Swiss author Robert Walser did most of his work at the start of the last century, but his reputation seems to have risen again in the Anglosphere. There have been several recent translations in the NYRB Classics series from people like Damion Searls and Susan Bernofsky, all of which made me think that it was high time I checked him out. That starts today with a trip to Berlin, one in which we go back to school – pay attention at the back…
Jakob von Gunten is the story of a young man from a well-to-do Swiss family who decides to rebel against his comfortable upbringing. Jakob sets off for Berlin to make his way in the world, aiming to improve his ability to assist others and find a position for himself, ending up at the Benjamenta Institute. It’s here that he is to be prepared for a life of servitude to the upper classes.
Much of the early story is taken up with sketches of the interesting characters he meets here. There are his fellow ‘students’, including the incredibly unctuous, sanctimonious Kraus (a man born to be a servant). Then, of course, there are the Benjamentas, the owners of the school. All the students are enamoured of the sweet, adorable sister Lisa, while her stern brother, Herr Benjamenta himself, is responsible for disciplining the young men whenever they break one of the many, many rules in place.
It’s time, then, for Jakob to buckle down and make himself ready to kowtow to his future employers, a task he feels extremely capable of:
Der unterzeichnete glaubt, sich in jede Lage schicken zu können, es ist ihm daher gleichgültig, was man ihm zu tun befehlen wird, er ist der festen Überzeugung, daß jede sorgsam ausgeführte Arbeit für ihn eine größere Ehre sein wird als das müßig und ängstlich zu Hause Hinter-dem-Ofen-Sitzen.
p.51 (Suhrkamp, 1985)
The undersigned believes he can be assigned to any post, he is completely indifferent as to what he is ordered to do, he is of the firm conviction that any carefully carried out work would be a greater honour for him than idly and timidly moping around the house. *** (my translation)
Alas, as much as he intends to do so, Jakob’s is a nature which simply refuses to take life too seriously, and very soon he is leading a double life, swanning around in his artist brother’s milieu outside the school, while playing the model student inside it (and failing). It’s not long before others notice his true, capricious nature shining through – and that includes his schoolmaster…
Jakob von Gunten is, above all else, a very funny book. It can be bewildering at times, with Jakob’s thoughts going off in all kinds of directions, but essentially it’s a sort of Bildungsroman where the central character refuses to take himself too seriously. If that sounds a little Dickensian, there are certainly touches of that writer’s style and the odd outstanding line. When Benjamenta first encounters our young hero, and promptly demands all his money, Jakob respectfully asks for a receipt – at which the director snaps:
Schlingel wie du erhalten keine Quittungen. (p.12)
Rascals like you don’t get receipts. ***
Anyone else may well have turned tail right away, looking for a more comfortable establishment. However, for the boy with the silver spoon, this is precisely the kind of treatment he’s looking for.
The novel is based on a short stay Walser himself had at a similar school, obviously a time which left a deep impression. There’s a beautifully ironic tone to the text, married with an eye for describing Jakob’s new surroundings, and there’s certainly a lot to describe. The rules of the institute are arcane and bizarre, the teachers often asleep or absent, corporal punishment a frequent possibility – at times, it seems more of a prison for gentlemen than a usual training institution…
…and Jakob acknowledges that this is how it should be:
Wenn kein Gebot, kein Soll herrschte in der Welt, ich würde sterben, verhungern, verkrüppeln vor Langerweile. (p.28)
If no commandments, no imperatives ruled this world, I would die, starve, become crippled with boredom. ***
However, his words mask a wry stubbornness and a desire to deliberately break rules for no reason (which is why he needs the rules in the first place…) – no wonder he exasperates the hard-working, servile Kraus. Of course, it’s Jakob, and not his hard-working classmate, who the Benjamentas take a shine to.
There is a serious side to Walser’s musings, though. The institute is a means of preparation for modern life, and we see just what kind of skills the writers regards as being necessary in the ‘modern’ world. Education is far less necessary than simply teaching the young men to be polite and to grind their way through; a good brain is much less important than the ability to fawn and keep your emotions locked up inside. In fact, it could all be seen as a critique (or explanation) of the basics of a neoconservative society, with the young men being groomed for a life as corporate drones…
Outside the institute, Walser allows Jakob (and the reader) a little more freedom, and we get to stroll around the metropolis, able to admire Berlin as a melting point of the Germanic sphere of influence, with people from Poland, Bohemia, Switzerland and the German provinces. Jakob is fascinated by big-city life, able to enjoy people watching in society thanks to his big brother:
Jeder spürt den unheimlichen Überrumpler, den heimlichen Dieb, der mit irgendeiner neuen Begabung dahergeschlichen kommt, um Schädigungen und Herabsetzungen aller Art um sich herum zu verbreiten, und deshalb ist in diesen Menschenkreisen der ganz Neuauftretende immer der Gesuchteste und Bevorzugteste, und wehe den Älteren, wenn sich dieser Neue durch Geist, Talent oder Naturgenie irgendwie auszeichnet. (p.115)
Everyone senses the sinister attacker, the secret thief, who comes sneaking in with some sort of new talent, spreading all manner of damage and belittlement, and for this reason the bright new thing is always the most sought after and preferred person in these social circles, and woe betide the others if this newcomer happens to distinguish themself through spirit, talent or natural genius. ***
It seems it’s not just the serving classes who struggle with the new world order. Even the beautiful people have their problems, scared of the next pretty young thing😉
Jakob von Gunten is only 160 pages long, but there’s so much in it that I haven’t even touched on yet. Jakob himself is a fascinating creation, a youth with a desire to work hard, even if he’s too lazy to actually do so. He can’t get out of bed, he sells his watch for smokes and wastes his last ten marks on being conned (willingly) by a beauty at a tea shop. Of course, the book is all narrated by our young friend, in the form of a diary of sorts, which does lead us to wonder just how reliable his take on things is.
For me, it was hard not to compare Jakob with another recently encountered character, Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge. The two young men are in self-imposed exile in a big city, with both from well-to-do families, realising that times have changed. The big difference of course is in the tone, with Malte’s gloomy modernism set against Jakob’s jaunty post-modernism; Rilke’s tortured soul may well be a deeper character, but I know which one I’d prefer to go down the pub with…
Wonderfully written and funny, with a hint of darkness apparent but left for another day, Jakob von Gunten is full of crazy dreams, cartoonish characters and barely veiled hints of homosexual attraction. Yes, I know – I really wish I had more time to get into that too… All in all, I’m certainly very happy with my first look at Walser’s work, and I’m sure you’d all appreciate a few hours in Jakob’s company too🙂
The NYRB Classics edition of Jakob von Gunten is translated by Christopher Middleton🙂