Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig

January 29th, 2012

Cover of first US edition of 'Young Woman of 1914'Young Woman of 1914 (1931) is the first in narrative order and the second in order of publication of Arnold Zweig’s tetralogy of the First World War (the others are The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927), Education before Verdun (1935) and The Crowning of a King (1937)). Calling this a tetralogy, however, should not imply that there are such strong links among the books that they need to be read in sequence or even in totality. Aside from the character of the writer and draftee Werner Bertin–a major character in this novel and a supporting one in the others–and a few other minor characters and events, the common bond among the books is one of context, not content.

The young woman of the title is Leonore Wahl, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker in Berlin, university student and eager follower of the intellectual radicals of her time. She meets and has an affair with Werner Bertin, a rising young writer of a more modest family. I hesitate to say that she falls in love with Bertin, because although the two develop a relationship that continues when Bertin is enlisted into the German Army Services Corps and shipped off to a series of postings, Zweig makes it clear that neither is quite ready to put head over heart.

Until Leonore finds that she is pregnant, that is–or at least, until she deals with this fact. If Young Woman of 1914 is remembered at all today, it is as one of the earliest and frankest accounts of abortion. Given her youth, her situation as a single woman, and her awareness of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of her feelings for Bertin, she decides to have an abortion. Although illegal at the time, safe but surreptitious abortions could be found if one had sufficient funds and guile. With the help of her brother, Leonore locates a doctor who performs the procedure:

Leonore, outstretched on the examination chair, uttered no more than a sharp gasping moan as she clutched its metal edges. On each side of her a Sister held down her arms and shoulders with dragoon-like fists. The violence of the onslaught almost deprived her of consciousness. Her heart seemed to change into an organ sensitive to pain, and she felt as though it were splitting within her breast; an engulfing surge of torment swept over her forehead and temples.

“Poor creatures, they always had to pay the bill,” the doctor muses.

This excerpt gives a sense of the ham-fistedness of Zweig’s style–or at least of Eric Sutton’s translation–that turns the experience of reading his novels into something akin to hiking through thick underbrush. It’s unfortunate, as the basic story here is actually quite modern. When Bertin meets Leonore again, he does feel and express some remorse, but mostly to be seen to care. In truth, what she’s gone through is alien and a little distasteful to him.

Having seen a little of combat and a great deal of the drudgery and boredom of army life, though, Bertin has a much greater appreciation for the comfort of a loving relationship, and Leonore herself seems prepared at last to find refuge in the tenderness they feel for each other. They decide to marry, if only to postpone Bertin’s quick return to the front. And as she sees him off at the train station, she thinks, “It was none other than love that had come upon her–love that suffers, schemes, creates: just love.”

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s full of fine moments, such as a walk Bertin takes through the streets of a Bosnian town while serving on the Balkan front, where Zweig captures the flow of life that goes on despite the big-H history happening all around it. And in the relationship of Leonore and Bertin, he does a good job of conveying the awkwardness of lovers who need to establish an intellectual equality before confronting their real feelings for each other. On the other hand, what would have been a little masterpiece if pared down a to around 150 pages takes Zweig over 380 pages to tell. And this is one of Arnold Zweig’s shortest books! It’s no surprise to discover that he went on to become a key literary figure in East Germany. There is a certain Marx-like windbagishness in his writing. Stefan Zweig–no relation–would have dealt with this in a novella.


Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig, translated by Eric Sutton
London: Martin Secker, 1932

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