The Genius of Robert Walser

On Christmas Day, 1956, the police of the town of Herisau in eastern Switzerland were called out: children had stumbled upon the body of a man, frozen to death, in a snowy field. Arriving at the scene, the police took photographs and had the body removed.
The dead man was easily identified: Robert Walser, aged seventy-eight, missing from a local mental hospital. In his earlier years Walser had won something of a reputation, in Switzerland and even in Germany, as a writer. Some of his books were still in print; there had even been a biography of him published. During a quarter of a century in mental institutions, however, his own writing had dried up. Long country walks—like the one on which he had died—had been his main recreation.
The police photographs showed an old man in overcoat and boots lying sprawled in the snow, his eyes open, his jaw slack. These photographs have been widely (and shamelessly) reproduced in the critical literature on Walser that has burgeoned since the 1960s.1 Walser’s so-called madness, his lonely death, and the posthumously discovered cache of his secret writings were the pillars on which a legend of Walser as a scandalously neglected genius was erected. Even the sudden interest in Walser became part of the scandal. “I ask myself,” wrote the novelist Elias Canetti in 1973, “whether, among those who build their leisurely, secure, dead regular academic life on that of a writer who had lived in misery and despair, there is one who is ashamed of himself.”
Robert Walser was born in 1878 in the canton of Bern, the seventh of eight children. His father, trained as a bookbinder, ran a store selling stationery and notions. At the age of fourteen Robert was taken out of school and apprenticed to a bank, where he performed his clerical functions in exemplary fashion. But, possessed by dreams of becoming an actor, he ran off to Stuttgart. His one and only audition proved a humiliating failure: he was dismissed as wooden and expressionless. Abandoning the stage, Walser decided to become—“God willing”—a poet. Drifting from job to job, he wrote poems, prose sketches, and little verse plays (“dramolets”), not without success. Soon he had been taken up by Insel Verlag, publisher of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, who put out his first book.
In 1905, intent on advancing his career, he followed his elder brother, a successful book illustrator and stage designer, to Berlin. There he enrolled in a training school for servants and worked briefly as a butler in a country house (he wore livery and answered to the name “Monsieur Robert”). Before long, however, he found he could support himself on the proceeds of his writing. He contributed to prestigious literary magazines, was accepted in serious artistic circles. But he was never at ease in the role of metropolitan intellectual; after a few drinks he tended to become rude and aggressively provincial. Gradually he retreated from society to a solitary, frugal life in bedsitters. In these surroundings he wrote four novels, of which three have survived: The Tanner Children (1906), The Factotum (1908), and Jakob von Gunten (1909). All draw for their material on his own life experience; but in the case of Jakob von Gunten—the best known of these early novels, and deservedly so—that experience is wondrously transmuted.
One learns very little here,” observes young Jakob von Gunten after his first day at the Benjamenta Institute, where he has enrolled himself as a student. The teachers lie around like dead men. There is only one textbook, What is the Aim of Benjamenta’s Boys’ School?, and only one lesson, “How Should a Boy Behave?” All the teaching is done by Fräulein Lisa Benjamenta, sister of the principal. Herr Benjamenta himself sits in his office and counts his money, like an ogre in a fairy tale. In fact, the school is a bit of a swindle.
Nevertheless, having run away to the big city (unnamed, but clearly Berlin) from what he calls “a very, very small metropolis,” Jakob has no intention of giving up. He does not mind wearing the Benjamenta uniform; he gets on with his fellow students; and besides, riding the elevators downtown gives him a thrill, makes him feel thoroughly a child of his times.
Jakob von Gunten purports to be the diary Jakob keeps during his stay at the Institute. It consists mainly of his reflections on the education he receives there—an education in humility—and on the strange brother and sister who offer it. The humility taught by the Benjamentas is not of the religious variety. Their graduates aspire to be serving men or butlers, not saints. But Jakob is a special case, a pupil for whom the lessons in humility have a deep personal resonance. “How fortunate I am,” he writes, “not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.”
The Benjamentas are a mysterious and, at first sight, forbidding pair. Jakob sets himself the task of penetrating their mystery. He treats them not with respect but with the cheeky self-assurance of a child who is used to having any mischief on his part excused as cute, mixing effrontery with patently insincere self-abasement, giggling at his own insincerity, confident that candor will disarm all criticism, but not really caring if it does not. The word he would like to apply to himself, that he would like the world to apply to him, is impish. An imp is a mischievous sprite; an imp is also a lesser devil.
Soon Jakob has begun to gain ascendancy over the Benjamentas. Fräulein Benjamenta hints that she is fond of him; he pretends not to understand. She reveals that what she feels is perhaps more than fondness, is perhaps love; Jakob replies with a long, evasive speech full of respectful sentiments. Thwarted, Fräulein Benjamenta pines away and dies.
Herr Benjamenta, initially hostile to Jakob, is maneuvered to the point of pleading with the boy to be his friend, to abandon his plans and come wandering the world with him. Primly, Jakob refuses: “But how shall I eat, Principal?… It’s your duty to find me a decent job. All I want is a job.” Yet on the last page of his diary he announces he is changing his mind: he will throw away his pen and go off into the wilderness with Herr Benjamenta (to which one can only respond: God save Herr Benjamenta!).
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