Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten

Robert Walser is one of the 20th century’s forgotten masters. Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, the seventh of eight children, to an unstable mother and a father who struggled to make a living as a bookbinder, Walser’s formal schooling ended when he was just 14 years old, after which he worked as a clerk, first in a bank, then in an elastics factory, and finally for a struggling inventor. He attended an academy for servants and worked, briefly, as a butler – events that he would transmute into Jakob von Gunten, his fourth novel – but when the First World War broke out, he was pressed into military service. Though he managed to avoid combat, these were lean years, and his devotion to his craft kept him in perpetual poverty. His writing gradually became more minimal, in more ways than one: novels gave way to short stories, poems, and “micrograms,” musings written in pencil markings so minute that literary critics, years after his death, were still working to decipher them. In 1929, after a series of failed suicide attempts, and at the suggestion of his sister, he checked into the Waldau mental institution. At first, he continued to write, but gradually he gave up the craft entirely. When a renowned literary critic came to visit him and to inquire about his work, Walser famously replied, “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” His sole pleasure, in his later life, was taking long, solitary walks through the local countryside, and it was on one of these walks, on Christmas Eve of 1956, that he suffered a fatal heart attack. His body was discovered the next day, and photographs of his corpse are still widely circulated – a source of continuing outrage among Walser fans.

A similar outrage shapes our uneasy appreciation of Kafka, a writer who admired Walser, for had he had his way, his letters and unpublished writings would have been burned upon his death, and it was only the betrayal of his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, that salvaged him for posterity. Walser and Kafka share a rare and deep sensitivity, evident in both their writings, that was indistinguishable from weakness to outsiders (Kafka’s father, Walser’s literary circles), but which, when transmuted into their fictions, manifested itself in incredible strength: the ability to delineate the smallest psychological peculiarities, and convey them with infinite finesse. In Jakob von Gunten, he eponymous narrator has enlisted in the Benjamenta Institute, a school for aspiring servants, more out of necessity than genuine desire:

[…] we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all. Inward successes, yes. But what does one get from such as these? Do inward acquisitions give one food to eat? I would like to be rich, to ride in coaches and squander money.

It’s an inauspicious beginning, to be sure, which Jakob sums up with this gloomy prophecy of his future: “As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish.” And yet, not long after his arrival, his perception shifts: “To be of service to somebody whom one does not know, and who has nothing to do with one, that is charming, it gives one a glimpse into divine and misty paradises.” Service has a special Christian significance (one thinks of Milton: “They also serve who only stand and wait“), connected with charity and self-sacrifice, and in many respects, Jakob follows in the footsteps of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin as a preternaturally earnest, kind and upbeat character. “I can’t help laughing at myself,” he tells us at one point: “I find something slightly nice in everything and about everything.”

Reading Walser, another literary figure came to mind, this one made of flesh and blood: John Keats. Partially it’s the extreme sensitivity of soul, so rare and so enchanting, and partially it’s the determination to regard one’s lot in life –however humble or troubled – as sufficient. “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Keats asks in one of his letters. Here is Jakob, reflecting positively on the curriculum of the Benjamenta Institute:

We are educated by being compelled to learn exactly the character of our own soul and body. We are given clearly to understand that mere discipline and sacrifice are educative, and that more blessings and more genuine knowledge are to be found in a very simple, as it were stupid, exercise than in the learning of a variety of ideas and meanings.

It’s a choice, of course, to deliberately adopt this perspective, but a liberating one, for it confers agency upon even – if you’ll pardon the phrase – the humblest of servants. Here, for a laugh, is Jakob’s assessment of the younger generation, as applicable today as it was then:

Precisely I have a need to learn to feel esteem and respect for the objects of the world, for where would I end up if I was disrespectful to old age, if I denied God, mocked laws, and was allowed to stick my juvenile nose into everything sublime, important, and big? In my view, the present young generation is sick for precisely this reason, bellowing hell and blue murder and then meowing for daddy and mummy when they’re obliged to give in a little to duties and commandments and limitations.

By the standards set by our contemporary heroes, in films and comic books and television shows, Jakob von Gunten is ludicrously inadequate. By the standards that ultimately matter, he transcends his lowly circumstances, and whatever destiny might have in store for him, with quiet heroism and nobility of spirit.