It is hard to believe that Jakob Wassermann is dead. Because his work had the vitality of that which is done in a man’s prime, and not when his finest energies have been spent. I saw him but a few years ago and he did not then look like a man who would soon be sixty, the age at which he passed away. To be sure, these have been years which would rapidly age most German and Austrian Jews, but one always thought of Wassermann as possessing spiritual reserves with which to counteract the agents of decay.
The sense of shock and surprise with which one accepts the fact of his death is tempered a little by the recognition that his best work was probably done and that he is secure in his reputation as a great novelist and a marvelous story-teller. In a sense it was fitting that his death should come now, in the very season which saw the publication in English of his autobiography, “My Life as German and as Jew”. Publishing enterprise rendered him a slighter service; however, in making available to American readers one of his earliest novels, “The Jews of Zirndorf” under the title of “The Dark Pilgrimage” a book in which the worst of the Wassermann defects are laid bare.
But, surely, one who has created in so brief and troubled a lifetime as his such works as “The World’s Illusion”, “The Goose Man”, “The Maurizius Case” and “Casper Hauser” can sustain such weaker works. In his autobiography he makes the point that he wrote “The Jews of Zirndorf” to affirm his Jewishness and “Caspar Hauser”, a much finer and more mature work, to affirm his Germanism. Toward the last he was becoming fascinated by the prospects and the possibilities of biography for he brought out books on Columbus, the discoverer, and Stanley, the explorer, and these studies, if not up to the level of his best fiction, at least proclaimed his spiritual affilnities-towards lonely men who keep their way and achieve their goals. Perhaps a future publication, of Wassermann’s letters and notes, may inform the world what other projects of a similar nature the novelist was cogitating.
His fiction was freighted with a double cargo, the cargo of message and the cargo of story. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that his story ships carried messages as cargo-messages of justice and understanding for the misunderstood and the unjustly treated. His own youth and boyhood were poisoned by ill-treatment and lack of sympathy. The early chapters of the autobiography are heartrending with such details. Yet out of evil he created good. The autobiography tells us how he prevented a malicious younger half-brother from spying on him to a cruel step-mother and a vindictive father. He would spin continued stories to this persecuting younger brother, end the installment at the most exciting point and promise to go on to the next installment the following day only as reward for good behavior. His best novels show his amazing inventiveness in story telling. It is possible to read “The World’s Illusion” as a modern One Thousand and One Nights, os as the work of a modern Dostoyevsky. “The Goose Man” and “Caspar Hauser” to mention only a few works, have the same kind of fascination. As a matter of fact severe critics have resented a touch of trickiness in his devices.
It seems only a few years ago that he was visiting these shores, but I fear that his experience was not entirely pleasant. He did not speak English and interviews had to be conducted either in German, or, as mine was, with the help of an interpreter. It was to me he said: “I compare myself to the workman who pours the molten metal with which is formed the bell. In twenty years we shall see and we shall hear.” During his American stay he did not lecture and at the dinner given him in New York by the P.E.N. Club he seemed aloof and moody. He gave the impression of being concerned not with superficial aspects, but with the inner meaning of things and of men. A Nazi minister may have excluded Wassermann from the Prussian Academy of Letters, but none can exclude him from the minds of his hundreds of thousands of readers, wherein he reigns with the greatest masters of the story.