As I was reading through Jakob von Gunten I wondered what genre it belonged to Was it some kind of memoir? Was it a coming of age story? Was it a love story? Was it perhaps something totally new, a genre I'd never met before? Or was it rather something utterly ancient, as ancient as the stories of the Old Testament Ancient, yes, that was the predominant feeling I was left with at the end, though the writing has nothing biblical about it whatsoever being extremely lighthearted and jolly in tone which is one of the many paradoxes of this short novel In fact Jacob, the narrator, speaks constantly in paradoxes: he tells of a school where no learning takes place, and of a feared principal who is really rather meek Jacob sees beauty in the oddest of places, even in the idiosyncrasies of headboy Kraus: I do like people who get angry Kraus gets angry on the slightest pretext That is so beautiful, so noble The sinner must always be faced with the person outraged, or else something would be missing The mumbling of a grumbler is lovelier to me than the murmuring of a woodland stream Jacob expounds on the virtues of compliance to rules in one breath while telling us that he loves running on the stairs in the next: To be supposed not to do something is so alluring sometimes that one can’t help doing it Therefore I love so deeply every compulsion, because it allows me to take joy in what is illicit If there were no commandments, no duties in the world, I would die, starve, be crippled by boredom I provoke the frowning law to anger a little, afterwards I make the effort to pacify it Although it was writtenthan one hundred years ago, each word, each sentence in this slim book, has the freshness of new snow, though perhaps new snow on which a happy dog has left a yellow stain, because Jacob’s sparkling words are always sprinkled with little ironies Sly and knowing people are to me an unspeakable abomination How nice Peter is, in precisely this point His being tall, so tall that he could crack in two, is good, but even better is the goodness of heart which keeps whispering to him that he is a cavalier and has the looks of a noble rake The entire book is a parade of seeming contradictions Nothing can excite me so deeply as the sight and smell of what is good and just, Jacob tells us before revealing that: nothing pleases methan to give a completely false image of myself to people for whom I have made a place in my heart…Thus for example, I imagine that it would be unspeakably lovely to die with the terrible knowledge that I have offended whomsoever I love the most and have filled them with bad opinions of me Nobody will understand that, or only someone who can sense tremblings of beauty in defiance Those tremblings of beauty in defiance reminded me of the biblical story of Lucifer before the Fall, whose heart, according to Ezekiel was lifted up because of thy beauty but who had become corrupted by reason of thy brightness I imagined Jacob as a latterday Lucifer, shining very brightly among his duller fellows But unlike Lucifer, he succeeds in seducing the Father figure of his world completley and causes him to lose his bearings so that instead of rejecting Jacob and casting him out, he 'casts out' all the 'good' pupils/angels instead, even the ruleabiding and very fundamentalist Archangel, Kraus.So the story made me think about what the Judeo/Christian/Islamic world would be like if we’d never had a Lucifer figure to demonise, and if the deity had presented itself as just as human and weak as the rest of usImage:(view spoiler)[William Blake's Lucifer before the Fall (hide spoiler)] How does one begin to write even an onthefly review of such a novel, one that should be experienced as a series of deceptively simple vignettes in the young life of the titular character and be relished as Walser carries one along with Jakob's singular voice? Jakob von Gunten is also a difficult novel from which to quote given how the reader manages to catch small glimpses of how the narrative voice will develop and evolve, something that this reviewer would not wish to ruin for any future reader of this very precious book.Walser really is a master at the microcosmic: the Benjamenta Institute—where Jakob installs himself to learn (or not learn) the ways of the world—truly is the world Just as The Walk and The Assistant offer microcosmic and often claustrophobic scenes that suggest their application to society and culture at large, so, too, does Jakob von Gunten In all of these works—which, to date, are the only works by Walser I've had the chance to read—Walser gives us searing and incisive psychological portraits of his protagonists; at the same time, Walser is superbly nonjudgmental in presenting both their virtues and their vices His humanism and compassion is evident, as well as an overarching concern with morality, class divisions, the function of dreams and fantasies in forging a creative and cosmopolitan place in society, and the ways in which industrialization and urbanization (always in the background in Walser's work, but a prevalent motif all the same) cause individuals to lose some sense of a shared, common history.Jakob's voice is that of a child and yet he is also emphatically not a child Instead, Walser suggests that there is no distinction to be made between childhood and adulthood; in so doing, he also breaks down other dualistic and dichotomous categories, causing Jakob's precarious, playful, perverse, and inquisitive questioning of the world in which he lives to become the questions that we all pose when faced with change of any sort.(And despite the quick nature of this review, it seems Modern World Lit has decided to feature it MWL is a great resource: check it out if you don't already know about it.) Imagine the school scenes from Gormenghast rewritten by Kafka and you'll have a good idea of the atmosphere of Jakob von Gunten, a short and stodgy philosophical fable of a very Germanic kind It's easy to see why Kafka and Hesse were such fans; I wasn't quite so convinced, although I can understand why so many people love it.The novel consists of a journal written by the title character, who has enrolled in a school for servants (based on Walser's own experience at a valet school in Berlin) The Benjamenta Institute is a closed world, with its own bizarre rules, a remote Principal, a mysterious Instructress – it's all dusty classrooms and intimations of impending disaster In this constrained setting, Jakob conducts his own explorations of the interior world – probing his mind, examining his relationships with other people, and recording everything in a breathless, childlike narrative.The microcosmic environment and the introspective narrator combine to produce a sort of parable about the importance of fully immersing yourself in everyday existence.I pay attention, and that makes lifebeautiful, for if we don't have to pay attention there really is no life.However, this theme doesn't come without a certain ‘nativist’, antiintellectual strain that I found a little disingenuous, however appealing Jakob hates ‘the kind of person who pretends he understands everything and beamingly parades knowledge and wit’; what he likes is simplicity, people who simply do, without analysing This is an awkward message for a writer to pull off, because a writer is precisely someone who reflects on and analyses their experiences (And indeed for Jakob, 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.’)Of course, Jakob himself has to embody exactly what he says he hates, otherwise he wouldn't be able to narrate a book So he's intelligent and thoughtful, but he's not happy about it.I despise my capacity for thinking I value only experiences, and these, as a rule, are quite independent of all thinking and comparing Thus I value the way in which I open a door There ishidden life in opening a door than in asking a question.A really beautiful phrase – but the idea behind it, though attractive, with a little reflection seems obviously wrong I say ‘obviously’ because if it were true, there would be no need to write books like this in the first place If this book has any value at all, then that value can only be conveyed through means that the book itself disparages.It has to be said as well that Christopher Middleton's translation (in the NYRB edition) seems rather heavyhanded and, well, infelicitous at times We have sentences such as, ‘Schacht likes to offend against the rules and I, to be candid, unfortunately no less,’ which can only go through your head in a thick German accent (Oops, I mean Swiss.) On the other hand, Middleton's introduction reads a bit awkwardly too, so maybe that's just the way he speaks.Walser once said, ‘God is the opposite of Rodin.’ I don't know what he meant but I like it, and I didn't want to end this review without mentioning it somewhere This book is similarly cryptic, provocative and antiartistic I wouldn't recommend it exactly, but if I saw you reading it in Starbucks I'd nod sagely and offer to buy you another pumpkin latte. Quite an oddity; it took me a while to decide whether I liked it or not; it’s quite abstract and the protagonist isn’t someone that I would immediately warm to The novel is written in the first person Jakob is from a good family, with money and possibly titled who decides to go to the big city (Berlin) and join a school for servants (much as Walser did) called the Benjamenta Institute The only teaching members we meet are the Principal and his sister.The book is in diary form and consists of Jakob’s reflections and his philosophy; and also something of the philosophy of being a servant and being invisible with appropriate humility Jakob is highly selfcritical (sometimes irritatingly so) and there were times I was reminded of Uriah Heep Walser’s influences are not easy to pin down His intensely self critical nature has been compared to Rousseau in the Confessions and to a Dostoyevskian character One of his translators has argued that Jakob has some similarities to characters in German folk tales (Brothers Grimm); the hero who braves the castle and wins the day against the odds But victory is bittersweet because at the end Jakob is still back in the real world Kafka was a fan and it is easy to see why and to see shades of The Castle in particular Jakob’s odd combination of humility and arrogance and his philosophy sometimes feel unsettling and contradictory; there are clear Nietzschean references and yet Walser is also analysing the middle class/bourgeois psyche which will have such an influence on German history in the early twentieth century The elevation of the banal and the ultimate discovery by Jakob that at the heart it is all hollow and meaningless; the mysterious inner chambers are not all they seem; neither are the Benjamenta’s.The foreshadowing of Nazism in characters like Kraus is startling; as is the amused tolerance of those in authority; there is a level of madness about it, but it is so simple, at times amusing; but also sad given Walser’s later descent into madness Pretty much nothing happens on the surface, but Jakob has a hard time living with himself A later poem by Walser sums it up;I would wish it on no one to be me.Only I am capable of bearing myself.To know so much, to have seen so much, andTo say nothing, just about nothing I would wish it on no one to be me.Only I am capable of bearing myself.To know so much, to have seen so much, andTo say nothing, just about nothing.Written by Robert Walser, as quoted by J.M Coetzee in The Genius of Robert WalserThose dates there at the top of this review tell me that I took an inexplicable two and a half weeks to read this novella of a mere 164 pages At the back of my edition I find a schematic overview of Walser's biography You know the style: a date, and where he was in that year 189295: apprenticeship in the Biel branch of the Berner Kantonalbank 22nd October 1894: death of his mother Dreams of a career as an actor.1895:AprilAugust in Basel Living with relatives Employed as secretary with a haulier and a bank.From September: in Stuttgart Living with his brother in a single man's hostel Working for the publishing company Cotta End of his hopes of a Thespian career.1896: until the end of September in Stuttgart Returned to Switzerland on footI have to check to see: as the crow flies, taking his destination as Zürich, that is just over 100 miles, on roads and pathways closer to 140 Probably around a week? How could it possibly take me longer to read 164 pages than for him to walk 140 miles?Walking: the firm ground, eaten up by the rhythm of pacing feet The smell of wet grass, the sound of cows tearing green stalks, rain on your face, the wind in your ears Jakob von Gunten offers the opposite of such pleasures Apart from being inside a claustrophobic institution, one that purports to be a training school for valets, but offers no instruction, employs teachers who are asleep, or dead, or only appear to be dead, or have turned to stone, (in any case the pupils can get nothing from them), apart from the feeling that life here is arrested, that this is a kind of anteroom to life, a state of infinite waiting, apart from all that there is no firm narrative ground underfoot, quagmires erupt, the passing landscape bleaches out at the corner of my eye and turns into the stuff of nightmare Jakob von Gunten is one of the most unsettling narrators I have ever come across He is a nothing, one of the large, round attractive (attractive?) zeros ('eine reizende, kugelrunde Null') that the Institut Benjamenta is so keen to produce, a master of selfeffacement, he has no ties of any kind with family, or social class, or friends, or work colleagues He apparently exists only in his relationships with the other inmates of the institute: and his relations with them are characterised by a disconcerting mix of condescension and admiration, along with the odd swirl of inappropriate intimacy Schacht for example: Jakob likes talking to Schacht He seems to understand everything you say to him, and he himself, from time to time, says something significant And then he complains quite often, Jakob loves that in a conversation, because it gives him the opportunity to look at him and feel deep, heartfelt sympathy with him and this is where it shifts, where the ground begins to move, because the German word Mitleid can also mean pity, and Schacht, when you look at him, has something pitiable about him even when he is not complaining Schacht has soul And because Jakob can masquerade as a sympathetic listener, Schacht even betrays his shameful secret: he has a disease, the sort of disreputable disease that he hopes Jakob will be discreet about, and indeed Jakob promises him, on his word of honour, that he will keep silent on this matter, 'to reassure him' And then asks him to show him the diseased part.Or Kraus Kraus is not a quick learner But he will make a very good servant, he has the right air of humility and acquiescence, unmatched, incomparable He is bound to be employed by the best sort, a Countess at the least If it weren't for his unsightly spots Really, very unfortunate Poor Kraus! Mich zum Beispiel würden die Punkte, die ihn verunzieren, nicht im mindesten hindern, ihn zu küssen, wenn es darauf ankäme For my part, those spots that spoil his looks would not prevent me from kissing him, if it was necessary Under what circumstances would it be necessary, I wonder?Jakob does go out To watch with equanimity how the Polish waitress swindles him out of his only cash, to walk in the anonymous crowds of nameless nothings that turns, for him, into a grim (Grimm) fairy tale world of dwarves and monsters, trams like boxes of people, omnibuses like huge insects The inhumanity of the masses 1909: an early witness to the alienating effect of city life.He visits his brother Yes, he has a brother But his world is alien too Jakob mimics the behaviour of society: with not a little talent How mean is that?I had to take a break from this nightmare There seemed to be no destination for this journey, and I was teetering, swaying, insecure It is impossible to read: is this irony, or sarcasm? Is Jakob breathtakingly impudent, or is he worryingly compliant? Sometimes, there is a glimpse of true nobility of the soul Or is he saying that nobility of the soul is a sham? Hard to tell That tone: of cheerful acquiescence in an unacceptable destiny Selfregulation Selfdenial Selfannihilation And yet forcing, imposing himself on others Forcing the director of the institute to take on some kind of authority Feeding off others, a parasite that ultimately will kill its host It opened chasms of horror within We are the hollow men.We are the stuffed men.But Jakob maintains that they vibrate. Jakob Von Gunten is a metaphor of learning in the school of life…“We pupils all know, one as well as the next, that timidity is a punishable offence Whoever stutters and shows fear is exposed to the scorn of our Fraulein, but we must be small, and we must know, know precisely, that we are nothing big The law which commands, the discipline which compels, and the many unmerciful rules which give us a direction and give us good taste: that is the big thing, not us pupils Well, everyone feels this, even I do, that we are small, poor dependent dwarfs, obliged to be continuously obedient.”Jakob aspires to be a servant… “To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being Perhaps there is a very very commonplace person inside me But perhaps I have aristocratic blood in my veins I don't know But one thing I do know for certain: in later life I shall be a charming, utterly spherical zero As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish.”But he also wishes to be rich…“When I see candles burning, I always feel that I am wealthy.”And he dreams of vices…“Then Virtue came in, a female figure of overwhelming beauty for anyone not frozen rigid, and weeping I took her on my knee and fooled around with her When I had robbed her of her unspeakable treasure, the Ideal, I chased her out with derision…”Jakob Von Gunten is an allegory of living a life. روبرت والزر از برجستهترین پیشگامان ادبیات مدرن و آوانگارد است و بر نویسندگان و متفکران برجستهیی مانند فرانتس کافکا، والتر بنیامین، اشتفان تسوایک، هرمان هسه و روبرت موزیل تاثیر گذاشته است کافکا بارها آثار والزر را ستوده است و بسیاری او را حلقهی گمشدهی بین کلایست و کافکا میدانند چنانکه روبرت موزیل دربارهی والزر مینویسد: «آثار کافکا حالت خاصی از سبک والزر است»روبرت والزر در سالدر شهر بیل در سوییس بهدنیا آمد در جوانی شاعر بود و در زوریخ و دیگر شهرهای سوییس کارمندی و منشیگری میکرد و روزگار میگذراند مدتی بعد به کار نویسندگی رو آورد و به برلین رفت، اما دوباره به بیل برگشت و سرانجام در شهر برن مستقر شد پس از خودکشی نافرجام والزر در سال ، افسردگی او را بهغلط شیزوفرنی تشخیص دادند و در سالبه آسایشگاهی در هریزائو فرستادندش که تا پایان عمر همانجا ماندنی شد در این آسایشگاه وقت والزر به چسباندن پاکتهای کاغذی و پاککردن لوبیا میگذشت او هرگز دچار جنون یا زوال عقل نشد اما از سالبه بعد دیگر چیزی ننوشت، به بازدیدکنندهیی گفت: «من را اینجا نیاوردهاند که بنویسم، من را آوردهاند که دیوانه باشم» والزر روز کریسمس سالپس از چند دهه انزوا و بیستوسه سال زندگی در آسایشگاه حین پیادهروی در برف درگذشتیاکوب فون گونتن اولینبار در سالمنتشر شد، این کتاب سومین رمان روبرت والزر و مشهورترین رمان او است که بیش از بقیهی آثارش نقد و بررسی شده است این کتاب را از جمله پیشروترین و آوانگاردترین رمانهای پیشگام در ادبیات مدرن میدانند والزر این رمان را در سالدر برلین نوشت قبل از نوشتن آن سه سال شاگرد یک آموزشگاه شبانهروزی تعلیم و تربیت نوجوانان برای خدمت در جامعه و ادارات بود مدیر و صاحب این آموزشگاه آقای میلیو بود که در رمان با شخصیت مدیر آموزشگاه شبانهروزی بنیامنتا منظور شده است چنانکه روبرت والزر خود به کارل زیلیش گفته است، یاکوب فون گونتن را بیش از همهی کتابهای خود میپسندیده است والتر بنیامین دربارهی کتاب گفته است: «داستانی بسیار عجیب و ظریف که حسوحالی ناب و سرزنده دارد» کریستوفر میدلتن، شاعر برجستهی انگلیسی، مترجم آثار والزر ازجمله همین کتاب و والزرشناس، دربارهی این کتاب میگوید: «یاکوب فون گونتن ازجمله آثاری است که در زمان خود کارکرد ادبی زبان آلمانی را دگرگون کردند این کتاب شبیه هیچکدام از دیگر رمانهای آلمانی و اصلاً هیچکدام از آثار ادبی اروپایی نیست میتوان یاکوب فون گونتن را گفتوگوی تحلیلی و شاعرانهی نویسنده با خود نامید این کتاب طنینی غولآسا و بسیار نیرومند دارد و به یک کاپریسیو برای چنگ، فلوت و طبل شبیه است»کتاب یاکوب فون گونتن از متن اصلی آلمانی ترجمه شده است و با ترجمهی انگلیسی کریستوفر میدلتن مقابله شده است بخشی از متن کتاب:« موهای پرکلاغی بسیار پرپشت دارد بیشتر وقتها زیر چشماناش گود افتاده است چشماناش شکوهی دارد که مناسب باریدن و اشکریختن است چتر چشماناش اه! من همهچیز را موشکافانه زیر نظر گرفتهام، مژگاناش، تاقی کلفت و ضخیم زده است و استعدادی حیرتآور و شگفتانگیز در حرکت سریع دارد یکبار دیدن این چشمها مثل نگاهکردن به پرتگاه دلواپسی، به ورطهی واهمه و به اعماق یک گودال است این چشمان و درخشش سیاه و تیرگی براقشان نماد هیچی و پوچی است ضمناً همهی نگفتنیها و ناگفتهها را در خود دارد این چشمان اثری بهغایت آشنا و ناشناس میگذارد ابرواناش تا مرز درزگونگی باریک است و گرد و کمانی بر چشماناش کشیده شده است هرکس این ابروان را تماشا کند احساس میکند نیش خاری و یا تیری بر تناش فرو رفته است این ابروان مثل هلال ماه در آسمان شبی رنگپریده و بیمار است، هرچه دورتر و بیرونتر از دسترس باشد زخمی که برجا میگذارد سوزندهتر و از درون بُرندهتر است گونههایش! بهنظر میرسد اشتیاق راکد و خاموش، ترس و لرز، بزم و پایکوبی، همه را بر گونههای خود رام کرده و نگه داشته است نرمی و لطافت بیتزویر و بیتدبیر بر این گونهها میگرید و اشک میریزد گاهگاه سرخی تمناگری ملایم بر برف سوسوزن اینگونهها میتابد، یکجور زندگی یا سرزندگی شرمزدهی سرخگون، یکجور خورشید، نه، نه! صرفاً بازتاب کمرنگی از همچو چیزی بعد لحظهی معهود فرا میرسد، ناگهان انگار گونههای او لبخند میزند، یا انگار اندکی تب کرده است اگر کسی گونههای فرویلاین بنیامنتا را تماشا و بررسی کند، میلاش را به ادامهی زندگی از دست میدهد چون احساس میکند زندگی بهناگزیر جهنمی درهم و برهم و مملو از خامی و نابههنجاری پست و بیارزش است نگاه از چنین چیز ملایم و نرمی بهسوی چیزی زمخت، سخت و تهدیدآمیز هدایت میشود و دندانهایش بیمحابا جلوهگری میکند، البته اگر دهان گوشتالوی او بهلبخند باز شود هروقت گریه و زاری سر میدهد، آدم خیال میکند الان زمین از نقطهی اتکای خود فرو افتد و کن فیکون میشود که شرم و حیا و درد و رنج و گریه و زاری او را نبیند کسی که اولینبار صدای گریه و زاری او را میشنود؟ آه! به گذشته میپیوندد، فنا میشود، میمیرد طبیعتاً ما شاگردان آن را درست لابهلای ساعتهای درسمان شنیدهایم ما همه مثل بید مجنون به لرزه و رعشه افتادهایم بله، درست است: ما همه او را دوست داریم او معلم بلندمرتبه و باارزش ما است بیگفتوگو او از چیزی در عذاب است آیا بیمار است؟»badeelbooks I really, really hated this book Jakob von Gunten (the character) is the most dull, fey, irritating, and obtuse example of a firstperson narrator I have yet encountered in my literary sojourns I wanted to track him down and to bludgeon him to death. Chris Middleton does such a proficient job in my introduction honing in on the mysterium, journal element, and subtle ribbing tone of Jakob, that for a moment I think I am left with nothing to say Luckily,I am not one to succumb to silence even in those circumstances : or, to be perfectly precise, I seem to always have something to say even when I don’t For better or worse This entire novel, then, is a study of contrast, and undercurrent Seeming levity of tone belies a violent clash of dichotomous life forces: starting from Jakob himself, who embodies a relentless pursuit of ‘experiences’: : an outward momentum which accelerates unchecked, couples with a seemingly dissonant imperative of repressing the same, dulling and quashing all sense data, and finishing with the non too subtle juxtaposition between quotidian and otherworldly in place names (e.g the monotonous and heterogenous atmosphere of the Benjamenta Institute for servants vs the sumptuous, mysterious world of the ‘inner chambers’) And everything in between Which in this case, is : a quintessential nothing Jakob, having no plot, and unencumbered with background details, presents as an albedo scene: sparce on props, against which the klieglight carves out in microscopic details the dynamics of life through a narrative of character study.Jakob is a duality juxtaposed in bilateral relations with other characters where yet another geodesic posesduality; this time in the pair off between Jakob and another character Thus are the scenes in this novel enacted: in a sequence of Siamese links between Jakob and AN Other Jakob and Kraus Jakob and hisbrother Jakob and Herr Benjamenta Jakob and fraulein Benjamenta: a rotational pairing of opposites, diametrically opposed Throughout this Jakob is by no means a constant: a quintessential ‘everyman’, he subtly adapts to each pairings idiosyncrasies to fulfil the role of subservient or ‘lord it’ Thus in the unholy triefecta between the Cocteau an siblings and himself, he slithers between sub and dom with remarkable dexterity.Walser explores ‘coupledom’ thus as a technique to illustrate the multilayers of the human condition: each pairing speaks to life’s permutations: whether friendship, love (homoerotic love), duty, or even death Each relationship is a refractory thread which opens up a new window of waltenshuung How does this feel? Like the universe has been stretched out from pole to pole, wrenched out of its non euclydic slumber and prostrated, belly up, on the examining table for the mother of all postmortems If there is mysterium, it is unabashedly eviscerated and the contents strewn out for our ‘gaze’: no less mysterious, but a hell of a lotaccessible How is this done? Through torrents of undercurrents Nothing but nothing is explicit: yet the accretion of sequence after sequence creates a cumulative atmosphere of uninhibited wondrousness and marble cake layers of richness, potent in sensuality and promises. Here's the cover of the 1983 Vintage Books trade paperback I have (154 pages) Full review to come.
- 158 pages
- Jakob von Gunten
- Robert Walser
- 09 September 2018 Robert Walser