Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.

 

Heimat and Exile: WG Sebald, A Place in the Country

 

My first post of 2014 is a critique of this intriguing work, which I read back in the autumn, but have just got round to writing about.

WG Sebald, A Place in the Country  (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin 2013)

I have learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time, the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author  [Walser]who claims to have worked as a clerk in a brewery in Thun, the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from the window of the Herisau asylum [where Walser spent his final years], Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile.  On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.

In these words from his essay on the Swiss writer Robert Walser, the most engaging to my mind of the essays in A Place in the Country, most of W.G. Sebald’s motifs in this collection and in his other prose writings appear: a preoccupation with place and scenery, especially the rural, littoral and insular, and how history leaches into the landscape (‘everything is connected across space and time’);  with being estranged or exiled from home; and with the tendency for things to be contradictory (witness all those balanced, opposed clauses in the quotation above).

 

Photo: The Guardian newspaper

Photo: The Guardian newspaper

This collection of five essays on writers (and one about an artist, Sebald’s contemporary from the Allgau, Jan Peter Tripp) was originally published in German in 1998; it has been deftly translated into English by Sebald’s former colleague at the University of East Anglia, Jo Catling.  They are not dry academic studies: they are meditations full of understated wit and artistic sympathy with the subjects – but Sebald unobtrusively provides as much insight into himself as he does the subjects.

 

In the foreword Sebald sets forth his other central theme: he writes of ‘the awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing’, of ‘hapless writers trapped in their web of words’:

 

Evidently the business of writing is one from whose clutches it is by no means easy to extricate oneself, even when the activity itself has come to seem loathsome or even impossible.

 

All six of his subjects have intertwining connections with each other and with Sebald himself: they mostly spoke a language from the ‘Alemannic’ group, which originated in parts of southern Germany, where Sebald himself grew up, Alsace, Austria and Switzerland.  Most of these artists, like Sebald, were exiles from their homelands, either through their own choice, or involuntarily (in Walser’s case, it took the form of alienation from himself and the world, as he drifted into insanity); they tended to have unhappy love lives and a habit of solitary introspection, from which arose haunting works of literary or artistic beauty.  It is the aesthetic  and moral quality of these artists’ works on which Sebald focuses his attention, but not with soft-focus nostalgia or gloomy introspection: he unobtrusively brings his subjects to life, and illuminates what they mean to him.

 

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826, born in Basel), subject of the first essay, was an obscure eighteenth-century author of popular almanacs, folktales and nature writings.  The poet Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) lived a sequestered life in and around Stuttgart in Swabia (Württemburg).  The other three writers here are Swiss; Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) came from francophone Geneva; Gottfried Keller (1819-90) and Walser (1878-1956) both wrote in German.  Sebald is interested in artists associated with borders, boundaries and divides, their similarities and struggles.

 

In 1965 Sebald first saw Lac de Bienne (close to Walser’s birthplace – another of these frequent connections) with its island of Saint-Pierre in the middle.  Years later he visited Rousseau’s insular retreat; Rousseau had been hounded out of pre-revolutionary France, and took refuge there in 1765.  It must have seemed, Sebald writes, a paradise – though Rousseau’s peace was sometimes shattered by unwanted visitors, from whom he hid in an under-floor space covered by a concealed trapdoor.  He spent two months on this island, a sojourn which prompts Sebald to another rueful reflection on the lot of the writer:

 

One could see writing as a continually self-perpetuating, compulsive act, evidence that, of all individuals afflicted by the disease of thought, the writer is perhaps the most incurable.

 

In this haven, Rousseau could study nature and get on with ‘the self-destructive business of writing to which he usually submitted himself’.   Another motif in the collection emerges here on this tiny island:

 

I don’t like large-scale things, not in architecture or evolutionary leaps.  I think it’s an aberration.  This notion of something that is small and self-contained is for me a moral and aesthetic ideal.

 

From Sebald’s painstaking evocation of the ‘abstruse details’ of the world Walser inhabited, ‘devoid of material possessions’ (he alludes to the ‘pencil method’ or ‘microscripts’ of Walser’s later years, described as an ‘inner emigration’) to the other writers discussed here with their preoccupation with the minutiae of their craft, this statement resonates throughout the collection.

 

Walser as a young man in the 1890s

Walser (1878-1956) as a young man in the 1890s

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

In this essay appears the largest selection in the book of Sebald’s trademark blurred, monochrome photographs; one of them represents his grandfather, who is forever associated in Sebald’s mind’s eye with Walser – the resemblance not just physical but almost mystical; they died in the same year, another of those eerie connections or coincidences which Sebald is so inclined to draw attention to, these ‘rebuses of memory’.   Are they, he wonders, ‘delusions of the self and of the senses’, or

 

the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?

 

I recommend this volume to anyone interested in the craft of writing (and painting) and the nature of creative artists, with their mysterious capacity for conveying the healing power that comes from exploring the minute details of mundane existence in an increasingly expansionist, chaotic world.  It also provides heart-warming insight into the mind of Sebald.  When I peruse these essays I feel I’m in the presence of a kindly, modest but supremely intelligent artist and thinker, and his prose is a delight to read.  There are really seven subjects: the six I’ve mentioned, and Sebald himself.

 

Sebald, Rings of Saturn and humour

My copy of WG Sebald’s recently translated book of essays on German-language writers, A Place in the Country, arrived the other day; can’t wait to read it.  Robert McCrum wrote about WGS’s ‘quietly potent legacy’ in the Guardian yesterday.  Meanwhile I’d recommend taking a look at this piece by Claire Preston in The Public Domain Review, the online journal cited here yesterday, about Sebald’s references to other texts in The Rings of Saturn, a typically enigmatic work in  which he recounts his wandering along the ghost-haunted coast of East Anglia, musing on mutability, the holocaust, fishing, silkworms, skulls, and so on.  The thing is, much of the time he’s being funny; the erudition is often playful.  Just as Borges amuses himself and us with his witty Book of Imaginary Beings, so Max (as he preferred to be known) reflects that the Argentinian’s mention of the mythical Baldanders was borrowed from an equally strange work by Hans J.C. von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669; English tr. 1912: ‘the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fechshaim’; unfortunately this translation by Goodrick omits Bk VI, in which the imaginary creature is found, but it can be read about in the original German version which does include all six books, a link to which is given in the article by Preston).  It has to be said that Sebald wasn’t always a happy bunny, though, and there are passages in which the ‘shadow of annihilation’ darkens the narrative, and past figures and events leach into the present with melancholy power; this explains the reference to Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) remarkable Hydrotaphia, Urne-Buriall or a discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk (1658).  Browne spent his last 50 years in Norfolk, hence Sebald’s interest in him (WGS taught at the Univ. of E. Anglia until his death aged just 57 in 2001).  Like Sebald, however, Browne was also capable of frivolity and playfulness, hence the citation in The Rings of Saturn to Browne’s Borgesian catalogue of (possibly) imaginary books, pictures, ‘sundry singular items’ and antiquities, the Musaeum Clausum (published in Certain Miscellany Tracts, 1684); a typical entry reads: ‘3.  An Ancient British Herbal, or description of divers Plants of this Island, observed by the famous Physician Scribonius Largus, when he attended the Emperour Claudius in his Expedition into Britany’.  Scribonius was indeed the court physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius, and in AD 47 he drew up a list of nearly 300 ‘compositiones’ or prescriptions.  Not everyone cares for this bookish mix of humour and darkness (or the complex authenticity of the orthography), but I find it fascinating and fun.

Other texts cited in Preston’s article (via Sebald) include Diderot’s Voyage en Hollande (1798), Chateaubriand’s Memoirs (Eng trans 1848), Flaubert, Swinburne, etc.

There’s a lively review of A Place in the Country by Tim Adams in The Observer, 27 April. I liked this bit: ‘He was, after all, in his writing, always in the company of ghosts, both of place and person, in anxious search, as he said, for “how everything is connected across space and time”; the books that have emerged since his absence from the realm of living writers only heighten this unsettling sense of willed limbo.’

Good stuff, but I’m not so sure about ‘willed limbo’…

One of the figures Sebald writes about in this posthumous book is Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss writer of feuilletons, stories and novels, who was much admired by the likes of Kafka and Musil, and about whom I intend posting some time in the future; might even finish the story I’m drafting about him under the working title ‘The Walker’.  If you cared to explore him further, there’s an informative 1998 essay by Sebald, originally published as ‘le promeneur solitiaire’, and which can now be read in English translation as the introduction to the 2009 New Directions translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners; if you click on that last link you’ll find one of many informative pieces on Sebald (and the influence of Walser, in the linked piece), in an excellent online lit. journal: A Piece of Monologue.   More on Sebald, no doubt, in future posts.