Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Robert Walser

Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser
One of the strangest books I've ever read.  The first book by Walser I've read.  I've seen his name over the years, especially recently, as interest in his work seems to have returned or grown.  Published in 1909 in Switzerland.  An English translation published in New York in 1969.  The New York Review of Books reprinted this translation in 1999.  Every thirty years, every sixty years?  Pretty good for an unknown writer.  Every writer's dream, to have your works in print one hundred years more or less later. 

Jakob speaks about his life in the home for runaways where he is being trained for a job in service.  Other students and friends, the husband and wife who run the school and we even see him going to visit his older brother in the city who is successful and well-off.  And after that, how can we say what the book is about and what the book does for us.  Nothing happens much.  And yet the tale has the appeal of dream and reverie, of private meditation, of great innoncence and great wisdom interwoven without visible seam.  And by the end there is a strange sense of both release and sadness and a touch of utter bafflement too.  What will happen to Jakob?  The father figure who runs the school offers to take Jakob with him off on adventures and possibilities.  The mother figure, Herr Benjamenta's wife, has died.  Jakob's best friend, the beloved Kraus, has gone off into his job.  But, again, the book's incredible power and magic are not really about all of this, quite.  The voice of Jakob as he writes his life, that is the achievement.  Somehow Walser has transposed growing up, the growing up story, and the family romance that Freud had in mind, into a boarding school series of episodes so that Jakob's dreamy telling captures us and holds us in its warm, forgiving outlook on human life.  I thought of Peter Pan as another variant of these themes---family life for adolescents transmuted through dreamlife and wonder how many scholars have studied the European fascination with dreams and dream-life at the turn into the twentieth-century.  

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