Robert Walser: Berlin Stories

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 (tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky, 2012), 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.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

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.

11 thoughts on “Robert Walser: Berlin Stories

  1. Dwight says:

    Sigh. One of many…many NYRB books I want to read. Thanks for writing up your thoughts on this. I find writing about a collection of stories, even when there’s a common theme, very difficult. It’s not as if they are trying to convey a unified story. Or maybe they are. As you say, maybe it’s simply a narrative of the time, or thoughts, or outlook, or something else…in Walser’s case, it sounds like one from column A and one from column D. And maybe more.

  2. Trevor says:

    I know, Dwight, it’s like they can’t give us a break by publishing a few unappealing books. I am not going to make this any easier as I am just about half-way through their forthcoming edition of Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, and I again find myself being slightly surprised at how pleased I am with what NYRB Classics brings to us. It’s always refreshing.

    Interestingly, in Confusion I came upon a few passages that took me right to Walser and right to Berlin Stories. At the beginning, the young student is in Berlin, probably at about the same time Walser was there. He even calls it a “giantess.” But check out this apt description the reflects so well the energy in Walser’s collection:

    [. . .] I stepped out into the streets of the city, the Berlin of those days which, surprised by its own growth, was bursting with a virility too suddenly attained, sparks flying from all its stones and all its streets, while the feverishly vibrant pace of life forced itself irresistably on everyone, and in its avid greed greatly resembled the intoxication of my own recently recognized sense of virility.

    Confusion comes out in a few weeks, so I’ll be posting more then, but just so interested parties can prepare :) .

  3. I am reading the older collection of Walser stories. I was delighted to discover, much as you say in your first paragraph, that Walser is, to use a technical literary term, a huge goofball. Imaginative, sparky, fun.

    The earlier book covers more time. Perhaps it will darken as I move through it.

  4. Lee Monks says:

    Great review, and it’s funny what Tom says there about Walser being a ‘goofball': I think I know what he’s driving at, and it’s Walser’s constant delight in everything that I loved about this. The biographical details are almost too sad to contemplate in light of this constantly child-like curiosity and impressionability which is so beguiling and contextually upsetting.

  5. Trevor says:

    “Goofball” is the perfect term of art for this. I agree that covers his constant delight in everything, but it also describes how his characters interact and the tone with which he often directly addresses the reader. There is so much energy behind the words.

    And usually the darkness is there as well. I recently finished his short The Walk, which will be coming from New Directions in a few weeks. It’s all of these things and still so melancholy in the end, which, in a way, only serves to emphasize just how ubullient the other parts are.

  6. I am reading “The Walk” right now, the version in Selected Stories. The New Directions version appears to be a radical rewrite of the same story. I am eager to hear what you think.

  7. Pykk says:

    Thank you for that review. I’d like to read all of Walser in chronological order one day — including this one; I haven’t read it yet — and see how his tone changes — because I know that in Selected Stories, Speaking To The Rose, The Robber, and so on, those expressions of exuberance seem to be very much acted — he lets you know, by taking things too far, by being too humble, too nice, that this is not a writer writing unconsciously, it’s a writer performing his writing, very self-consciously, for an audience, who might want one thing or another thing — he pretends he doesn’t know — and so he makes little finicky motions, cringing: a kind of friendly gentle masochism through fantastical unnecessary politeness, eg, from his short piece “The Honeymoon:”

    “Yet many other sights were in store for them, a farmer plowing, for instance, and next to him a country manor of townlike appearance, over which a snail was strolling on some errand or other, if to speak of a stroll can be justified here. A robed rider rode on his buoyant horse out of a suggestive thicket, evidently on a mission, and a piece of rope, or string, was lying on a bench. The bench was absorbed in the expectation of being sat on. To enumerate every concrete thing in the world would exhaust me, and the reader too, so I shall confine myself and wish the couple a safe return home and a cornucopia of delights on their life’s way. All around they looked, were interested in a variety of things, took careful note of some, including an elephant, a dove, and a snake.”

  8. Trevor says:

    Tom, you probably know this, but for those who don’t, the new edition of The Walk is heavily revised because Walser himself heavily revised the version that was initially translated. Bernofsky said that her method of, uhm, updating? the translation was by keeping Middleton’s prose and only taking out the same words Walser himself did (or adding words, rearranging, etc.). I’d be interested in the difference, but according to Bernofsky Walser cut quite a bit of the excess out — and there’s still a lot of nice nice excess!

    Pykk, great great point on Walser:

    those expressions of exuberance seem to be very much acted — he lets you know, by taking things too far, by being too humble, too nice, that this is not a writer writing unconsciously, it’s a writer performing his writing, very self-consciously, for an audience [. . .]

    I agree. My experience with that is in The Tanners when the main character was one extreme and then the other, and you had to wonder just where he really sat, because the two extremes were obviously too extreme. That said, in the early pieces in this collection, where it seems very autobiographical, he does have that same extreme vivacity. In The Walk he seems almost to be running from some dark demon, or life itself is that dark demon, and certainly there’s the sense that the animated greetings are compensating for something.

  9. This is already on my notional TBR pile (i.e. I don’t own it, but have it under consideration), so I’m glad to see it reviewed.

    Is it a little collection? For some reason I had the impression this was a great fat tome of a book.

    Are these fictional pieces, or are they feuilletons of the sort Joseph Roth for example used to write? Tiny essays, ideally slightly amusing, on a topic of passing interest. There’s no direct Anglo-Saxon equivalent, though the form exists today in other languages (Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon is a feuilleton).

    My only concern is that I noticed the word splendid kept cropping up in the quotes. How varied did you find the language?

  10. Trevor says:

    Hi Max, this is a relatively little collection, something not much over 150 pages, if I remember correctly (we are in the process of moving so that books is now packed away). They are predominantly nonfictional (he writes of the streets, the theater, etc.), but there is a smattering of his fiction here as well. All pieces are very very short, but rather splendid! There’s that word. I could be wrong, but I never got tired of repeated words. If one were to tire from Walser, it would first come from his style, which seems to be loaded with over-statements and, though not repetitious in words, many words in a string of words have similar meanings. All deliberate and effective for his purposes, but I’d imagine some would find it annoying. The repetitions, I’m assuming, come from Walser himself and not from Bernovsky, who is self-reportedly faithful to Walser’s idiosyncrasies. I loved it! I’d recommend it as a frequent palate cleanser, meaning it’s not necessary to read the book at once an may be better if a piece is read here and there between other books.

  11. 150 pages or so? Well, that bumps it suddenly even further up the list.

    Thanks for the detailed reply. It sounds absolutely up my street. A definite must read.The palate cleanser approach sounds good too. Sometimes I definitely need that.

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