Authors: Robert Walser
ROBERT WALSER (1878â1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser's works available in English are
Jakob von Gunten
(available as an NYRB classic),
The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories,
Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912â1932
JOCHEN GREVEN is the author of first German-language PhD dissertation on Robert Walser and the editor of Walser's collected works in German. As a graduate student in the 1950s, he recognized that Walser's “microscripts” (manuscript pages covered with tiny handwriting discovered after Walser's death) were not written in secret code but were in fact literary texts in standard German. Greven has devoted more than fifty years to studying and editing Walser's work.
SUSAN BERNOFSKY is the translator of six books by Robert Walser as well as works by Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse, Gregor von Rezzori, and others. The current chair of the PEN Translation Committee, she teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College (CUNY) and is at work on a biography of Walser.
Translated from the German by
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
The young Swiss writer Robert Walser moved to Berlin in the summer of 1905, at the age of twenty-seven. He'd just published his first book, the outlines of a successful literary career were beginning to unfold before him, and the moment seemed ripe to leave behind the relative peace and safety of his native land for the stimulation and excitement of the German capital. Then as now, Berlin was the destination of choice for young German-speaking writers eager to tap into the pulse of the avant-garde, and his brother Karl, who'd made the move several years before and quickly established himself as the city's foremost stage-set designer, had been encouraging Robert to join him. Karl's celebrity secured his younger brother entry into the most exclusive artistic circles, where he met actresses and painters, theater directors and publishers, some of whom took an interest in him.
Berlin in those days was hopping. The city had undergone a period of intense growth in the final decades of the nineteenth centuryâits population swelled to two million by 1900âand was the site of one of the liveliest high societies in Europe. While factories had bred slums in the city's northern and eastern districts, the elegance of several of its neighborhoods rivaled that of Paris, though Berlin was more densely packed than the French capital with its brightly lit
. But Berlin had splendid avenues of its own: Unter den Linden to the east, lined with a double row of the linden trees it was named for, and the swank KurfÃ¼rstendamm to the west, as well as a capacious park called Tiergarten, a former hunting ground full of well-tended serpentine paths for Sunday strolls. Potsdamer Platz, Berlin's busiest intersection (and the one Curt Bois reminisces about in Wim Wenders's
Wings of Desire
), was a tangle of pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, automobiles, omnibuses, and electric streetcars; by 1908, thirty-five streetcar lines stopped here. Subway cars began to run in 1902, two years earlier than in New York, and people hurried in and out of newfangled restaurants designed for rapid service, like those of the Aschinger chain Walser writes about in two of the stories included here. At Aschinger, one ate standing up, and unlimited free rolls were served to anyone buying a beer. The city's headlong dive into modernity soon became its trademark. Walser's acquaintance Walther Rathenauâwho later would become foreign minister of Germanyâquipped that Berlin's oldest palaces dated to the early Wilhelmine period, i.e., the late nineteenth century, and dubbed Berlin “Parvenupolis.”
Among Berlin's would-be parvenus were any number of young artists. The city appeared to reward youthful rebelliousness. Its philharmonic orchestra was formed in 1882 when a group of musicians broke away from the ensemble at a music hall that provided military-band-style entertainment along with ham sandwiches; they moved into a renovated roller-skating rink and soon began performing a repertoire that included Brahms, Wagner, and the young composers Felix Weingartner and Richard Strauss. In the visual arts it was no different: a group of artists removed themselves from the official Association of Berlin Artists in 1892 after the association succumbed to pressure from Kaiser Wilhelm to shut down a show featuring Edvard Munch. The Berlin Secession, as this group soon dubbed itself, quickly rose to prominence and included such luminaries as Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Max Beckmann, Max Slevogt, Walter Leistikowâand Karl Walser. Robert Walser himself served as secretary to the Secession for several months in 1907, as he reminisces in his story “The Secretary.” There were theaters everywhere (their number swelled to thirty-seven by the 1920s), not to mention the many variety shows and cabarets for which the city was to become famous.
Walser had been to Berlin before, twice in fact: in 1897 as a lad of nineteen, and again in 1902; but each time he had fled back to Zurich after only a few weeks, in large part because he felt he would be unable to support himself as a writer in the German metropolis. In 1905, though, he held out for nearly three months before traveling back to Zurich, and after only a few weeks there found himself missing the bustle and excitement of the city so much that he returned, overflowing with newfound optimism. In a note to a friend in Biel, he wrote, “I'm about to write so much that Hesse and Co. will be terrified.” Berlin was to be his home for more than seven years, and the books he wrote here firmly established him as one of the most singular and original voices of European modernism.
For Karl Walser, 1905 was a watershed year. He had recently begun a series of collaborations with the era's most famous theater director, Max Reinhardt, and in January they put on
A Midsummer Night's Dream
together at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. In November a grand new opera house, the Komische Oper, opened its doors with a Reinhardt production that one prominent reviewer dubbed “The Tales of HoffmannâA Walser Dream.” Karl's stage sets were fanciful, mysterious, and full of romantic gardenscapes and hanging trees, images that also appeared in the paintings he exhibited at Berlin Secession shows. That year he drew the cover illustration for Christian Morgenstern's collection of humorous poems
, and the book became a surprise best seller. In the middle of the summer, just as Robert Walser was on his way back from Switzerland, Karl packed up his paints and brushes and set off for the elegant neighborhood of Grunewald at the wooded edge of town, where Samuel Fischer, one of the most powerful publishers in Germany, had hired him to paint a series of frescoes in his freshly renovated villa.
For Robert Walser, his brother's heady rise to fame and fortune must have been as overwhelming as it was unexpected. After all, his brotherâonly one year his seniorâhad himself arrived in Berlin penniless, an unknown provincial with a thick accent and inexperienced in the rituals of high society. But while Karl was able to swim with ease in the waters of Berlin's
, it soon became clear that his social circles were only partially permeable to the younger Walser brother. Robert, who was living as a guest in Karl's apartment in the tony Charlottenburg district, soon developed a reputation as a big drinker and a sometimes too enthusiastic prankster. He walked up to Hugo von Hofmannsthal in a restaurant and asked the celebrated dramatist, “Can't you forget for a bit that you're famous?” Robert and Karl once teased Franz Wedekindâfor whose
Karl designed the setsâso persistently that Wedekind fled a dinner party to escape them, only to get stuck in a cafÃ©'s revolving door, where the brothers cornered him once more, shouting “Schafskopf!” (muttonhead) as he whirled past.
In a letter to their sister Fanny, Robert describes his attempt to assimilate to his elegant new surroundings and social life:
So little soup was served that afterwards the vegetables and the roast meat were doubly appealing. After lunch I passed the hours gazing at myself in four beautiful mirrors that were hung up in the blue living room, and yet came no closer to making sense of myselfâon the contrary, I became stupider and stupider. Then I went calling and always returned home famished. You had to take the train, and that was splendid. I grew accustomed to hackney cabs, waiters, and refined ladies. I wore an elegant, long, black, close-fitting frock coat, a vest, silver-blue in color, trousers that didn't fit so well, a tall hat and a pair of gloves balled up in my hands. I looked magnificent, for a coat like this makes one a human being. But I resolved to remain an honest man, and so I threw off these dainty coverings. I packed my miserable carpenter's bag and sailed off.
As fond as he may have been of that coatâno doubt borrowedâwhich his brother's roomful of mirrors encouraged him to admire, he seems not to have considered it anything more than a costume by means of which he might blend in. The camouflage seems not to have worked: Karl once received a dinner invitation that instructed him to bring his brother along “only if he isn't too hungry.”
For reasons that have never become as clear as we might like, Walser decided several months after his arrival in Berlin to enroll in a monthlong course of study at the
(Aristocratic Servants School) located at Wilhelmstrasse 28, not far from Unter den Linden and the fancy shopping street Friedrichstrasse. The curriculum at this school included such topics as waiting at table, cleaning, carving roasts, keeping the household accounts, napkin folding, handling “nervous persons,” and massage. By 1911, the list was updated to include instruction in the use of electrical lights, central heating, and telephones.
Almost nothing is known about Walser's experiences at the servants' school. Its pupils were adults, and Walser remembered some of them decades later as possessed of “the delicacy of page boys.” The school also appears, radically transformed, as the boys' school “Institute Benjamenta” in Walser's 1909 novel
Jakob von Gunten
. All that is directly recognizable is the basic structure of the curriculum: Jakob notes that the lessons are both “practical” and “theoretical” in nature. After Walser graduated, he served for the length of one winter as an assistant butler at a count's castle in upper Silesia, an adventure that goes strikingly unrecorded in the stories dating from this period. Walser did not write about this interlude until more than a decade later, in the 1917 story “Tobold.”