Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Robert Walser's Jakob Von Gunten

Robert Walser is a fascinating writer. He amuses you, makes you smile, laugh and then he breaks your heart. Hear Sontag, " Walser's virtues are those of the most mature, most civilized art. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer." Yes, heartbreaking. Each page of Jakob Von Gunten, considered generally to be the finest of his 4 surviving novels, explodes with sadness. Each page is a minefield of melancholy. He neither affects nor cultivates it, he is melancholy. It is indeed one's good fortune to read Jakob Von Gunten.

This novel is a diary or journal of this young man, called Jakob, who enrols at a school called the Benjamenta Institute, to train and learn to become a servant. In the beginning , he tells us that he does not want to become or get anything. The beginning of this novel is as good as anything one can read........" One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life." He then tells us that the teachers are asleep, or they are dead, or seemingly dead, or they are fossilized, no matter, in any case we get nothing from them.

Jakob then introduces us to his other co students including Kraus, with whom his relationship is seemingly at odds. We are also told of the instructress, Fraulein Benjamenta, who is the Headmaster Herr Benjamenta's sister. There are certain no go zones within this institute, described as inner chambers, a glimpse of which is promised to Jakob by the instructress at an appropriate time. Thus we are in a world that is seemingly benign but highly odd, mysterious. The next hundred pages are reflections of Jakob about his ideas and thoughts about the two Benjamentas, the institute, his other friends there and his thoughts on his future. The instructress then informs him of her love in a sisterly way for him and Kraus and her impending death, with everyone else later on finding a place for himself in the world except Jakob who is chosen by the principal to live with him and later on leave and travel.

This fantastic novel, with which I am enamoured and which easily is a novel that you can read again immediately after finishing it ( a rare phenomenon), suggests a Kafkaesque aura to it and yet, written much before Kafka wrote his works, is extraordinarily original and a collection of musings, reflections, thoughts and parables. At times Jakob's thoughts have a hallucinatory quality, it being difficult to differentiate the real from unreal, especially his descriptions of the inner chambers. Each thought or a train of such thoughts is about an idea, a way of life, a behaviour, an attitude, and after this he immediately asks to be forgiven for having thought so, and tells us that he should have not thought, "for to be robust means not spending time on thought but quickly and quietly entering into what has to be done".
Jakob always apologizes, he seeks forgiveness, he puts demands on himself, for his is the way of utter humility or should be and he demands a nonexistence for himself, a shadow world, and is sufficiently happy in just looking at his Fraulein, whom he naturally worships. He is not afraid to love her but sorry for doing so. He is convinced that one" feels vividly how nothing one is. He likes sorrow very much as well, it is very valuable, very. It shapes one". He demands that people should be condescending to him, because he is menial. And regarding the people in power, they are really starving people. Me, I shall be something lowly and small.

Even though in the beginning he wants to go out, in the end he chooses to stay in, making a choice that he perhaps always knew he would make. He desires to see this institute, with its castle like rooms and staircases, yet when he sees them, he is sorry for having done so, he should have done something else. I am going to be outrageous if I say that Walser is not behind but ahead of Kafka, for with Kafka, K. is always amazed and perplexed while Jakob is convinced of the futility of all search. Walser is a profoundly more intimate artist than Kafka for he charts the soul while Kafka charts the roads. Walser has seen, experienced, been defeated and acquired or sought annihilation while Kafka wants to test again, again. If Kafka is an intellectual and political writer, then Walser is a mystical one for he knows that all search is useless. I prefer Kafka, but like Walser.

I am stupefied by this novel which is nothing less than a feat of utter abjection, a manual of profound humility. I thought i was reading a Tao or a Sufi text teaching fana or annihilation and yet this is a German novel, which has surprised me. It is poetic, artistic and profoundly brilliant, a tour de force, a sensational exercise in melancholia. However, Jakob is the character who becomes this Jakob through many experiences, related as dreams, many of which remain hidden to the reader or partly understandable. There are many themes or reflections that cannot be understood on a first reading, yet it is a book written very simply. This novel, this institute predates The Castle, for here we have the castle, the symbols, heaven, love, death, dreams and the solution too.

The introduction to this novel by Chris Middleton is informative and helpful, the translation is wonderful and there are chunks of passages that can be quoted. The pupils, says Jakob are scattered in all kinds of jobs. And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero. I end by quoting parts of this wonderful passage, in which he decribes his Fraulein Benjamenta.

How beautiful she is! what a luxuriance of raven hair! Most one sees her with her eyes downcast. she has eyes that are wonderfully apt for being downcast. These eyes! if one ever sees them, one looks down into something frighteningly abyssal and profound. These eyes, with their shining darkness, seem to say nothing and yet to say everything unspeakable, they are so familiar and yet so unknown. The eyebrows are thin to breaking and are drawn in rounded arches over the eyes. If you look at them, you have a prickly feeling. They are like crescent moons in a morbidly pallid evening sky, like fine wounds, but all the more sharp, inwardly cutting wounds. And her cheeks! silent yearning and swooning seem to celebrate festivities on them. There is a weeping on them, up and down, of delicacy and tenderness that nobody has understood. When one looks at her cheeks, one has no more joy in living, for one has the feeling that life must be a turbulent hell full of vile crudities.......................And when she weeps. One thinks that the earth must drop away from every footfall of hers, in shame and sorrow to be seeing her weep.

Jakob is a mystic, he has arrived at a station, a stage and at a way of life. Walser has chosen a way of living through not living. It is a way that sadly few people reach.


Anonymous said...

nice review. I am stupefied by this novel which is nothing less than a feat of utter abjection, a manual of profound humility. I thought i was reading a Tao or a Sufi text teaching fana or annihilation and yet this is a German novel,..

I always read Walser's style as melancholic which is a common theme with European writers, but I think this is a valid comparison. I haven't read this one yet, but will pick it up.

Kubla Khan said...

Yes, pick it up and read it. it is full of delights.

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