January 2012

Josh Zajdman


Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Building a city must surely be easier than writing about one. There are plenty of good authors who can't seem to do more than offer a nicely rendered snapshot or line drawing of a city; a kind of literary postcard, making you wish you were there instead of reading about it. A great author places you there, whether it's Wharton's New York, Proust's Paris, or Bellow's Chicago. It's not just description but an inundation, and stimulation, of the senses. You smell the markets and exhaust, hear the crowds and clanging bells or clamoring horns, feel the pavement beneath your feet and, as a result, are moved by the author. The greats walk alongside you, serving as tour guide, confidante, and historian, sometimes taking a necessary shortcut, and always pointing out the sight of a dalliance. In essence, you are exploring the city through the eyes of its most experienced resident. 

Fortunately, Robert Walser fits comfortably amongst this distinguished crowd of urban chroniclers. This is due in large part to the honesty with which he imbues his Berlin stories -- the vitality and romance of city life is there, but so is the loneliness and the failure. There is a kind of displacement inherent in city life, but this is rarely recorded, and never so honestly. In lesser hands, city life is rendered monochromatically. Tall buildings and dark corners provide boundaries to playgrounds of wealth and labyrinths of squalor. This is not the case with Walser's Berlin. He so deftly covers wide swaths of the emotional and chromatic scales, ranging from bright happiness and burgeoning romance to quiet loneliness and a brooding sadness. Edited, and preceded with an invaluable introduction, by Walser scholar and translator Susan Bernofsky, Berlin Stories is both a consummate introduction to and summation of Walser's world.

In her introduction, Bernofsky immediately establishes the unique importance of Berlin -- both as a great influence on Walser's work and as a truly progressive international city. Walser, born in Switzerland, had visited Berlin twice before, in 1897 and 1902. "Each time he had fled back to Switzerland after only a few weeks, in large part because he felt he would be unable to support himself as a writer in the German metropolis." At twenty-seven, Walser left "the relative peace and safety of his native land for the stimulation and excitement of the German capital." It was the summer of 1905, and Walser's first novel Fritz Kochers Aufsatze had been met a year before with acclaim. This gave him the confidence to begin the writing life he envisioned. Walser saw Berlin as "a land of artistic possibility, where poets produce immortal works, virtuoso actors stun their audiences and painters find inspiration."

In the three years since Walser had last been to Berlin, a truly modern city had risen. The population exceeded two million, subways had been running for three years (two years before New York had them), and the artistic communities were cutting-edge. The modernity of Berlin created a signficant shift in Walser's literary output, resulting in what he referred to as "prose-pieces." Bernofsky defines these as a "hybrid of story and essay," which became a hallmark of Walser's style. Berlin Stories, the collection of these pieces, is split into four thematic sections covering 1907-1917: "The City Streets," "The Theater," "Berlin Life," and "Looking Back." Walser's prose-pieces, on average two or three pages, are a wonderful combination of stunning detail and insights which take a delightful almost aphoristic tone. The first, "Good Morning, Giantess," was published in 1907, after two years of liberally soaking in the city.When describing the early morning quiet of Berlin, he writes how "cold and white the streets lie there, like out stretched human arms..." Decades later, W.G. Sebald referred to Walser as "the clairvoyant of the small," and it isn't difficult to see why. It's not that he saw the future, but his perception extended past sensory limits. He elevated the significance of the everyday, without elevating or exaggerating its proportions. This appreciation of minutiae would later be taken to extreme levels after his work shifted again, upon leaving Berlin, to another technique he pioneered, microscripts.

Yet, while working on prose-pieces, he would often turn this perception toward city life on a greater level, with Berlin serving as a kind of ur-city. At the end of this first piece, Walser pans out, if you will, and lovingly reflects on what makes city life work; he writes of Berlin, but it could work for New York, Los Angeles, or even Newark. "That is what is so miraculous about a city: that each person's bearing and conduct vanishes among all these thousand types, that everything is observed in passing, judgments made in an instant, and forgetting a matter of course."

Shortly afterward, in "Friedrichstrasse," Walser takes a similar tack in trying to understand what motivates the people of Berlin. "Work and pleasure, vices and wholesome drives, striving and idleness, nobility and malice, love and hate, ardent and scornful natures, the colorful and the simple, poverty and wealth all shimmer, glisten, dally, daydream, rush and stumble here frenetically and yet also helplessly."

These are just a couple of Walser's wonderful considerations of humanity and vitality unique to the city experience and the people that move through it daily. The book is replete with moments like these and it would be a disservice to continually quote for the reader. Part of Walser's charm is the way his perspective sneaks up on you. However, in closing, I'd be remiss if I didn't include just one more. At the end of "The Metropolitan Street," Walser writes, "Ah, how lovely, how very lovely it is to be alive." How lovely, indeed.

Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590174548
160 pages