Dark brightness and bright darkness: Berlin Stories by Robert Walser

“Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth, dark ground below looks as if it’s been polished by human destinies. The buildings to either side rise boldly, daintily, and fantastically into architectural heights. The air quivers and startles with worldly life… And always people are walking here. Never in all the time this street has existed has life stopped circulating here. This is the very heart, the ceaselessly respiring breast of metropolitan life. It is a place of deep inhalations and mighty exhalations, as if life itself felt disagreeably constricted by its own pace and course.”

Great cities have their own personalities and in the company of Swiss writer Robert Walser, Berlin of the early twentieth century becomes a living, breathing entity, a dynamic metropolis drawing in the ambitious, the hopeful and the desperate in equal measure. As a guide to the city, its haunts, and its colourful inhabitants, he is endlessly engaging. His name has been surfacing in my consciousness for a while now, but I had not gotten more than a few stories into this collection before I wondered why it had taken me so long to “discover” him for myself.

BerlinBerlin Stories from New York Review of Books is a collection of short stories composed during Walser’s years in Berlin and the first few years after he left, originally edited and organized by German Walser scholar, Jochen Greven. In her introduction to this edition, translator Susan Bernofsky tells us that, with the beginnings of a literary career underway, Robert Walser moved to Berlin in 1907 at the age of 27. His brother had already enjoyed success as a set designer in the thriving theatre scene. The city was bursting with life. Over the next six years he would record that life in short stories or “prose pieces” and three novels. But financial security eluded him and his own eccentricities did not help him secure the patronage that would have benefited him. He returned to Switzerland in 1913.

The pieces in Berlin Stories are divided into four sections or “movements”: The City Streets, The Theatre, Berlin Life and Looking Back. Most of the pieces are quite short, often no more than a page or two. Narrators who may or may not be Walser himself, wander the streets, ride the trams, or take in theatrical performances while offering attentive discourses on the sights and experiences of city life. He can be thoughtful, melancholy, humourous or sarcastic, sometimes striking playful barbs at contemporaries.

As with any collection of short works, especially one with 38 stories, it is hard to capture a sense of the volume in a brief review. There is so much magic in these pages, it is difficult not to marvel at the acuity of Walser’s observations. He is especially gifted at peering behind the glitz and creating moving accounts of what Bernofsky calls the “humbler aspects of city life”. He has an uncanny eye for the small details that play across the faces and animate the actions of the characters he sketches. Sometimes his observations are direct, at other times his intentions are delivered with a deft backhand as in “The Little Berliner” a story in which he takes the voice of a precocious 12 year-old girl, who enjoys a life of wealth and privilege. But all is not as wonderful as one might suspect. She reports that: “For reasons whose depths I cannot understand and consequently cannot evaluate, my parents live apart. Most of the time I live with Father.” She admonishes herself for confessing to her diary, but Father, for all his wealth and charm, is sometimes a very angry and unpleasant man. The observations and attitudes swirling around in her child’s head present a rather caustic view of the rich delievered in a wonderfully clever way.

Another piece I really enjoyed for its pure descriptive power is “Fire”, in which the narrator and his companion get caught up in the excitement of what must have been a fairly regular occurrence at this time – a house on fire. A spectacle drawing the curious, it is an event at once ordinary and extraordinary:

“an entire street is brightly, garishly lit up by it, it resembles a sunset in the distant south, ten evenings ablaze, a host of suns setting in unison. You see the façades of buildings looking like pale-yellow paper, and the bright red glow of the fire approaches, a thick glowing, wounded red, and beside it the street lanterns look like feebly burning damp matches.”

No one is injured in this instance but a distinguished old piece of architecture is lost, a fact greeted by one of the observers as a healthy form of natural selection, clearing out the dead wood and making room for new construction.

I could go and quote from this work at length, there are little gems nestled in almost every piece. More than 100 years on, his work is vital, entertaining and immensely readable. At the height of his career he was a favourite of Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin. The resonance of his voice has carried on through the influence of those who admired his work giving it the immediacy that feels so surprising when one first encounters him now. In his lifetime which was increasingly spent in mental asylums, Walser seemed to disappear off the radar. Greven’s German scholarship in the 1950s and the first English translation of his work not long before Walser’s death in 1956, brought him to the attention of a new generation of highly influential writers including WG Sebald, Peter Handke and JM Coetzee.

Now, if you have yet to make the acquaintance of Robert Walser, hurry along and check him out. Personally I’m sold and can’t wait to read more.