Berlin Stories by Robert Walser. Edited by Jochen Greven (trans. Susan Bernofsky). NYRB Classics, 160 pp., $14.00.
This collection of the Swiss writer Robert Walser’s prose pieces were written in Berlin or drew on his experiences of living there. Written between 1907 and 1917, they do not appear chronologically, but were arranged into sections—or “four-part symphony,” according to translator Susan Bernofsky in her introduction—by Walser’s long-term German editor Jochen Greven.
Berlin Stories brings to mind a later collection of writing about the city by another foreigner who also moved there in his mid-twenties. Like Walser, Joseph Roth also wrote for the feuilleton sections of German-language newspapers. Roth claimed that the only way he understood the world was when he had to write about it. It’s worth mentioning him alongside Walser here, not just because of their shared experience, only a decade apart, as young foreign writers in the same city, but also for the parallels in how they processed their responses to the place.
Parallels but not similarities: while Roth ordered his thoughts on a subject through writing about it, in Berlin Stories we seem to witness Walser translating instinctive impressions and feelings into language directly through the act of writing—his thoughts are still wet on the page. Certainly the earlier pieces are characterized by sudden shifts in point-of-view and mood, as if Walser is in the process of deciding, whilst in the act of writing, what it is he feels or wants to say. (That the gradations and particular textures of Walser’s wide-ranging moods are so minutely rendered is a tribute to Bernofsky’s talent as a translator.)
Walser claimed he never corrected his work, and this immediacy is felt in pieces such as “Berlin W,” which ends with an expression of regret that, “I have now bumped against the frame delimiting my essay, leaving me with the tragic conviction that many things I most definitely wished to point out have gone unsaid.” He is playing with his readers—had he known these “definite things” he wished to say when he sat down to write, he would surely have got them down.
Walser’s great capacities—for joy, wonder, tenderness, bitterness, mischief and despair—expand to match that of a city exploding with life and artistic and social possibilities. The pieces in “The City Streets,” “The Theater,” and “Berlin Life,” are vivid, present-tense accounts of urban experiences, written while living in the dynamic Hauptstadt. These were mostly produced for the feuilleton sections of newspapers and the feuilleton form—hybrid, brief—makes explicit, or perhaps even shapes, Walser’s particular mode of translating experience into language. But it’s the tension inherent in the formthat highlights the particular energy of these pieces: feuilletons, throwaway pieces for daily newspapers, were often produced by writers with serious literary ambitions.
Walser was one such writer. But he seems to celebrate what he believed to be the disposable nature of his paid work. In “Market”: “Again I am reminded of the most vivid ephemeralities, and what is alive is dearer to me than the immortal.” The style of these is itself often throwaway, seemingly careless, or unruly at least, and the thinking is too—he makes pronouncements, then contradicts himself, each thought effacing or adjusting what has preceded it. There’s joy but one inflected with a sardonic quality: as well as celebrating the freedom of this form, Walser seems at times to be mocking his own pretensions to immortality in his ambitions to write seriously.
Conflicted modes or tensions of other kinds echo throughout these pieces. In “Friedrichstrasse” he writes, “There are gaping chasms here, and one sees the rule and reign—to the point of utter impropriety, which no thinking person should take amiss—of opposites, indescribable contradictions.” This appears in the section titled “City Streets,” whose stories vacillate between the individual and the collective, the public and the private, the observer and the observed. In a paean to the electric tram, Walser describes the practice of preserving private space on public transport. He might be referring to the experience of writing feuilletons: “But it might be also that while you were riding along like that, you heard or saw something beautiful, gay, or sad, something you will never forget.” And something you choose, in the end, to keep from your readers.
Greven’s structuring of the book into four sections seems to play on this notion of contradiction: there is more “theatre” in “City Streets,” for example, than there is in “The Theater,” whose entries read more like items from the society pages or gossip columns. “An Actor,” Walser’s admiring account of a virtuoso performance, is in fact about an Abyssian Lion in Berlin Zoo: “He despairs (a nameless despair) and at the same time keeps himself nice and round. He thrives and at the same time is slowly tormenting himself to death.” Once again we observe, to use Donald Barthelme’s memorable phrase, Walser’s “dynamic unbalance.”
The final part of the “symphony,” “Looking Back,” contains stories and more reflective autobiographical pieces written after Walser had left Berlin, his literary ambitions unrealized. Here the present tense gives way to the past. Berlin recedes and Walser’s gaze turns inward, concerned not with the city and his direct experience of it, but with its impact on him. The impression is of a man sifting through ash after a fire to see what remains. Walser recovers fragments of memory in “Horse and Woman,” a memory of two slight encounters in the street—one with a horse, “from which a nameless sorrow peered out” and, on another night, with an old match seller.
Greven rounds off the collection with “A Homecoming in the Snow.” Written in 1917, four years after Walser’s return to Switzerland, this account of struggle and submission achieves a poignancy when read as the conclusion to Berlin Stories. The story is fable-like in its abstraction. A man remembers life in an unnamed place, where he experiences modest successes and difficulties which he does not specify. His difficulties overwhelm him and he decides, without fuss, that he must leave. Slowly, he makes his way home: “Yet at the same time I by no means considered myself crushed, rather I had a notion to call myself a conqueror, which made me laugh. I was not wearing a coat. I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.” The narrator seems to embrace his failure as he does the cold, but his reconfiguration of failure as conquest is unconvincing, even to himself. This self-deception is half-hearted, however, and he refuses to see it as tragic. Walser’s equanimity here is a maturer form of his early insouciance, as in the younger Walser’s claim that “the greatest charm of elegance lies in a certain negligence, approximately like the noblesse of thought and feeling that is lost the moment it begins to struggle for expression.” The narrator’s return home is triumphant because it marks the end of his struggles. In failure then, there is relief.
Natasha Soobramanien’s writing has appeared in The Happy Hypocrite, The Quietus and in Luke Williams’ novel, The Echo Chamber (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Viking 2011), for which she wrote two chapters. Her first novel, Genie and Paul, a cannibalistic translation of Bernardin Henri de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie, will be published by Myriad Editions in 2012.
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