The Big Baroness and the Little Jew : MARRIED LIFE by David Vogel translated by Dalya Bilu (Grove Press: $18.95; 486 pp.; 0-8021-1129-7)

The poet and novelist David Vogel (1891-1944) lived and died a guilty man. For the inescapable crime of being what he was, he was imprisoned three times--first by the Austrians, during World War I, for having been born in Russian Poland (he was therefore a Russian enemy alien); then by the French, at the outbreak of World War II, for having lived in Vienna (he was therefore an Austrian enemy alien); finally by the Nazis, for his most heinous crime (he was a Jew). Vogel died in 1944, probably at Auschwitz.

Vogel's sole novel, "Married Life," was originally published in Hebrew in 1929; it is only now appearing for the first time in English. 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.

That world is Vienna after World War I, which Vogel knew well from more than a decade's residence--a milieu of economic and social decay. Vogel's novel is peopled almost exclusively with victims and victimizers. Chief among the former is the protagonist, Rudolf Gurdweill, a poor Jewish writer who in the opening pages meets by (malign) chance his cruel complement, the almost-as-poor Baroness Thea von Takow, a tall, blond and fair fury with eyes of steely blue--emphatically not a Jew. Vogel is uninterested in maintaining suspense: Of Gurdweill's first sighting of the baroness, he writes, "Gurdweill could not take his eyes off her. He suddenly felt a vague unease, as if at the premonition of disaster."

When fate is inevitable, premonitions never miscarry. Recognizing this, on some level, Gurdweill embraces his scourge (only the first of many times in the novel that he will court disaster) and his and Thea's relationship progresses with convenient, if highly improbable, speed. At their second meeting, the baroness suddenly proposes marriage--nothing but the title of the book has prepared us for this--and when Gurdweill accepts, she takes him to a shabby hotel room where she attacks him "like a beast of prey," bites him with "a cruel, bloodthirsty expression on her face" and more or less rapes him. For his part, the diminutive Gurdweill nearly faints "with pain and desire at once."

And we're off and running. Vogel's chronicles of the eponymous life of this sadomasochistic couple keeps belying one's conviction that things could not possibly get worse. The baroness is unfaithful, and so open about it that Gurdweill's unwillingness to suspect her becomes ludicrous, irritating. Gurdweill desperately wants a son, and when Thea becomes pregnant she taunts him with assertions that the child is not his (it clearly isn't), yet he refuses to believe this also, and takes sole care of the child when it is born, leaving Thea free for more affairs.

Vogel seems at first to be intending an allegory--the publisher's blurb affirms as much--of the Viennese Jews' relationship with their city: Vienna nurtured an exuberant rise in anti-Semitism between the wars, to which many Jews turned a blind eye, unable to believe that European Jewry's most illustrious and assimilated community could be annihilated by barbarians as comic-book black as the Nazis.

The characters certainly seem allegorical, since they don't stand up well as believable people--none of Gurdweill's sketchy past explains his exhausting hypersensitivity, his chronic need for abasement; and Thea is simply a monster, without a shred of human feeling other than a rampant and unquenchable thirst for giving pain.

But curiously, after one or two nods in the direction of allegory--such as Gurdweill telling his friend Ulrich that Thea has "something of the old Viennese tradition" about her--Vogel fails to carry it through. Thea is actually not much of an anti-Semite: Her simplistic Nietzschean pronouncements about the rule of the strong (the pop-sociology of that period) are directed against her husband not because he is a Jew, but because he is weak, and her sadism is just too energetic, too generalized, to admit of racial restrictions.

Instead, curiously, whiffs of anti-Semitism emanate from the book itself: Vogel makes Gurdweill positively grotesque in his slavishness, repeatedly contrasting his "skinny, underdeveloped, almost hairless" body with the tall, erect and strong Thea who picks him up, throws him around, rocks him in her arms in her moments of ursine affection and calls him "Rabbit," a moniker which is unfair, as the old joke goes, only to the rabbit.

Gurdweill kisses the hand that beats him, stammering, "You don't know how m-much you mean to me . . . I would be prepared to take anything from you." When, after his first night with her, Gurdweill stands in the street, battered, bruised, but sick with love and longing, "enslaved to her, to this strapping blond girl, forever" the parallel that comes to mind is Richard Wagner's Alberich, the loathsome dwarfish Jew-caricature of "Das Rheingold," pining after the haughty Aryan Rhinemaidens.

Unsatisfying in the big ways, "Married Life" can be good in the small. When the child is born, Gurdweill has something to love other than Thea, and his tenderness for the baby is nicely evoked; he becomes fleetingly sympathetic.

Some of the minor characters, although as bizarre and flat as the major ones, remain vivid, thanks to their brief time on the stage. Franzl Heidelberger, for example, bemoans his wife's unfaithfulness when he is drunk, but is cheerfully determined, all the rest of the time, on getting his wife and Gurdweill to sleep together. Thea's brother, the gawky young Freddy, is a compulsive talker and sniggerer who likes to strangle cats.

As the lunatics multiply, the novel takes on the aspect of a fever-dream. The best parts of the book, in fact, are the long dream sequences in the latter third, in which Gurdweill's mind, pushed to the brink by Thea, lurches from one wild fantasy to another; here, Vogel maintains a masterful balance between convincingly random confusion and subtle symbolic resonance, in which the influence of the early Freud influence is unmistakable.

But a book of nearly 500 pages needs to provide an emotional connection, no matter how small or perverse, to keep the reader reading, and except for the brief middle stretch when the baby is alive, "Married Life" lacks one. Slowly--too slowly--Gurdweill spirals ever lower, unable to exert the slightest energy to save himself. His single decisive act, at the novel's end, comes too late: One closes the book not with a sense of outrage but with a resignation so deep it is indistinguishable from indifference.

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