Review of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
(Random House, New York, March 2015) The lead character in Hausfrau, “Anna Benz”, must be one of the most disagreeable people I have had the misfortune to experience in a novel. Not vicious or dangerous, but rather self-indulgent, passive, helpless, self-pitying, weak, out of control, and needy oh, good grief, so needy. To create such a memorably exasperating creature takes skill, so congratulations to Essbaum. All I could say at the end of this story of predestination, adultery, German grammar and psychoanalysis set in a charming Zurich suburb, was “good riddance”. I wondered, after I had finished it, what the point was – why Essbaum wrote this and what it is. It is rather the opposite of an erotic romance (in the Harlequin Desire mode) which is typically a story about the development of a romantic relationship through sex. This was the story of the death of romance through sex. And it’s not pure erotica, since there is more to the novel than that. But if it is actually a modern parable, the moral being something along the line of “The Wages of Sin Is Death”, then it’s cleverly done – but by no means short or simplistic. A parable often involves a character who faces a moral dilemma or one who makes a bad decision and then suffers the unintended consequences. Although the meaning of a parable is often not explicitly stated, it is not intended to be hidden or secret but, on the contrary, quite straightforward and obvious – as in this case: don’t cheat on your husband, don’t sleep around. Or, on a deeper level – get a life.
Subtext of the parable
The defining characteristic of a parable is the presence of a subtext suggesting how a person should behave or what they should believe – provided here by mainly Anna’s psychiatrist, “Dr. Messerli”, the rules of German grammar, and Swiss culture and norms. While I appreciated Essbaum’s clever wordplays in German and English, (being fluent in both languages) I did not think that the subtexts on German grammar and psychoanalysis were integrated well enough into the narrative, making the structure fragmented or episodic. However, Essbaum’s descriptions of the Swiss, Dietlikon, where Anna lives, of Zurich itself, and of the trains that connect the two, are captivating and some of the best parts of this novel. Aside from providing guidance for proper conduct, parables frequently use metaphors to illustrate a problem – here, it is fire and how it behaves, courtesy of Anna’s ex-lover.
Anna, an American living in privileged and civilized Zurich, is contrasted with her more or less decent friends and family – rather less, not more. But on the whole, this is not about them but about Anna and her explicit, in your face, no holds barred, sexual encounters. It really is horniness laid bare, pardon the pun. As Andrew O’Hagan said about 50 Shades of Grey,
“When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh.”
I also sometimes wanted to laugh – or just hurriedly flip to the next page – when reading about Anna and her various lovers, skipping out of class or out of parties or into the woods, and ripping each other’s clothes off. O’Hagan comments that “It’s not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E.L. James’s other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote.”
This book reads the same. The character Anna is described as almost antiquated in her handwringing helplessness and lack of control of her urges. She meets a man and a few minutes later makes it clear what she wants. And off they go. That doesn’t say much for the men either – but they, at least, are single. She has an education, beauty and freedom. And does nothing with those assets.
”[Dr. Messerli asks] Did Anna not worry that she perpetuated the stereotype of the fragile, subjugated woman? That excepting her manner of dress and the language she used and the Handy [cell phone] in her purse there was little to distinguish her from a woman who lived fifty, seventy, one hundred years earlier? They didn’t drive cars or have bank accounts either. Didn’t she understand she could be anything she wanted to be? Didn’t she think she had a responsibility to be something?” (p. 131)
She has beautiful clothes, a nice house, husband and children, one of whom is obviously illegitimate. Her husband knows but forgives her – up to a point. She leaves her children to her mother-in-law to care for, and goes to German classes and psychotherapy. She does nothing useful. The German classes are excuses for flirting and sex afterwards, which the author brings up with monotonous regularity. The shrink sessions are opportunities for the author to point out the myriad of things that might be wrong with this person (not knowing about Anna’s affairs or the child out of wedlock). Does she hate everything Swiss? Is she depressive? Bipolar? Hormonally imbalanced? Repressed? Neurotic? In denial? Or worse, typical or normal? Or just plain stupid? I never figured out the answer.
Her final thoughts are “I was a good wife, mostly” (p. 320). The depiction of the housewives in this novel is an indictment of (house)wives (Hausfrauen) everywhere. They are, as a group, superficially nice and friendly but turn out to be bored, salacious, scheming, dishonest and inclined to betray people. These Hausfrauen have no redeeming characteristics. The reader cannot even feel pity for Anna or her friends.
The moral of the story is…
Ultimately, it all goes badly wrong – pregnancy, marriage ruined, death. While there are very few references to current events, I deduced the novel is set round about 2007 (there is a reference to the guardian angel by the French-Swiss painter and sculptor Niki de St. Phalle in the large hall in Zurich’s main station which has hung there 1997, the same time Anna has been in Zurich – about ten years.) In which case, Anna’s biggest risk with sleeping around with strangers without condoms would not have been pregnancy or discovery, but STDs or HIV. I wonder why the author skipped this angle.
In parables, an abstract argument is explained by means of a concrete narrative which is easily understood – as it is in this novel, where the plot proceeds quite predictably for the reader. Ultimately, Anna does what the reader expects and throws herself under a train like a lemming off a cliff, making the trains run late, showing socially unacceptable behaviour to the last.
There is no complicated time structure here – there are flashbacks, but Anna marches to her demise on the last page with an irritating certainty, as irritating as her stupid idea that she has no choices or other options. The structure of the novel is also predictable: German grammar lesson. Sex. Jungian psychology. Flashback. Current event. Then more of the same sections, in that order. By doing that, Essbaum has actually matched the structure of the novel with Anna’s character, which means that she typically compartmentalizes or sections off her love affairs from her family life, studies and friendships. Finally, after she has lost everything, including her husband, child, friends, doctor, lovers, and prosaically, suitcase and handbag, she says:
“All is predetermined. The things I do, I cannot help. Everything that will happen already has.” (p. 319)
Depicting Anna as being unable to grasp the concept of personal choice, Essbaum has either created a one-dimensional character, or a haunting, flawed one. I think the character of Anna is flawed yet I find it hard to believe that any person can be so confused and weak, and so determined and blatant at the same time, which is what the author wants us to believe:
“Oh, Anna. You had this coming, she thought. Anna knew there was something broken in her line of reasoning. No one ever has it coming, of course. But…she wasn’t the textbook example of a battered wife. She hadn’t been victimized into believing she deserved what she got. She decided it all on her own.” (p. 287)
The genre of Hausfrau
Other reviewers have commented that the novel is simply a portrayal of someone losing their mind. If so, losing their mind from what? A love affair that was just about sex, not love? A “broken heart”? As Anna comments, a heart is made of muscle, not bone. It cannot break. She does not become delusional and start hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. She just carries on behaving badly – she’s not mad, just bad.
In Nightingale ) an 83-minute film set in one place with only one actor, David Oyelowo depicts Peter Snowden, who slowly loses his mind. But he has reason to be insane and has been heading that way for a long time, culminating with him murdering his mother. Everything he does has a creepy sense of edging towards the final step of losing his grip with sanity. He is a war veteran to whom something really bad happened, he talks to himself, he has no concept of reality at all, he stalks a former friend, he threatens people over the phone, he lives with a corpse in the house, for heaven’s sake. Now that, I would day, is an excellent depiction of descent into madness. Not so Anna Benz.
Is the author to be praised for creating a novel of such unrelenting inevitability, in theme, plot and characterization – or not? Would it have been better to end the novel with Anna staying alive, learning something about herself, or making a new start? Or is this single-minded, grim procession a far more daring, unconventional choice for the author? I suspect the latter. My advice, read this if you can stomach it, and then go shake out the miasma that Hausfrau will leave in your head by reading something about clever, independent women.
Background to the novel
In Essbaum’s own words: “I spent two years in Switzerland. Living in a land where mine was not the native tongue was difficult, frustrating, lonely. I was exiled from my own language, which became a source of profound anxiety. During that time and to cope with my uneasiness, I tried very hard to lay low and blend into the crowd (so un-American, right?). Of course I never accomplished this to any real degree of success. For even though I did know some German, it never took more than a simple greeting spoken to a stranger for him to recognize not only that I was a foreigner, but an American, to boot (our accents are unmistakable). Moreover, even if I zippered shut my mouth so that nary a shibboleth escaped, the aforementioned stranger was somehow still always able to peg me as an American citizen. Was it something in the way I held my head or how I walked? Did I waft of gunpowder, hamburger grease, consumerism? I’d like to think it was something more diaphanous and slightly nobler than that.”
About the author
Jill Alexander Essbaum (born 1971 in Bay City, Texas) is an established and recognized poet. Her most recent collections are her 3rd and 4th poetry collections Harlot (No Tell Motel, 2007) and Necropolis (neoNuma Arts, 2008). (Here is an interesting review.) She teaches at the University of California Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center in the Masters of Creative Writing Graduate Program. On the title page of Hausfrau, her debut novel, it is simply classified as domestic fiction, psychological fiction, or fiction about married women, adultery or self-realization. Perhaps it is just that simple. Here is her page on poetryfoundation.org – where she looks very different – almost Gothic.