"Golowin" (Novel, 1920) begins in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, five months – or thereabouts – after the outbreak of the revolution (Wassermann does not specify which revolution this is – I assume, as the story opens in mid-May, it is the October revolution of 1917). German-born Maria von Krudener, ‘a lady of the highest society, an officer’s wife, the bearer of a celebrated name’ is searching for her husband Alexander who, when the revolution broke out, ‘escaped to the Anglo-Russian front in Persia’. In tow, Maria has her four children, as well as three maid servants. After a perilous train journey, they arrive at the Palace Hotel, where other wealthy refugees are hiding out, in a kind of glittering limbo, while outside the country tears itself apart. The position of these well-heeled guests is a precarious one: at any moment they might be arrested, or worse; yet many still pretend to be unaware of the danger.
Maria, in contrast, seems more firmly rooted in reality. She has an almost instinctive ability to empathise with others, regardless of background or status. This ability attracts the attention of another guest, Princess Nelidov. The two women talk one evening, a conversation which forms the first major episode in the story.
Princess Nelidov - out of something other than idle curiosity, the text hints - asks Maria how she manages to remain faithful to her absent husband, a man who, throughout their marriage, has exercised a strict, paternalistic authority over Maria. ‘“Tell me,”’ the Princess asks, ‘“wasn’t it an unbearable despotism? Occasionally, only occasionally? Don’t you feel deep within you a sense of freedom, or at least spaciousness? Has not a burden been lifted from you despite all your love?”’ After some evasion, Maria answers:
‘“Your question was like a sudden flare. It blinded me. The truth? If I only knew. I believe it is to be found in fear. Wherever the abyss lies, there lies the truth. My free will had indeed been taken from me, but I had not the slightest desire or cause to make any further choice. My choice had been irrevocable. You remarked that the devil had no place in my house. That is appallingly true; and, therefore, I have to be very brave, criminally brave, perhaps, for I have chosen the side of the angels. I do not deny that temptation might exist for me. Who is ever free of temptation? Blood is a terrifying power. But if I were forced to choose again, I should have to make the entire circle to the other pole from my first choice. One cannot choose the divine twice, any more than one can grope around and experiment with it. If ever I have to choose again, there will be only one choice possible: the devil. Only the devil could lead me into temptation.”’
Even given the context, this is a strange conversation for two wealthy women taking refuge in a luxurious hotel. Wassermann doubtless wants us to interpret the deeper significance of the scene. Maria’s absent husband symbolises God, but also the old order, which, at that moment, is crumbling all around them. Maria has the chance to free herself from both – she is under no compulsion to find her husband, and might easily, owing to her gift of empathy, find a place in the new order – yet for now she resists temptation.
At the first opportunity, she leaves the hotel with her children and servants in order to continue her search. As the journey becomes more hazardous so their new surroundings become less respectable. The refugees are forced to take shelter at an inn. The scene is now set for the arrival of the devil.
He appears in the form of Igor Golovin, leader of a group of sailors who have taken control of the city. When Golovin walks into the inn demanding a room, he is told that Maria and her family have taken the only suitable quarters. In the confrontation that follows, Maria and Golovin reveal an instinctive, mutual dislike. But as the story shifts it becomes clear that Golovin, at least, has other feelings. He threatens Maria with arrest – hinting that her life and the lives of her children are at risk – unless she agrees to spend one night alone with him in the garret room he has meanwhile moved in to. Maria refuses, assuming he intends to rape her. But Golovin assures her he will not touch her, or molest her in any way. Still thinking he plans to assault her, but realising she has no choice, Maria sneaks into his room in the middle of the night. They talk – and the conversation between them forms the second major incident in the story, a deliberate counterpoint to Maria’s conversation with the Princess.
This time, it becomes clear that Maria is talking to someone far more diabolical (albeit, attractively so). The question, now, is will he succeed in tempting her?
Golovin’s life – revealed with breezy insouciance – is a direct contrast to Maria’s orderly, submissive existence (...) [Jakob Wassermann continues the themes of temptation and sensuality; set in background of "revolutionary Russia"].
[Golovin] ‘“-- To put it in a word: I was longing for my equal, my equal in sensuality. And there you are, Maria Yakovlevna. It is you I long to possess.”’
Golovin succeeds in ‘gliding in’, in tempting Maria, because what he offers her is a glimpse of freedom. Paradoxically, this glimpse is enough to enthral her for the rest of her life. When morning comes, Maria leaves, physically untouched, yet forever changed. She goes on searching for her husband (the absent patriarchal figure), but knows now that, should she find him, there will still be doubt in her mind. (...) Golovin - and his promise of liberation - remains tantalisingly in the background; ever-visible yet always out of reach.
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