Berlin Stories by Robert Walser (1956) translated from the Germany by Susan Bernofsky (2012) NYRB Classics (2012) 139 pp
When discussing Robert Walser, a somber mood seems most appropriate. After all, in 1933, Walser was forcibly confined to a sanatorium, where he spent the next twenty-three years until, on Christmas Day, 1956, he went for a walk and died alone in the snow. Yet when one reads this collection, Berlin Stories, one cannot help but notice the vibrancy, the wonder at life: “A lager please!” is the simple line with which he begins one story here. It seems impossible to get from such exuberance to that lonely Christmas Day.
In the summer of 1905, when he was 27, Robert Walser had just published his first book and decided to move to Berlin to live with his brother, a successful stage-set designer. Berlin Stories is a collection of . . . well, not really “stories” — sketches, ruminations, bursts of thought — about Berlin. The book itself is divided into four sections: “The City Streets,” “The Theater,” and “Berlin Life” contain pieces written mostly between 1907 and 1911 (the years during which he also wrote and published The Tanners (my review here), The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten); the final section, “Looking Back,” contains pieces written up to 1917, after he had left Berlin. The pieces are each very short, most only two or three pages, with sentences that run on and on, filled with energy.
It’s primarily in the early pieces that we see such punch and thirst for life. The first piece in the book, written in 1907, is entitled, “Good morning, Giantess!” and here Walser wanders out early, before traffic begins, into the streets of Berlin. Soon the early risers start coming out into the street, and Walser laps up the variety:
You encounter eyes as you walk along like this: girls’ eyes and the eyes of men, mirthless and gay; legs are trotting behind and before you, and you too are legging along as best you can, gazing with your own eyes, glancing the same glances as everyone else. And each breast bears some somnolent secret, each head is haunted by some melancholy or inspiring thought. Splendid, splendid.
“Beautiful park, I think, beautiful park” ends another piece that Walser, filled with wonder, wrote in 1907. The crowds of people continually enthralled him. He would describe the mass as a collective whole and then break it apart, looking into the heart of the individuals, often providing the darker parts of the sketches. “Friedrichstrasse,” one of my favorite pieces, describes a busy street during the day, but look how things change when Walser examines the street as night falls, recognizing something deep in each of his fellows:
and yet: what a ravishing, beguiling haste can be seen in all this ostensible packed-in-ness and sober-mindedness. The sun shines here upon countless heads in a single hour, the rain dampens and drenches a ground that is anointed, as it were, with comedies and tragedies, and in the evening, ah, when it begins to grow dark and the lamps are lit, a curtain slowly rises to reveal a play that is always sumptuously full of the same habits, acts of lechery, and occurrences. The siren Pleasure then begins to sing her divinely enticing, heavenly notes, and souls burst asunder amid all these vibrating wants and dissatisfactions, and a disgorging of money then commences that baffles the modest, clever understanding and can scarcely be envisioned, even with effort, by the poetic imagination. A bodily dream rising and falling with voluptuous breath then descends upon the street, and everything races, races, races with uncertain step in pursuit of this all-encompassing dream.
Berlin Stories isn’t the easiest book to review. As I mentioned, most of these aren’t traditional stories and, other than being about “Berlin,” there is no other continuity. But the composition of the collection itself is quite brilliant and offers a narrative of Walser’s time. We see Walser on that first page bursting out into the empty streets of the early morning, and the pieces that follow show Walser getting to know the busy city. Then we read Walser’s thoughts on the theater, where he spent considerable time since his brother was such a success. Then, if the sketches in “The City Streets” were bustling, “Berlin Life” steps back and lets a bit more silence enter. But not as much as comes in the final section, “Looking Back.” I said above, “It seems impossible to get from such exuberance to that lonely Christmas Day.” These final pieces retain the vibrancy and lust for life that the earlier ones had, but the tone is a bit more subdued and a sense of loss pervades.
This little collection concludes its narrative with a piece from 1917 entitled “A Homecoming in the Snow,” so we almost get to that Christmas Day, after all, though the tone here mingles with sweetness:
On my way home, which struck me as splendid, it was snowing in thick, warm, large flakes. It seemed to me as if I heard homeland-like sounds ringing out from afar. My steps were brisk despite the deep snow through which I was assiduously wading. With every step I took, my shaken trust grew firmer again, which filled me with joy the way a child rejoices. All former things bloomed fragrantly and youthfully in my direction, like roses. It almost appeared to me as if the earth were singing a sweet Christmas melody that was at the same time a melody of spring. [. . .] I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.
Perhaps I’ve been looking at that Christmas Day in 1956 from the wrong perspective all this time.