02 September 2011

The Institute.

So, the other day I finished Jakob Von Gunten by the magnificent Robert Walser. It was quite a strange little book -- but then again, since the Brothers Quay did a movie of it, I suppose that could be easily guessed.

I had intended to read this book long before I actually got around to it -- I've been stalking it, after a fashion, since I was fifteen, but have always been short of money or memory and have been unable to purchase a copy of my own. But perhaps that's fitting. It seems like it might be, though it's often hard to tell.

Anyway, the book followed the titular Jakob, who arrives at a school for servants. According to the introduction of the edition I read, this is something Walser himself got up to at one point, even going so far as to find employment as a butler for a short time. However, the school is less a school than a holding place -- the lessons are short, the teachers are dead or sleeping (so saith narrator) and most of the boys' time is spent lying around and waiting, though for what, we don't know. The school is run by the Benjamenta siblings, whose first names are never given. Fraulein Benjamenta functions as the "instructress," guiding the boys through the one textbook, entitled "How Should a Boy Behave?" She is a nervous, fluttering creature, whose mental instability and ill health become more pronounced as the novel progresses. Her brother, on the other hand, is a passionate creature, removed from the day-to-day functions of the school, yet very interested in the prospects of the main character.

In short, nothing much happens and no one goes anywhere.

And yet, as a novel, it's completely successful. Walser's often digressive style is here perfectly appropriate, as the longer form allows him to indulge his digressions for a little longer than his short stories would typically permit. The translation has also captured the man's odd style, which seems to be entirely composed of ejaculatory sentence fragments, stitched together with commas and subjects. The strangely breathless narration gives the wonderful impression of a person who has just climbed a long flight of stairs and great speed, and now can't remember what it was he was going upstairs to get. It's quite a feat, on the parts of both Walser and his translator, that this is not annoying.

In short, the book is a strange creature, but serves as kind of a distillation of the best qualities of Walser's short fiction, without any of its problems. I highly recommend dear Jakob, and I hope that he will find a place in your service.

No comments:

Post a Comment