It should first be noted that W. is based on a play written by Georg Büchner in 1836, and that drama was itself based on real events: Johann Christian Woyzeck, a soldier from Leipzig, murdered Christiane Woost in 1821. Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel W. is the fictionalized backstory to the play and the real events.
W. is a challenging novel well worth the time and effort. If you enjoy Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, you’ll love W. They both possess the same lurid darkness, the same interiority of character, the same palpable sense of hopelessness in an insane world. That said, I find W. a much more compelling and enjoyable reading than C&P.
The plots are similar in that Woyzeck, the main character in W. is a young man who murders a young woman, the Widow Woost. In this novel, Woyzeck is apprehended immediately and is imprisoned while being assessed for his ability to stand trial. While in detention he is asked to reveal the story of his life, his experiences, his family life, etc. This is the bulk of the novel; interspersed between Woyzeck’s accounts are the prison officials’ (priest, lawyer, guards, warden) perspectives on the murder and Woyzeck himself. This is where W. differs and shines: Woyzeck’s life is ordinary, he is an apprentice for a wigmaker, runs through a number of servile jobs, then finds himself recruited into the Swedish army, fighting against Napoleon. His experience is singular, yet also mundane; he is one of millions who were displaced and ruined by war. His madness derives from this horrendous and common experience of war and life, the struggle to come to terms with the disappointments and betrayals, both large and small, in money and love. There is something horrifically relatable about Woyzeck’s slow derangement — it is recognizable in ourselves, even though we live centuries in his future. At the end of this long, cruel spiral Woyzeck kills the Widow Woost. And there the story begins and ends.
W. outshines Crime and Punishment in a number of ways. While Woyzeck meanders in telling the tales of his life, there is a continuity and structure. This leaves the reader in a tantalizing quandary: Is Woyzeck actually mad? If he is, then so too might we also be considered mad? And given what Woyzeck has experienced and witnessed in war it would be a wonder that he did not become mad! The reader inevitable develops a comradeship with Woyzeck; he is too too much of a reflection of ourselves to dismiss him. Second, Woyzeck lives in a kind of mental vacuum, but he is a subject of history like the rest of us, so historical events, societal norms, and the actions of those around him are very much part of his story; that is, his insanity may be wholly his, but his path leading into it was walked with many others. They are vivid characters in this novel and they bring Woyzeck’s tale into fuller relief. W. is not just a novel about one man, it is about an entire world and a way of living. The novel captures a society succumbing to a kind of primal existence brought about by war and violence.