I first read about Robert Walser in a collection of literary criticism by J.M. Coetzee called “Inner Workings” (you can find the piece online here). Coetzee’s favourable appraisal of two Walser novels – “Jakob von Gunten” and “The Robber” – compelled me to seek out the former, since according to Coetzee it was the more major of the two. I was also intrigued by its premise: an enigmatic adolescent’s experience at a school for servants, captured in journal entries. I couldn’t find the book in any Toronto bookstores, the library had Reference Only copies, and for reasons entirely without principle I’ve never ordered a book online. While visiting New York last February over Reading Week, I walked into an excellent bookstore in Soho called McNally Jackson where I found the translation of “Jakob von Gunten” on which Coetzee based his review, along with several other Walser titles. After finishing the book, I re-read Coetzee’s review as well as the introduction by the translator, Christopher Middleton. Both men offer illuminating interpretations and explications.
The book begins with the title character’s arrival to the Benjementa institute, a school for servants in an unnamed city that, according to Coetzee, bears obvious resemblances to Berlin (Walser himself attended such a school after moving to Berlin from Switzerland). The novel has no plot in the conventional sense. It consists, instead, of Jakob’s impressions of the school, the city outside its walls, his schoolmates, and the Principle and Principleless, Herr Benjementa and his sister, Fraulein Benjementa. From the outset, Jakob is convinced that the school is a swindle: the classrooms are “sparsely equipped” and the teachers don’t teach but lie asleep “in a room specially arranged for their repose.” There’s just one textbook that the students read from titled “What Is The Aim Of Benjementa’s Boys’ School?” Whatever prosperity and notoriety the institute once enjoyed is traceable only in the portraits of “a great number of boys who attended the school during a previous year.” Jakob still believes there’s something special and marvelous in store for him inside the impenetrable “inner chambers” of the Benjementa institute, where the principle and his sister retire at night (what he inevitably finds there is not as marvelous or grandiose as he expected, but no less absurd).
Jakob focuses much of his descriptive energies on his schoolmate Kraus. Unlike Jakob, who frequently taunts the principle and his peers, sleeps in, smokes cigarettes, breaks the rules, and wanders around the city in search of experiences (in one scene that possesses a vague eroticism reminiscent of Kafka, he flirts with a Polish hostess in a depraved establishment), Kraus is a paragon of servitude and obedience. Jakob pays him the underhanded compliments of being prideful and self-righteous as well. Jakob constantly extols Kraus’ virtues, but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of derision to it – it’s pseudo-esteem. Like many of the characters in the book, Kraus is a target of ridicule. When it comes to self-analysis, Jakob is just as ruthless as he is with others. He doesn’t try to disguise his fickleness or some of his more cruel impulses. As Coetzee incisively puts it, he is “confident that candour will disarm all criticism, but [does] not really [care] if it does not.”
Apparently Kafka was a fan of Walser’s fictions and Coetzee goes further to suggest that Walser’s influence can be detected in Kafka’s work. Both writers delight in revealing vestiges of the bestial beneath the civilized veneer of human beings (a flash of teeth, for instance, or a sudden violent glare). As the book reaches its climax, the traditional power roles of instructor-pupil are reversed, and Jakob holds the fates of the Benjementas in his hands – or at least they think he does. The pleasures of the book, for me, are in the aimless and playful quality of Jakob’s journal entries. Both can be attributed to the book’s conceit – that it’s an adolescent’s journal – which creates the illusion of extemporization and liberates Walser from the chores of plot. Jakob’s playfulness is tinged with malice, however, and for that reason all the more complicated.