Admittedly, as I read the first dozen or so pages, I wasn't sure how
much I would be able to enjoy the "analytic fictional soliloquy" of a
precocious teenager. It turns out, immensely. Robert Walser writes
nearly flawlessly, crafting a prose that is seamless and bewitching. A
century old, Jakob von Gunten
reads as if it could have been written
this decade (save, of course, for the fact that young Jakob would
undoubtedly be ingesting a wide array of mind-numbing,
soul-dispiriting pharmaceuticals, and, thus, wouldn't near even the
most nebulous of insights).
In Jakob, the Swiss writer has constructed a disarmingly believable
character, one replete with a temperament both quizzical and
inquisitive. This ridiculously sensitive young man is not only curious
about himself and others, but, too, about his and others' place in the
world around them (a proclivity notably absent even from most adults).
With wisdom well beyond his chronological age, the title character is
obviously prone to vacillating between the peaks of self-assuredness
and the nadirs of self-doubt. With little action to sustain the
narrative, it is Jakob's observations and introspections that make
this novel so charming and endearing. Mingling the arduousness of
youth with the limitations of class-bound aspirations, Walser, at
once, deftly portrays the idiosyncrasies of the former along with the
frustrations of the latter.
While the language and syntax of Walser's writing are something special
to behold, his characterizations may be some of the finest in modern
letters. I found myself, throughout the book, wishing he'd authored
companion volumes about Kraus, the Herr, and the Fräulein. Wishing too
I was for the indulgence of being able to witness Jakob as seen by the
others. I was also easily given over to considering Jakob as literary
kin to both Joseph Joubert and Fernando Pessoa (or rather, one of his
heteronyms perhaps the nephew of Bernardo Soares). It's easy to be
won over by Walser rising to the challenge of not allowing Jakob to
succumb to uncertainty and despair, which surely would have been the
easier literary course to pursue. Instead, Jakob's precariousness is
tempered by a humor and optimism that makes his personality all but
leap off the page. Jakob von Gunten is mesmerizing, and it is of
little wonder Walser was envied by the likes of Kafka, Hesse, Musil,
From Jakob von Gunten:
One day I shall be laid low by a stroke, and then everything, all
these confusions, this longing, this unknowing, all this, the
gratitude and ingratitude, this telling lies and self-deception, this
thinking that one knows and yet never knowing anything, will come to
an end. But I want to live, no matter how.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
The Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) is one of the quiet geniuses of 20th-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser ended his life in an insane asylum, but left a body of work that was admired by such contemporaries as Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka. Walser is an outsider artist of whose beautiful and capricious sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau.
Jakob von Gunten is Walser's masterpiece. It is the story of a 17-year-old runaway who is taken in at a school for servants, the Institute Benjamenta. Jakob, whose frankness and utter lack of pretension make him resemble Holden Caulfield, records the life of the school, as well as his impressions of its directors and fellow students, in a book that is at once a celebration and a satire of the utopian ideal of community as well as an account of mysterious initiation.
About the Author
Robert Walser (1878–1956) 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 Berlin Stories
and Jakob von Gunten
(both available as NYRB classics), Thirty Poems
, The Walk
, The Tanners
, The Assistant
, The Robber
, Masquerade and Other Stories
and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.
Christopher Middleton (b. 1926) is a poet, essayist, and translator. He teaches Germanic languages and literature at the University of Texas at Austin and has translated numerous works, including Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser.