Jakob von Gunten

My interest in Robert Walser got a jolt from reading Walks with Walser , so I checked out one of his novels that I had not yet read. It’s the tale of a runaway boy who decides to enroll in butler-school. Apparently there were still enough mid-level aristocrats in early 1900s Berlin to merit a school devoted to their servants. This was based on Walser’s own experience, enrolling in such a school in 1905 then going a’butlering the next year. It’s a school that teaches nothing, the teachers are asleep. The students learn obedience, patience.

When Jakob first arrives, he’s put into a room to board with 3 other boys. He revolts, gets his own room. “One is always half mad when one is shy of people.” He’s a bit full of himself, coming from an upper-class family, but wanting to completely debase himself.

“That I am the cleverest of them all is perhaps not altogether so delightful. What is the use of thoughts and ideas if one feels, as I do, that one doesn’t know what to do with them?”

Walser (and his English translator) have a way with words. “The mumbling of a grumbler is lovelier to me than the murmuring of a woodland stream, with the loveliest of Sunday morning sunshine sparkling on it.” Also, one of my favorites: “He speaks like a flopped somersault and behaves like a big improbability pummeled into human shape.” His street scenes are dizzyingly gorgeous. Oh, and “When inside I’m bursting with laughter, when I hardly know what to do with all this hissing gunpowder, then I know what laughing is, then I have laughed most laughishly then I have a complete idea of what was shaking me.”

Jakob finds extreme pleasure in all the rules. “If you aren’t allowed to do something, you do it twice as much somewhere else.”

Walks with Walser

Robert Walser had a nervous breakdown in 1929 and spent his final 3 decades in Swiss mental asylums. From 1936 – 1956, Carl Seelig (friend & literary executor) took him on long walks and recorded their conversations, which makes up this delightful volume. An inveterate hiker, Walser died alone on his last walk on a snowy Christmas day, 1956. Seelig had postponed their usual Christmas walk until New Years to care for his ailing dog. This volume is translated to perfection by Anne Posten.

It’s funny to contrast the two books I just finished: this slim volume of 138 pages has several marked passages I want to remember that are either perfect phrases or books I need to look into, but the 700 page beast of a fictionalized biography of Rimbaud was unmarked throughout (although it has plenty of lyrical writing, just nothing I needed to capture forever).

Seelig and Walser tramp about the countryside, stopping along the way to enjoy a hearty breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner, frequently imbibing beer or wine, cigarettes, but always always talking. Some of my favorite anecdotes and Walser-isms are captured below.

Upon seeing a cloister-like, baroque building, Seelig suggests looking inside. Walser: “Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-covered walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is covered and claimed nowadays.” (1941)

“In the asylum I have the quiet I need. It is time for young people to make the noise. It suits me now to disappear, as inconspicuously as possible.” (1943)

“In life there must also be troubles, so that beauty stands out more vividly from the unpleasantness. Worry is the best teacher.” (1943)

“Polite people usually have something up their sleeves.” (1943)

“Abundance can be so oppressive. True beauty, the beauty of the everyday, reveals itself most delicately in poverty and simplicity.” (1943)

“War has this in its favor—it forces people back to simplicity. Would we be able to chat undisturbed on the road, free from the stink of gasoline and the cursing of motorists, if gasoline wasn’t rationed? There is far too much traveling nowadays in the first place. Hordes of people barge shamelessly into foreign landscapes as if they were the legitimate occupants.” (1944)

“Yes, only the journey to oneself is important.” (in response to some of his lines quoted back to him: “Does nature go abroad? I’m always looking at the trees and telling myself: They aren’t leaving either, so why shouldn’t I be permitted to remain?” (1944)

“Curious how beer and twilight can wash away all burdens.” (1945)

Talking shit about Thomas Mann’s lack of grey hair: “It’s the health of success. How many are driven to an early grave by failure! Since childhood Mann had it all: bourgeois calm, security, a happy family, recognition… the Joseph novels are not nearly as good as his astonishing early works. In the later works one senses the stale indoor air, and that’s the way their maker looks too, like someone who has always sat diligently behind his desk with the account books.” (1947)

Seelig brings up the Korean war, causing Walser to rant about Americans for half an hour: “Have you seen their faces? They’re the faces of gangsters, executioners: foolishly proud, arrogant, and predatory. What business do the Americans have with a civilized society’s fight for freedom? Of course they will destroy everything with their ultramodern war machines, and they’ll win. But afterward how will the capitalist beast be driven back into its cage? That is another, more protracted question. In any case, Washington isn’t exactly full of the best and brightest.” (1950)

After being offered a lift by a passing motorist in the rain: “That has never happened to me before! But walking does one more good than driving. If laziness advances at its current pace, it won’t be long before people don’t need their legs at all.” (1952)

Authors to investigate: Gottfried Keller, whose praises Walser sings over and over, “he never wrote a superfluous line”; Marlitt, “the first German feminist, who fought resolutely against class pride and self-satisfied piety;” Tobias Smollett has a “gift for trenchant storytelling, which often slips into brilliant caricature, [and] makes for very entertaining reading;” Jan Neruda, whose tales he “found as cosy as Dickens’s stories.” Apparently Kafka was a huge Walser fan, recommending The Tanners to his boss; unfortunately, Walser was unfamiliar with Kafka’s work.

The Assistant

I fell in love with Walser when I read The Tanners, a wonderfully dreamy work about siblings’ trials and tribulations. I was happy to be reminded of him again at the bookstore when I saw The Assistant, which I gobbled up over the past week, again dog-earring pages that capture the moody tranquility of the Swiss/German landscape through the passing seasons.
Joseph Marti arrives in the lake-side villa as the assistant to the inventor/engineer Tobler, taking up residence in the house but not collecting a salary since money was tight. His understatedness, taut and poised like a panther ready to pounce, his questioning of own abilities, his delight in household chores and the physical movement of labor. Money continues to be a problem; he meets his predecessor Wirsich who was fired for continued drunkenness, he travels back to the city and is told by an old friend that he never changes. He is fearless in swimming out to the middle of the lake in the autumn and bouncing around placing the storm windows on, but desperately fears his boss’ anger. The townspeople gradually realize Tobler will not repay his debts, stop visiting him and begin to openly harass him and his family. Tobler begs for money from family, taking journeys by train to pass the hat around. In the end, Joseph walks away arm-in-arm with Wirsich, looking for real employment.

“How strangely she laughs,” the subordinate mused and went on thinking: “one might, if one was set on it, take this way of laughing as the basis for a geographical study. This laugh precisely designates the region from which this woman comes. It is a handicapped laugh, it comes out of her mouth in a slightly unnatural way, as if it had always been held a little in check in early years by an all-too-strict upbringing. But it is a lovely feminine laugh, even a tiny bit frivolous.”

The Tanners

I’ve dogeared most of this wonderful, sleepy, miraculous book.

  • Simon Tanner – the wanderer, no luggage, tattered clothing, taking up copy clerk positions around his country.
  • Klaus- the respectable older brother, worried about Simon’s lack of a footing in the world.
  • Kaspar – the artist, currently in Paris, a city Walser would never visit but that he dreamed of.
  • Emil – locked in a madhouse. Simon overhears two chaps discussing the sad tale of Emil at a bar one night, declares, “that is my brother!”
  • Hedwig – the teacher who takes Simon in for the summer, they become close, but she tells him to never contact her again once he leaves.

“When he arrived at home, he saw his brother’s letter lying on the table, he read it and then thought to himself: “He’s a good person, but I’m not going to write to him. I don’t know how to describe my circumstances, and they aren’t worth describing anyhow. I’ve no cause for complaint, and just as little reason to jump for joy, but grounds aplenty to keep silent. It’s quite true, the things he writes, but for just that reason I shall be satisfied with the truth – let’s leave it at that. That he is unhappy is something he himself must come to terms with, but I don’t believe he is really so terribly unhappy. Letters often come out sounding that way. Writing a letter, you get carried away and make incautious remarks. In letters, the soul always wishes to do the talking, and generally it makes a fool of itself. So it’s best I don’t write.” (p 47)

“You… cannot even imagine how glorious it is to ramble down country roads. If they’re dusty, then dusty is just how they are, no need to trouble your head about it. Afterwards you find yourself a cozy cool spot at the edge of the forest and as you lie there your eyes enjoy the most splendid view, and your senses repose in the most natural way, and your thoughts wander as taste and pleasure fancy. You’ll no doubt counter that another person can do just the same thing – you yourself, for example, when you’re on vacation. But vacations, what are they? The thought of them makes me laugh. I wish to have nothing to do with vacations. One might even say I hate them. Whatever you do, just don’t set me up with a position involving vacations. This wouldn’t appeal to me at all -in fact I think I’d die if I were given vacations. As far as I’m concerned I wish to do battle with life, fighting until I keel over: I wish to taste neither freedom nor comfort, I hate freedom if it’s hurled at my feet the way you throw a dog a bone. That’s vacation for you.” (p 50)

“I don’t want a future, I want a present. To me this appears of greater value. you have a future only when you have no present, and when you have a present, you forget to even think about the future.” (p 72)

“… in the practice of art all that was required to accomplish something were diligence, a joyful zeal, and the observation of nature…” (p 79)

“And then there were serving men in thin blue smocks with boots on their legs, large bristly mustaches and rather rectangular mouths on their faces. Could they help it if their mouths were rectangular? No doubt many a guest at the Hotel Royal displayed rectangular proclivities in the mustache region. To be sure, the angularity in that case was whitewashed with roundness, but what significance did this have?” (p 91)

“By this I mean only to illustrate the fact that all this lying-about makes you a dunce. No, I’m starting to feel something like pricks of conscience and believe that merely feeling such pricks is not enough: I must undertake something. Running about in the sunshine cannot, in the long term, be viewed as an activity, and only a simpleton sits around reading books, for a simpleton is what you areif all you ever do it read. Labor in the company of others is, in the end, the single thing that educates us.” (p 126)

“Here I am and shall no doubt remain. It’s so sweet to remain. Does nature go abroad? Do trees wander off to procure for themselves greener leaves in other palces so they can come home and flaunt their new splendor? Rivers and clouds are always leaving, but this is a different, more profound sort of leave-taking, without any returning.” (p 273)
“I fly into a rage whenever someone approaches me with the words ‘lifetime position and all the presumptions implied therein. I wish to remain a human being. In a word: I love what is risky, unfathomable, floating, and uncontrolled!” (p 275)

“Religion in my experience is a love of life, a heartfelt attachment to the earth, joy in the present moment, trust in beauty, belief in mankind, a feeling of carefree pleasure during revelries with friends, the desire to ponder and a sense of not being responsible for misfortune, smiling when death arrives and showing courage in every sort of undertaking life has to offer.” (p 282)

“The clock has not yet struck twelve, not for any of us; after all, any person lying on the ground impoverished enjoys the prospect of rising up again. I’ve a hunch that a proud free bearing can itself draw life happiness to a person like an electrical current, and it’s certainly true that you feel richer and more exalted when you walk about with dignity.” (p292)

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky