bertha Garlan,” Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” to name a few at random. From time to time they have been translated. But despite translation they remain somehow German. The men and women are real and human, but do not suffer deportation. Their re-actions are to a distinctly German society, and some understanding of German society is needed, if one is fully to appreciate their fundamental humanity. No milieu could be more French than Balzac’s, more English than Dickens’, more Russian than Dostoevsky’s. Yet the men and women of their great novels are living, comprehensible humans, as human as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or as Hector, Achilles, and Helen, however little the reader may know of the special social world in which they move. To one reader, at least, Wassermann seems to possess this power. No understanding, no special knowledge of Germany is needed for one to feel the truth and reality of the multitude of men, women, and children he has created. German literature has waited long for the novelist who shall be internationally read. Can Wassermann be he?

Fertility he certainly does not lack. In “The Gooseman” and in the phantasmagoric “World’s Illusion,” this fertility threatened to be overwhelming. The artist was not yet master of his material. Wassermann’s astounding accuracy of observation of humanity and his sympathy for every type of it had furnished him with a world so densely populated that he failed to achieve “totality of effect.” Realization of the truth of Goethe’s word: “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister” produces in “Gold” a great work of art, without prejudice to the reality of its men and women. And in “Faber, or The Lost Years,” the artist’s self-limitation has given a master-piece of the re-action of highly civilized modern man and woman to a shattered world in its as yet unorganized struggle toward re-construction. But no World War, no Siberian prison-camp, no national debâcle and revolution are needed to make man or woman feel the universal human reality of what occurs in the soul of Eugene Faber and his wife Martina.

It is this sense for the universal human that is bringing Jacob Wassermann closer to the great classicists of German literature—closer, perhaps, than he himself realizes. “Faber” is classical, in its universality, in its plasticity of presentation, in the clear lines of its individuals. “Oberlin’s Three Stages” has many a chord that might be made up from overtones of Wilhelm Meister’s harmonies; Ober-lin himself, much of the youthful sensitiveness of soul that works Werther’s ruin. Nor are definite parallelisms lack-ing—unconscious or subconscious echoes. Hanna’s first and only night of love in Dietrich’s lodging has something of the mysterious visit of an unknown love to Wilhelm Meister after the Hamlet performance; Dietrich’s contemplation of the pathetic helplessness of Hanna’s beauty, unclad and revealed in sleep, seems a sublimation of one of Werther’s “Briefe aus der Schweiz.” But—though it may be heresy to say it—both are raised to higher plane of beauty and of truth than Goethe sought in his two scenes.

In “Sturreganz,” the detached story which follows “Ober-lin’s Three Stages” and concludes the volume, Wassermann is in close contact with the two other giants of German classicism, Lessing and Schiller. The story is one of father and child—of the birth and growth of an artistic soul from suffering more than Promethean, of victory won by Promethean art and righteous, indignant revolt; the milieu the duodecimo tyranny of an eighteenth-century German absolute principality. It is the setting of Lessing’s “Emilia Go-lotti” of Schiller’s “Kabale und Liebe.” Not even the titled Englishwoman who aspires to something higher than maîtresse en titre is lacking. In no other work of Wassermann is his love for oppressed humanity and his hatred of the oppressor so strongly revealed. This hatred’s expression has none of Schiller’s storm-and-stress sentimental violence. It is rather the merciless humor of Lessing’s controversial writings—the humor that springs from righteous indignation and spares not. To Englishmen—except to George Bernard Shaw—and to most Americans such humor seems too brutal, to transgress fair play. Perhaps we have suffered no such desecrations of humanity as have the Continentals. It is as different from Thackeray’s satire as the caricatures of “Punch” and “Life” are from those in “Le Rire” and “Jugend” and “Simplicissimus.” This humor does not blame nor criticize; it mercilessly portrays even the ob-scenest failings. Its caricatures are caricatures oniy in being inhumanly human. Such is the humor of Jacob Was-sermann’s story “Sturreganz.”

More than a word might be said of Professor Porterfield’s translation. It is not only the best of the translations of Wassermann’s works into English. It is so good that one almost feels that Wassermann wrote English. It needs no “Notes by Translator,” and has none. With such translators on their staff, Messrs. Harcourt, Brace and Company can achieve their laudable ambition to acquaint language-ignorant Americans with the best in contemporary continental literature.

If the chance reader of this review seeks in what has been written a substitute for his own reading of Wassermann’s books, the reviewer will have failed most lamentably in his purpose. Read Wassermann. He is attempting with increasing success to interpret the human soul struggling amid the ruins of a world. There is something in his writings that reminds of the quality of Kreisler’s violin-playing since the World War.


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