Married Life - David Vogel

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Married Life

David Vogel

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To purchase Married Life

Title: Married Life
Author: David Vogel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1929 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 501 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: Married Life - US
Married Life - UK
Married Life - Canada
Married Life - India
La vie conjugale - France
Eine Ehe in Wien - Deutschland
Vita coniugale - Italia
Una vida de casado - España
  • Hebrew title: חיי נישואים
  • Translated by Dalya Bilu

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective portrait of that place and time, and psychologically damaged souls

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 23/5/2014 Alexander Coupe
The LA Times C 16/4/1989 Brian Hall
TLS . 30/12/1988 Steven Beller
TLS . 19/2/2014 David Collard

  From the Reviews:
  • "The city is beautiful but threatening. In the shadow of the first world war, its inhabitants search for new heroes and radical ideologies. These efforts are sabotaged by Vogelís deft comic touch and dark sense of irony. This combination of levity and serious insight makes for an outstanding novel." - Alexander Coupe, Financial Times

  • "One infers, on the evidence of this single work, that Vogel learned early to expect no better from life than what he actually got, for Married Life is merciless in its depiction of a bleak world in which fate is both arbitrary and supremely malign. (...) The characters certainly seem allegorical, since they don't stand up well as believable people (.....) Unsatisfying in the big ways, Married Life can be good in the small." - Brian Hall, The Los Angeles Times

  • "On one level it can be read as a simple, if nightmarish story of a marriage. On another, the marriage is clearly an allegorical vehicle for a devastating critique of Vienna. (...) Perhaps because of the difficulty of translating Vogel's somewhat quirky Hebrew, this is not an easy book to read. (...) Married Life grows darker and darker, until the black underside of Vienna -- exemplified by settings such as the lunatic asylum, or, as a prelude for the horrible end, a shelter for the homeless, comes to dominate. The book ends in madness, death and complete despair. While one need not accept the total negativity of Vogel's final vision, one can recognize Married Life as a remarkable contemporary commentary on Vienna between the wars." - Steven Beller, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(L)ays a fair claim to being Vogelís masterpiece. (...) This is not just a psychologically penetrating and often painful study of a dysfunctional marriage but also an absorbing allegory of Viennaís treatment of its Jewish community in the years following the First World War." - David Collard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Married Life, set in 1920s Vienna, centers on Rudolf Gurdweill, a would-be writer in his late twenties, constantly short of money and scrounging small amounts from everyone he knows to get by. The dollars his sister occasionally sends from America help, and early in the novel he gets a job which provides for some security for a while, but money is always a concern. Still, Gurdweill has a great deal of free and even leisure time, and spends much of it in Viennese cafés, a lifestyle he and his circle of friends -- which includes some who are considerably better situated (and often willing to invite the poorer lot), such as Dr.Astel -- seem to take as a given.
       One from his circle of friends, Lotte Bondheim, is in love with Gurdweill, but he remains oblivious to her pining for him; instead, the novel quickly finds him struck by a new face in a café. He works up his nerve to introduce himself (with the help of his roommate, Ulrich) and almost immediately finds himself in the clutches of Baroness Thea von Takow. In 1920s Vienna even nobility often isn't nearly what it used to be, and Thea has little more to her name than her no longer very useful title -- she has a mundane job, too -- but Gurdweill is powerfully taken by her.
       For her part, Thea -- a head taller than him -- seems to see him as a plaything, but decides, as if on whim, that he's a keeper: they're quickly engaged, and she has her way with him as soon as they agree to get married. From the first, she sets the terms -- and is even the physically domineering one, "lifting him like a doll" onto the bed to have her way with him the first night they spend together and often taking him on her lap, like a child, when they're married.
       Six months into their marriage, she still entirely sets the tone:

Thea had woken up a few moments before in a good mood, jumped out of bed and snatched him from the table, sweeping him up from his chair as if he were a one-year-old and swinging him to and fro in her arms, she in her long nightgown and he in his clothes and shoes, bouncing him in her arms like a baby and dancing round the room, shouting and laughing wildly: "My little bunny rabbit ! You're a cute little thing after all ! You're the child of my old age, that's what you are !" As always when she picked him up in her arms, Gurdweill was unwilling. He felt a peculiar pleasure, mixed with a vague kind of shame, shame before himself, before Thea, and before the whole world, as if the most private part of his being had been exposed in public -- and he was unwilling. But he could not protest.
       The omens in Married Life are never very good. The novel opens describing a typical day for Gurdweill, before he got his job and met Thea, and among the first things he comes across as he ventures out is a suicide being fished out of the Danube canal -- a sign of the times:
     "This generation !" interrupted a middle-aged woman in a faded old hat, carrying a bag in her hand. "They're all teetering on the edge. Nothing means anything to them: either they kill themselves or they kill each other.
       Later, but still typically:
Gurdweill's wedding day, the day which marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life, was also the most boring and oppressive day he had ever spent. Everything about it was uncomfortable and stifling and irritating.
       It's no surprise then that marriage doesn't turn out to be quite what Gurdweill expected -- not that he was very clear in his expectations. Just so he is clear, however:
Immediately after the wedding Thea informed him, without beating about the bush, that he had better not harbor any illusions about marriage changing her way of life in the slightest degree ... She was free now, as before, to do as she saw fit ... And she did as she saw fit. She spent most of her free time, in the evening after work and on holidays, not with Gurdweill but in places and circumstances unknown to him.
       Gurdweill remains her plaything -- though since she is also often doing her own thing, he can continue with his old lifestyle in many ways, too. With Thea demanding all his money (and more), too, he even remains the impoverished scrounger, and his life really does continue very much as before, when he was not part of a couple, and he continues to have experiences and encounters separate from her: the actual 'married life' in Married Life often seems merely incidental.
       Vogel never quite manages to convey what drives Gurdweill to put himself in this peculiar and often disagreeable position, doing the bidding of this woman doesn't treat him very well -- indeed, who often treats him outrageously awfully. On the other hand, he spells out Thea's position much more clearly:
From the day she met Gurdweill she had felt an urge to hurt him, to make him miserable in any way she could. And this urge had not faded over the course of time, but had grown stronger and stronger the longer they lived together. His constant submission and resignation only provoked her further. She despised him for suffering in silence and invented all kinds of cruelties to torment him. Why didn't he shout, lose his temper, curse her, throw her out ? Then perhaps she Would have found it in her heart to love him a little, in so far as her nature was capable of love at all. For to a certain extent she was attached to him even now. He was necessary to her and she could not have imagined her life without him. But Gurdweill accepted everything without protest, and this provoked her unendurably.
       It's passages like these that perhaps suggest most strongly, at least from a contemporary standpoint, an allegorical intent, the submissive Gurdweill representative for a generic 'Jewish people', the domineering Thea representative of the burgeoning (seeing-itself-as-the-)'master race'. But in fact this novel is also a more fundamentally psychological one, of both personal relationships as well as the more general effect of the times and conditions on the psyche.
       Even if Vogel doesn't discuss or explicitly refer to the faddish Viennese psychology of the day, there's an undercurrent of it throughout, notably in the many dream-accounts and vivid visions Vogel offers ("Gurdweill opened his mouth to tell him about the murder -- when suddenly heavy iron cables began coming out of his mouth and falling in a pile at his feet, and with them a spurt of blood"), as well as a cast of characters pushed to mental unbalance. Gurdweill is -- perhaps surprisingly -- not especially fragile, but obviously has issues -- and Vogel seems to offer some Freudian explanations for them, including with Gurdweill's account of his first sexual experience, at age fifteen, at the hands of the maid, who: "led me to the couch and sat me down like a little baby"; predictably, too, he acknowledges: "Afterward ? Afterward I was miserable". Depravity is also in the air, most notably in the form of the friendly Heidelbergers, Franzl and Gustl, the husband repeatedly egging Gurdweill on to have his way with Gustl (and cheerfully proposing "a little swop" when he meets Gurdweill with Thea). Meanwhile, Lotte recounts fantasies of imagining bashing her sleeping parents' heads in, and Vogel describes her hatred for Thea as one so strong it: "could drive a person insane". And Thea and the way she toys with Gurdweill of course suggests deep-rooted psychological issues as well.
       Practically no famous writers, philosophers, or medical experts are mentioned by name, but among the unnamed figures that clearly lurk behind this work are Otto Weininger and Freud; that these were the (professionally) formative years of Wilhelm Reich completes the picture.
       As to any tensions in the air of the times between the Jewish and German(ic) cultures, what's striking is that these are generally much more subtly slipped in. Not always -- shocked Lotte laughingly suggests: "One day he'll start a pogrom against us !" when she learns of Gurdweill's engagement to Thea, and there is one ugly confrontation on a tram with an anti-Semite -- but usually. So, for example, when Thea sends him out for food and drink on Christmas, Gurdweill thinks to himself: "We could really have done without the pork chops" -- an observation that hardly even seems ambiguous at that point: he simply thinks pork chops are superfluous, but even though it goes unmentioned that, as an assimilated Jew, Gurdweill doesn't give a second thought as to what is or isn't kosher, there's no question that this particular choice is just one more way of Thea rubbing it in, that what she wants is all that counts, and that any of his possible concerns are no concerns at all. (Thea, in fact, coverts to Judaism before their hurried wedding -- uncomplainingly and even eagerly, but in such a playful way that it's like it's all a game to her (as this whole marriage-business in a way seems to be).)
       More intriguing -- and reinforcing Vogel's interest in psychology -- is the story of a young woman, Franzi Mitteldorfer, whom Gurdweill comes to the aid of in the city -- showing him, incidentally, to be a man of action, capable of taking matters in his own hands when need be. A fragile woman of some mental instability, he accompanies her home. When he meets her mother six months later he learns that Franzi has been institutionalized, at the infamous Steinhof psychiatric clinic. Her mother mentions that she came under the care of Professor Wagner-Jauregg there -- a figure more notorious in our day than theirs, but who even then, despite international acclaim (he won a Nobel Prize in 1927), certainly enjoyed a specific reputation. (In later years Wagner-Jauregg came to embrace Nazism, including its unscientific racial ideology.) It seems telling that Vogel would avoid mention of Freud and other noted psychiatrists of the day and instead put a patient in care of Wagner-Jauregg -- who also specialized in psychiatry (and, for example, took over Kraft-Ebbing's position at the University of Graz early in his career), but took a more clinical approach.
       Although Gurdweill denies it -- when asked about it at his job interview for example -- he is, at heart, a writer. He has the occasional success, placing short pieces in magazines, but he is still very much in the process of becoming a writer. Recognizing how important writing is to him, Thea immediately undermines it as best she can -- though she made her position entirely clear from the outset:
What are all these calculations good for ? At the most -- writing books for old maids and weak, impotent men -- a miserable surrogate ! Real, vibrant life wants nothing to do with calculations ! What matters is passion, boldness, force !
       Whatever Gurdweill's qualities, he lacks -- and knows he lacks -- passion, boldness, and force. He doesn't stand up to Thea regarding his writing, either, hiding it instead from her -- in no small part because she wants to consign his manuscripts to the flames at any opportunity - and concealing the fact that he still occupies himself with it. (Vogel does not romanticize Gurdweill's writing, presenting it as just another small -- if fundamental -- part of him, but it's nice to see Vogel's feelings about literature prove irrepressible in small asides like a glimpse of: "Young girls just past adolescence [...] sitting and reading romances in the middle of the park [...] blooming even more tenderly in the passionate absorption of their reading".) Thankfully, Married Life is not a book about a failed or frustrated writer -- or rather, though it is, that's a very small part of it, largely bubbling beneath the surface and rarely dwelt on at much length (as contemporary writers would be wont to do).
       Thea becomes pregnant -- and, typically, cruelly teases Gurdweill that it's not his, and that she might not keep it. Gurdweill, however, sees here a turning point and something to dedicate himself to: he's certain Thea won't abort the child, and he puts the idea that it might not be his out of his mind. When the child is born, Gurdweill becomes the primary caregiver, Thea going back to her old independently carousing ways as soon as possible, annoyed to have to rush home during her lunch-break to (breast)feed the infant.
       The portrait of Gurdweill taking care of his infant son is strikingly 'modern' -- and must have been far more striking at the time the novel was written. He is the only male among the nannies and mothers he meets -- and who all think it's rather shocking that the child doesn't have a female figure taking care of him. But Gurdweill is devoted and capable -- even though it brings him no closer to Thea.
       Lotte continues to pine for Gurdweill, but no matter what she says can not make him see what's in front of him. And he simply can't envision leaving Thea. It takes tragedy to shake him up, and a one-two punch of devastating losses finally push him to the breaking point -- and when Thea cruelly pushes him just a bit farther, almost literally rubbing his nose in her betrayals of him, he finally, tragically shatters.
       Married Life is a restless novel of 1920s Vienna. Gurdweill seems constantly on the move, wandering around the city on foot and by tram. In a sort of daze he seems to try to escape it at the very end, making it to Klosterneuburg, but he can not break free of the city's hold.
       Times are hard, yet there is a casualness to the way everyone deals with these circumstances. Life remains very public and social, with Gurdweill constantly meeting or looking for his friends in cafés -- as often as not spending his last schillings in the process --, or being invited for coffee, drinks, or dinner. Once, when Thea throws him out of their apartment, he ventures to Vienna's most famous homeless shelter, where people can be fed and sleep for up to five nights. Gurdweill goes there almost like a tourist, to get a feel for the place and see what it is like -- though no doubt worried that he too might wind up not having any other options at some point. It's an odd episode in the novel -- in part also because considerable space is devoted to the backstory of the man who has the bed beside him -- but adds to the overall Vienna-atmosphere.
       Married Life is, above all, a psychological novel -- in particular a novel of psychological collapse. "'Ah, I'm mad, mad !' he groaned", Gurdweill eventually comes to realize, though for him and many of the others it's all a matter of degrees throughout the novel.
       The cruel, nymphomaniacal Thea is less physical than psychological sadist, but it's surely no coincidence that she, like Sacher-Masoch's most (in)famous mistress, is a Baroness. Vogel falls a bit short in convincingly explaining Gurdweill's devotion to her, but much of the psychological portrayal otherwise -- Lotte's love and Gurdweill's blindness to it; Gurdweill's parental love for his son -- is well done.
       Though tending occasionally too easily towards what might be considered the hysterical -- or at least the very feverish (and yes, fevers also figure here -- in a novel in which there are surprisingly many medical consultations and hospital stays) -- and not quite managing to bring the characters fully to life -- flighty Thea, in particular, is in all respects an elusive figure -- Married Life is a fascinating period novel, especially in comparison to the German-language novels of Vienna of the time, and holds up quite well beyond that, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2014

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Married Life: Reviews: David Vogel:
  • David Vogel at the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Other books by David Vogel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Born in 1891 in what is now Russia, Hebrew-writing David Vogel (דוד פוגל) lived in Austria, Palestine, and Paris, and died in Auschwitz in 1944.

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