Ernst Weiss committed suicide in 1940 as German troops entered Paris, as Joseph Roth said in his extraordinary essay “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” (in which he specifically cited Weiss by name), another writer “burned by Germany”. Weiss, a friend of Stefan Zweig, was part of the flowering of late Austro-Hungarian literature that produced so much beauty in the first half of the last century. Beauty that the Nazis sought to destroy, silencing in the process a whole generation of writers.
Or so they hoped. In the English speaking world however, thanks in large part to the efforts of Pushkin Press, these writers are being returned to us and with them a literature which is as fine an example of what the written word is capable of as can be imagined.
Jarmila is a posthumously published novella, written by Ernst Weiss in 1937, and is a masterpiece of concision and style. Published in Germany in 1998, it is brought to us by Pushkin Press in a translation by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz which comes with a fascinating (and also translated) afterword by Peter Engel which sheds much light on the circumstances of the novella’s creation. The afterword also illuminates where one element of the novella is necessarily lost in translation – in German, the word for feather is apparently the same as the word for a spring, a fact that would lend some additional subtlety of symbolism to the German that the English cannot capture. It is an excellent translation, in an imprint fully up to Pushkin’s usual high standards, and a pleasure to hold and to read.
All that said, what is Jarmila? In short, it is a melodrama, a tale of how a village watchmaker falls in love with the beautiful young wife of a rich but elderly feather merchant, of their affair and of its consequences. Coupled with this is a framing device in which a businessman who has come to Prague to purchase “thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” carries with him a faulty watch that he bought at the last minute, having accidentally left his own at home. The watch acts as introduction to the watchmaker, now a toymaker, and so as a mechanism through which the narrator hears the story of the watchmaker and of Jarmila herself.
Jarmila, a woman with “Breasts like Bohemian apples”, is first described plucking a goose for its feathers:
She clenched the thrashing goose between her firm young thighs with her skirts stretched tight and tore at it.
For the goose, read the watchmaker-cum-toymaker, a handsome young man, but poor. He loves Jarmila, engages in a passionate affair with her meeting her in the barn in which the merchant grades his goose feathers, fathers a child on her and urges her to leave the merchant and come with him to New York.
Jarmila will have none of it, as becomes quickly clear, she is all too happy enjoying passion with the watchmaker and fortune and position with her cuckolded husband. The watchmaker loves Jarmila, but it is far from clear if she loves anyone at all. She is, essentially, evil. A creature of beauty, but not of compassion, intent on her own best interests, utterly selfish (I did say it was a melodrama).
The watchmaker’s campaign to win Jarmila away from her husband, to win the right to raise his own son, and the husband’s retaliation, form the meat of the plot. The plot, however, is not the point.
Instead, the point in Jarmila is the structure of the tale itself. Jarmila is an essentially fractal work, with each part of it containing in miniature the whole. Elements occur and recur, the watch is faulty because its spring is broken, a theme which manifests more than once in the novella. Jarmila is married to a feather dealer, feathers (like springs) act as a motif through the entire work, the toymaker rips the feathers of the chest of a toy bird just as Jarmila plucks the feathers of geese and just as she rips the heart out of the watchmaker. Everything is significant, no remark lacks connection to the broader story.
Put another way, and to coin an observation I sincerely doubt is original in respect of this tale, Jarmila is constructed as if it were a watch mechanism itself. It is intricately detailed, every part is fitted precisely to every other. Every part functions in conjunction with every other. Nothing in its structure is accidental, everything is subject to the minutest craftsmanship. The central element of the tale, the broken watch, is a symbol of the tale itself.
Weiss’s prose is a pleasure to read, light yet dense, it is easy to race through the novella but reflection reveals layer after layer of interconnected symbolism, much of which I have chosen not to touch on here as to do so would result in a a blog entry longer than the work itself. Like many of the best novellas, it unpacks in the mind after completion, significance becoming apparent in what at first appeared to be mere incident. It is a work I look forward to rereading, as having read the whole I will be in a much better position to appreciate the individual elements as they arise.
Not everything, however, is weighted in symbol. Sometimes Weiss simply shows us his gift for description and indulges his own love for a country he was at the time of writing permanently himself an exile from (and it is no accident that a sense of doom, of the impossibility of escape and the impermeability of borders suffuses the novella). Here, our unnamed narrator buys his dinner on arrival in Prague, in a passage that is almost a love letter to the city’s cuisine:
I sat down in an empty corner and ordered beer and Prague ham. I planned to leave the following day – but not before having sampled the ham. I couldn’t make myself understood to the waitress. The toy trader, who’d been watching this whole time with his uneven, steely-grey eyes, came to my aid; his German was not without flaws, but fluent. There was a choice of ham dishes on the menu served raw or smoked, warm or cold, with horse-radish or gherkins, cooked in wine or with noodles baked in the oven, or even as an omelette filling, with macaroni, or garnished with pickles, and so on. I wasn’t really hungry and ordered without paying attention. In fact, I rather would have liked to invited the toy trader to join me for a glass of beer. There were three kinds, the first a light, wheat colour, then a brown one, the last thick, heavy, and almost black. When I was young wet-nurses were given black beer like this to increase their milk flow. Was it sweet, or rather bitter like English stout? Who could I ask?
But soon after, the narrator comments on the toymaker’s hands, which themselves then become another recurring element, another fragment in which the whole is reflected. In a work this tightly structured, we are rarely far away from greater meaning.
Jarmila succeeds because of the sheer skill of its craftsmanship, it doesn’t matter that the tale itself is trite, indeed it would be a distraction were it not. The point is an inescapable clockwork mechanism, which unwinds towards its conclusion with bleakly inevitable precision, beautifully and unerringly. Jarmila is a work by a writer at the peak of his talents, it amply deserved publication and although it is a tragedy it did not receive such in Weiss’s lifetime, Pushkin Press has my thanks for seeing that it did in mine.