It will not surprise a contemporary reader that a young housewife, neglected by her husband, will find affection elsewhere. Nor did it likely surprise Ludwig Thoma’s audience in 1919 when Münchnerinnen (Munich Ladies) was published. The book is set in the late 1800s, when people would have felt it necessary to affect surprise, though given the amount of scheming and winking in the pages of Münchnerinnen nobody would have been surprised back then either.
Thoma follows the unhappy marriage of Benno and Paula Globerger. Benno is the heir to and proprietor of a shop in downtown Munich, what in Germany is known as a Feinkostladen: coffee, tea, sweets, some baked goods. In the time of the story, it might also have been a Kolonialwarenladen, a store for what were then unapologetically called “colonial wares.” When he first took over the store, he dreamed of making it something special, of cutting deals with the most exclusive importers, of competing with Munich’s finest locales. By the time of the story, though, his ambition has flagged. Benno is fundamentally lazy and never follows through on his big dreams. Moreover, Munich’s finest society is not exactly open to newcomers. His mother keeps a lid on his attempts to make more of the store than his father did. As Münchnerinnen opens, four years or so into the Globerger’s marriage, Benno is in the habit of leaving the store in the late morning to go and drink wine with his buddies at a local institution. When he can, he spends his evenings playing cards, and drinking, with male friends.
Against Benno’s preferences, he agrees to spend his name day in the countryside with his wife, a friend, and the friend’s wife. The mountains south of Munich are idyllic, and the two pairs are in a lovely area near a lake. It turns out, though, that Benno’s idea of countryside is a restaurant, where he and his friend promptly overindulge, take a room to nap in, and then settle down to a card game with a third man they have found to complete the round. (Germany has several traditional three-handed card games, which I don’t pretend to understand.) Left to their own devices, the wives wander down to the lakeside, where they are soon offered an excursion on a boat, paddled by a young student they had seen on the train down plus a friend of his. Well.
Paula has scruples, her slightly older friend Resi Schegerer does not. The boat ride takes them all out to an island in the lake. Resi and Otto go for a walk, disappear for a while, and return much refreshed. Paula and Franz make it through some stilted conversation, but Paula cannot deny the attraction. Later on, when she receives a letter from Franz suggesting they meet in the English Garden, Paula thinks she can’t possibly go but has no way to tell him so, and she couldn’t just leave him there waiting and never show up, that would be so terribly impolite. On the way, she tells herself that she is going just to tell him no thank you and how inappropriate it all is, but when she gets there? “His voice was tense with emotion when he talked about his soul and his loneliness … That made an impression on Paula. Again and again she laid her hand on his, and when he spoke of the remarkable trust that had flowed from her to him at first sight, she held it fast.” (p. 61)
And so the story goes where it was obviously going to go the whole time. The first scenes with Benno showed him as a buffoon, out of his depth in a shallow pool, but meaning well and basically harmless. They were also funny, small farces of clerks pretending to work, a boss pretending to be in charge, and customers both odd and oblivious. As the book proceeds, Benno becomes less and less sympathetic. That mirrors Paula’s feelings towards him — her affair shows her some of what life could be with affection in it, and she becomes both less patient with Benno as a person and less meek in her role as a housewife with a live-in mother-in-law. Unfortunately, an unsympathetic Benno was not interesting for me to read about, and I found myself skimming his scenes.
One aspect I did particularly like about Münchnerinnen was Thoma’s depiction of a city in the middle of explosive growth. Munich was bursting out of its medieval confines, with development expected along the streets alongside the new main train station. The neighborhoods in Schwabing and south of Sendlinger Tor were just being built up. One subplot turns on a small and old house that is blocking new development on the western edge of the English Garden. “Up until recently that had still been a village with little houses and cute gardens in front of them. Now most of them had disappeared and made room for bleak tenements, out of whose windows peered the morose sullenness of penned-up people.” (p. 98) The funny things is that these tenements, which Thoma describes on the next page as “heaps of stone” are now regarded as gorgeous examples of Belle Époque and Art Nouveau architecture. One century’s monstrosities are the treasured gems of the next.
Practically all of Thoma’s dialog is written in Bavarian dialect, which is accurate for the time and place but might well be tough sledding even for a fluent German speaker who had not spent much time in the country’s southern parts. I found it less artful than Lena Christ’s use of the same in Die Rumplhanni, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.
I also liked Thoma’s ambiguous ending, or maybe more accurately, his willingness to stop before the actions reached their probable conclusions. (Hundred-year-old spoilers, sorry.) Benno’s erstwhile partners in a real-estate scheme are very likely going to screw him. Resi has grown tired of Otto, and both of them know that was a short fling. Herr Schegerer will no more figure in what that Munich lady does than he has in the rest of the book. Franz has received visitors from his home region, including a daughter he knew when they were both kids who has grown up very nicely indeed. They are a much more suitable match than the student and the merchant’s wife. And Paula? She is distraught at what she can see is about to happen, but at least she is not saying — even to herself — that what she had with Franz will never be repeated. She has come to know herself better. Perhaps she will find accommodation, if not exactly happiness.