<p></p>

MEMOIR
By Jakob Wassermann (trans., Michael Hofmann)
Penguin, $29.95

TODAY the German novelist, biographer and essayist Jakob Wassermann is all but forgotten, yet in the 1920s and '30s he was among the world's most translated and popular authors, his works lauded by people such as Arnold Bennett and Thomas Mann, his friendships a who's who of Europe's cultural elite.

Born in 1873, a Jew in a country noted for its anti-Semitism, he was largely self-taught and enjoyed his first big popular success with the novel The Jews of Zirndorf (1897). In 1900, he met the 24-year-old Julie Speyer and married her on January 6, 1901. It was the worst mistake of his life. Unknowingly, he had married a monster. Following their separation in 1919, she pursued him relentlessly with an army of constantly changing lawyers seeking money above and beyond the sums awarded by the courts.

And when in 1919 Wassermann formed an alliance with Marta Karlweis, a married woman, and eventually married her in 1926 after wresting a financially punishing divorce from the implacable Julie, his torments only intensified.

To satisfy his creditors and maintain his ex-wife's alimony, Wassermann, like Balzac and Sir Walter Scott, had to overproduce the fiction that provided his income. That's why his oeuvre is disconcertingly uneven. At its best, as in Caspar Hauser (1924) and especially The Maurizius Case (1928), it is masterly. At other times it is bombastic and formulaic.

Harassed by the formidable Julie, who even after their divorce refused to cease interfering in his life, Wassermann's health swiftly deteriorated. However, before he died on January 1, 1934, he managed to complete his final testamentary novel, Joseph Kerkhoven's Third Existence, intended as a sequel to The Maurizius Case and featuring many of the same principal characters.

About one-third into the book, the narrative is interrupted by a lengthy self-contained work titled Ganna, a no-holds-barred autobiographical account of Wassermann's first marriage: ''Only the names have been changed,'' as the saying goes.

It is this discrete work that now comes to us under the title My First Wife, in a translation by the usually reliable Michael Hofmann, who has done much to familiarise English-speaking readers with the work of Joseph Roth, among others.

Here, though, the text is disfigured by inelegant non-words such as ''squinny'' and ''chunkering'' and anachronistic vernacular expressions such as ''a kick in the slats''. The equivalent 1934 translation by the husband-and-wife team of Eden and Cedar Paul may not be ideal, but to my mind it is altogether preferable to the new one.

Still, the full horror of Ganna-Julie, the spouse from hell, does come through. It's a vivid, pitiless portrait. Its nearest fictional equivalent is probably Ludwig Lewisohn's similarly autobiographical The Case of Mr Crump (1926); odd to note that Lewisohn, an American, translated at least two of Wassermann's novels into English.

Julie reacted badly to the posthumous publication of Ganna, which offered the world a distinctly unflattering portrait of herself. In an attempt to counteract its unsympathetic image, she put together a collection of Wassermann's letters to her written from the time of their engagement in 1900 until the correspondence apparently ceased in 1923. Her evident intention was to show the affection and esteem in which, by implication, he had held her. If so, she failed miserably.

His very last published letter, dated December 2, 1923, complains bitterly about his being ''almost penniless'' and having to send her 10 million crowns (this was at the height of the post-World War I German inflation).

Fate played a dirty trick on the hapless Jakob Wassermann. It sentenced him to a premature death caused chiefly by the suffering he experienced at the hands of his first wife, at the same time allowing her to outlive him by more than 30 years and to die at 87 in 1963.

If My First Wife sparks renewed interest in its author and leads to republication of his best books in English, it will have served a worthwhile purpose.