W.: A Novel

Written by Steve Sem-Sandberg
Review by Janice Ottersberg

W. is based on the 1821 true crime story of Johann Christian Woyzeck of Leipzig, who murdered his lover in a jealous rage and the German play, Woyzeck, written by Georg Büchner in 1836. The novel begins with an interrogation of Woyzeck. He tells a confusing, contradictory story of events leading up to the stabbing. His mind is a fog of events. Obviously, his mental stability is in question. What emerges from his ramblings is that he planned to meet Johanna at a garden restaurant, but she doesn’t show. He searches and inquires around all day, learning that she was seen with another soldier. When he finds her, an argument and fight ensue, ending in the stabbing.

The inquest brings to light W.’s background and life in a more coherent narrative. It is a sad life of a man who feels insignificant and ignored by society, never fitting in, and often the subject of heckling. He meanders from job to job, some strange and morbid. He fights in the Napoleonic Wars, first joining the Dutch army, then the Swedish army as the opportunity arises. The middle section detailing the war is long and does drag, but is purposeful in showing the repeated horrors and brutality that W. witnessed. These experiences unquestionably affected an already fragile mind, playing a factor in the murder. Johanna is fickle toward him, showing affection then revulsion. But W. stills clings to her, always pining for her love, then his obsessed and jealous mind snaps.

This is a challenging read. The sentences don’t flow easily and require a slower reading pace, which could be attributed to the translation. Sem-Sandberg successfully creates sympathy in the reader for a man that never found the love and human connection he desperately sought, and shows the man separate from the murderer.