Sunday, May 17, 2015
Hausfrau: a Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum
"Is there a difference between shame and guilt?"
"What's the difference between a need and a want?"
Early on in Hausfrau: a Novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum, these are questions Anna Benz asks of Doktor Messerli, her Jungian psychoanalyst. Anna is an American living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband, Bruno. They have three children. Anna speaks little German. Anna does not drive (but instead rides trains, and those trains are a major motif of this novel). Anna is bored. With Bruno's encouragement, she is seeing the psychoanalyst and taking a German language class. Anna has many secrets. Readers learn of the first secret within the first few pages of the novel: that Anna is having a sexual affair with a classmate, Archie. Nor is the affair with Archie her first dalliance.
SPOILER ALERT: Another secret haunts Anna every day: her youngest child was not fathered by Bruno, but by an American man named Stephen who has gone back to America. Anna thinks she truly loved Stephen. The affairs since then seem to mean less.
"How did I become so unprincipled?" Anna asks herself. And that is but one of many such interior monologues the readers of Hausfrau are given. Anna's interior self is in turmoil. I was scared for Anna. I had hopes for Anna. At times it seemed as if Anna was on the brink of setting herself free from her troubles. But the web of secrets she has created is gossamer thin and ultimately breaks.
I can well imagine this book being included in reading lists at women's study degree programs, alongside Erica Jung's Fear of Flying, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Chopin's The Awakening. For some, the novel will be controversial simply because of the explicit sexual content. Hausfrau will not be forgotten. I believe it is a literary masterpiece, a grand tragedy, a perfectly Jungian shadow tale. Anna's self awareness grows due to analysis and I loved the way Essbaum showed how the threads of wisdom from therapy do have some effect on this troubled woman's behavior. I have always been a character-based reader. This novel took me deep into an unforgettable character's sins and solitude. But to say this book is character-based does not mean there is no plot. There is much movement and energy to the plot, no matter that Anna's housewifely ennui is ever strong.
The very last line of Hausfrau is so accomplished, so fait accompli... And right before that denouement, what is the last thought of Anna's we are privy to? "Let this not become me." Achingly human, hopelessly headlong, as inevitable as the regularity of the Swiss train system timetables, Anna's foretelling of her own fate can not save her. A stunning ending, a stunning novel.