When someone complains about their relationship, there's always part of me that insists on playing the detective. Even as I say what I imagine to be the right things, I am listening carefully for clues, the unintended self-revelations lodged in the grievances. It seems as though I'm lending a sympathetic ear, but part of me is a Pinkerton agent, pumping information.

I have fewer conversations in this genre than I did ten years ago, before my friends and I started getting married, when it was girlfriends and boyfriends who could be complained about. My friends have, I think, made good choices. This must explain some part of it. And we are early in our married lives. But it must also be that, over time, what occurs inside a couple becomes too private, and too painful, to be discussed with anyone on the outside of it.

Jakob Wassermann tells us all of the private and the painful—too much, entirely too much—in My Marriage. Wassermann (1873–1934), a prolific and widely read author in his time, friend to Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, now almost entirely forgotten even in his native Germany, tells here the story of his first marriage, to Julie Speyer—who looks out hauntingly (and, increasingly over the course of the book, unnervingly) from the cover. A thin fictional facade overlays the whole, Wassermann becoming Alexander Herzog and Speyer becoming Ganna Mevis, but as the translator, the brilliant Michael Hofmann, explains in the afterword, this is down to its last detail Wassermann's true confession, the story of his adult life, written with the last of his energy, finished but not published before his early death. "Nothing of significance," Hofmann writes, "has been omitted."

And reading, one appreciates more why so much in usual circumstances is omitted! Because this is the tale not only of one person's undoing—and Wassermann's was utter—but of a relationship that like a natural cataclysm destroys everything in its wake.

The disaster begins, as perhaps many such do, with a self-deception: the impoverished young writer Herzog marries Ganna, the daughter of a wealthy family, even though he does not love her (it will be many years before he even knows what love is, and by then it will in a sense be too late). He is flattered by Ganna's devotion to him, drawn to the security he imagines Ganna's dowry might bring to his life and work, and he is also fascinated by this strange, clumsy, and intensely bookish and impractical young woman, who is unlike anyone he has ever met.

And some of what is most compelling in this riveting narrative is the portrait of Ganna that emerges. Herzog/Wassermann has studied her more closely, one realizes, than another person should be studied—and this is precisely the condition of marriage, that one studies and is studied more closely, perhaps, than is reasonable or fair or decent. Ganna is wonderful: she reads poetry while she cooks, and so produces "meat that looks like charcoal" and "cakes that look like book bindings"; there is a brief moment early on when she sees a rose in a vase and, smiling, brings it to her dressing table: "Now she has two roses, because there's a second one reflected in the mirror... " She is also horrible—most of all, one senses, because she is a person of immense energy and strength, and all of it is directed toward Herzog, to keeping him, and then, when she no longer can, to destroying him.

The narrative unfolds something like an Eli Roth or Roland Emmerich film, but instead of sadists or alien invaders, the hostile elements here are time and the bonds of dependency between people. One disaster builds unsparingly on the next. Wassermann, through Herzog, says, "Fate deals with us like a thriller writer. Blow by blow and step by step it discloses its truth, which was kept concealed from us until the inevitable surprise denouement—a reflection on the skillful way the author has manipulated our judgement and sense of probability." And this at the very end of everything for him, no Hollywood ending any longer possible.