Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Jakob von GuntenJakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I have the somewhat unpleasant feeling that I shall always have something to eat in the world."

This reviewer faces quite a difficult task: the short novel Jakob von Gunten (1909) by Martin Walser is considered a classic of the European literature. Some critics even list it among 100 greatest novels of the 20th century ( Hundert grosse Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts ), and J.M. Coetzee himself praises Walser's book in his collection of literary essays Inner Workings that I review on Goodreads. Thus - and I am not trying to be coy - it must be my fault that I have serious trouble relating to the novel.

Jakob von Gunten, a young man from a well-off family, flees home and enrolls in the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants. The school's owner, Herr Benjamenta, is also the Principal and the only teacher is the Principal's sister, Fräulein Lisa. The pupils at the Institute study only one subject: "How Should a Boy Behave" and they use only one textbook, What Is the Aim of the Boys' School? Jakob, the narrator, writes a lot about the strange education provided by the Benjamentas, focused on memorizing and practicing suitable behaviors: "What we pupils do, we do because we have to, but why we have to, nobody quite knows." He seems to disdain critical thinking:
"[...] at root I despise my capacity for thinking. I value only experiences, and these, as a rule, are quite independent of all thinking and comparing. [...] If one thinks, one resists, and that is always so ugly and ruinous to things."
Jakob also writes about his fellow pupils, particularly about certain Kraus, whom he characterizes as utterly meek and obsequious ("Kraus is a genuine work of God, a nothing, a servant.") Veneration of Fräulein Lisa and the evolution of Herr Benjamenta's feelings towards Jakob – the Principal eventually begins "to feel a strange, a quite peculiar and now no longer repressible preference for [Jakob]" - are some of the other threads in the plot. We also learn about a rather sweet encounter in a "restaurant, one with hostesses", where Jakob engages a Polish hostess:
"And so I did what they call Saying Hello in such places, that is, she explained it to me, laughing and joking and kissing me, and then I did it."
The novel exudes a distinctly off-center feeling and has an aura of vague yet pervasive madness about it. While everything that Jakob reports in his narration is completely realistic and no events that he describes are implausible, there is a disturbing lack of a unifying focus, a sort of non sequitur in the large. Some passages in the text remind me of one of the funniest texts circulating on the Internet in the good old days about 20 years ago before it became the BusinessNet. The text, composed by some bored grad students and entitled "The Brain Damage Quiz", lists about 50 statements each of which sounds not quite right, for instance:
Likes and dislikes are among my favorites.

Walls impede my progress.
Jakob van Gunten's extraordinary statement about "somewhat unpleasant feeling that I shall always have something to eat in the world," would fit very well in the list.

The feeling of off-centeredness is magnified by the narrator's use of contradictory statements. For instance, he writes:
"To be sure, we pupils don't make fun of each other. We don't? Oh, yes, we do."
and a little below, on the same page:
"To repress nature completely can't be done. And yet it can."
One passage struck me with particular force. Remember that the novel was written 108 years ago, about the time when the great-great-grandparents of today's young adults were entering their adult life, yet the statement is completely relevant today and could have been written in 2016:
"Of course there's progress on earth, so called, but that's only one of the many lies which the business people put out, so that they can squeeze money out of the crowd more blatantly and mercilessly. The masses are the slaves of today, and the individual is the slave of the vast mass-ideas. [...] Try to earn lots and lots of money. Everything else has gone wrong, but not money. Everything, everything is spoiled, halved, robbed of grace and splendor."
I am recommending the book; it is just that I am not smart enough to fully appreciate it. One needs to read it for its sheer strangeness if nothing else.

Three stars.

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