Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

heeded a thankfully persistent whisper of walser walser walser and fell hard. i’d heard the gossipy parts: how kafka dug him, how he lived his final years in a madhouse, how he died on a long walk in the snow, how he wrote in a pencilled hand so small that people thought it was a secret code but it wasn’t–it was just very very small.

i’d tried THE ASSISTANT, which is recently translated but earlier walser and could see the charm, but i was prejudiced against how its proto-modern style took too long to move things along (a similar feeling i got from zweig’s BEWARE OF PITY)… and so was wholly unprepared at how JAKOB VON GUNTEN broke me down and hollowed me out. it’s at times so shockingly beautiful i was, despite myself, moved to tears. not tears of empathy for some character caught in a melodramatic clutch–but tears for the friggin beauty of the writing. the dude writes like an angel–wherein modesty is one of the highest virtues, with pure charm, and with a scrambled semantic nonetheless crystal clear, which must be the emblem only of seraphim.

walser writes with the freshness and immediacy of a journal entry, but also with a constant self-consciousness that makes the entry have the permanence and art of a poem. christopher middleton’s translator’s intro is a good brief. here’s coetzee: “In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.” and elsewhere in the same review coetzee quotes walter benjamin who describes walser’s characters as like those from a fairy tale but after the fairy tale has ended.

[this book is a dream diary of a boys’ school and i kept thinking it was an unintended translation of hui neng’s platform sutra… or, it reminded me of the orphanage scenes in edward dahlberg’s BECAUSE I WAS FLESH… and i heard jakob as the flipside to mush tate’s equally pure sermons that extolled with the hypnotic, “think you’re in school, think you’re much, know you’re living…“]

[also suffering through a very real school’s very hectic end-of-the-year traffic jam, i was all too happy to read about this ideal school (where the teachers are all gone or asleep.)]

o i forgot to mention: it’s very very funny…

buy directly from the publisher or buy used or find in a library

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