Sunday, April 22, 2012

Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser

"Good Morning, Giantess!" So the first chapter of this collection opens as the newly arrived Swiss citizen takes stock of his subject, the  great city of Berlin. We were recently reading this over on GoodReads--me, at least, at what I hope was an appropriately leisurely pace, for Walser strolls through the city--he never runs. 

In an interview on BBC's Night Waves (it's about 30 minutes in) Susan Bernofsky, the translator of this collection, calls Walser the blogger of the early 20th century. I think there is something in that, although there is a humility in Walser, an ability to make his feuilletons about any number of small, easily missed things and not about himself, that is someitmes absent from the blogosphere. He often writes not of "I", but of "we", which is never a royal "we", but his way of including us more fully in the experience. Then again, his "I" often dissolves instead into a "you".

It is very kind of him to write so, because most of us will never on our own enjoy the pleasures and observations of urban living as he did. Read his piece "In the Electric Tram" if you'd like to learn more about how to get the most out of a simple ride on public transportation. Some modifications will have to be made, but it helps to know that Walser would have risen to that particular challenge.

Walser paints a very beautiful portrait, but all the same life was not easy for him, here in a foreign capital. His brother was a much sought after set designer, so Walser rode on his coattails a bit, and I think sometimes both brothers were thought of as a bit eccentric in Berlin society. He doesn't seem to have let it bother him much. Although he had a famous brother, he was not a famous person pretending to be humble and obscure, but actually obscure and struggling. I think it helps to know that he was able to write what are mostly incredibly joyful pieces despite this.

One of my favorite pieces, though, is an uncharacteristic one. It is later in the book, and Walser is no longer a recent arrival. It struck a chord with me when I read it--probably after a long day of retail-- and is called "Food for Thought":

How uncertain, how difficult people make one another's lives. How they belittle each other and are at pains to suspect and dishonor. How everything takes place merely for the sake of triumph. When they leave things undone, this occurs because of external exigencies, and when they err, it is never they who are at fault. Their fellow men always appear to them as obstacles, while their own person is always the highest and most noble of creatures...It's strange how quick people are to dismiss one another, to invoke a scornful tone, trifling with what is most noble, precious and meaningful. And how they never grow weary of finding fault, how it never occurs to them to hope there might be greatness, goodness and honesty on earth... 

Purely by chance, I seem to have read three pieces on Berlin in the twentieth century recently, and though only one century, all are completely different periods in the life of that city. Having earlier read In the Garden of Beasts, the title of which refers to the famous Tiergarten of Berlin and is set in the time of the rise of the Nazis, I have since read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, set in the period directly after the war when the Berlin Wall is being very firmly hammered into place. And now this lovely book which is made sad by the fact that it it set in the opening decades of that century, and we know all that will befall Berlin and Walser does not. Another sadness is that Walser's own life did not ultimately end well.

Here's a link to a lovely podcast of one of the stories, "Frau Wilke". The narrator, Sam Jones, keeps up blog called Wandering With Robert Walser , which is worth keeping track of if you fall for this stuff.

As I have.


  1. That opening greeting is more jovial that what Joseoh Roth musters, but just as all-embracing of the city. I may take a look.

  2. Given his biography, which includes mental illness, it may be more putting a brave face on things than it appears.

  3. Yes, that excerpt you posted suggests a nervous sensitivity.

    The great Swiss crime writer Friedrich Glauser was an opium and morphone addict who I think spent a fair amount of time in institutions, not that I want to cast any aspersions on the mental health of our Swiss friends. Deliciously, for speakers of English who enjoy ironic wordplay, he died in a village called Nervi.

  4. Morphine, not morphone, which sounds like something Apple or Microsoft would make.

  5. You should patent the name, Peter, if someone hasn't already.

  6. Funny, but I just noticed that the mysterious Pykk, whose blog is in my sidebar here, but who I really don't know anything about at all, except that they are interesting, has just recently published a little commentary on Walser and Zoshchenko, though really more about Zoshchenko.

  7. Zoshchenko looks interesting. And if you find Pykk interesting, then it's no doubt worth a look, too. Thanks.