jakob von gunten [book review]

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

I feel how little it concerns me, everything that’s called “the world,” and how grand and exciting what I privately call the world is to me.

I used to love a good Bildungsroman. Perhaps every young person does, as they are approaching the age where they will be cast unfeelingly out into the world, whether prepared or not. I guess I saw myself in these characters, encountering obstacles and slowly overcoming them—it gave me hope that I would also someday be prepared. But as I got older I never really did feel ready to be an ‘adult’ and so the Bildungsroman became a myth. Life was more a series of never-ending lessons that no amount of advance preparation seemed capable of preparing oneself for. I believe they also call this losing one’s naivete.

This novel is written as a journal by Jakob, who is attending a school for servants. Walser himself attended such a school, and likely based the book in some part on his experiences there. Some say that the novel is a parody of the Bildungsroman genre. To an extent I think this is true. Jakob does enter the world at the end, but in a bizarre and unexpected way, and it’s certainly questionable how prepared he really is. He never completely grows out of childhood because, as he says, “I was never really a child, and therefore something in the nature of childhood will cling to me always, I’m certain.”

In between his mockery of the Bildungsroman genre, Walser injects bits of his own truth. Jakob is a dreamer. In one entry, he writes, “With all my ideas and follies I could one day found a corporate company for the propagation of beautiful but unreliable imaginings.” Jakob doesn’t take school, or much of anything, seriously. He’s prone to reveries and cheekiness. He enjoys provoking the school’s principal, and yet he also maintains a hushed level of respect, largely kept to himself, for this complex man.

Jakob has a tenuous relationship with his brother Johann, who lives in the same city but operates in a higher echelon of society, one that Jakob privately mocks in his journal entries:

People who make efforts to be successful are terribly like each other. They all have the same face. Not really, and yet they do. They’re all alike in their rapid kindness, which just comes and goes, and I think this is because of the fear which these people feel. […] Whoever can feel right if he places value on the tokens of respect and the distinctions conferred by the world?

Walser himself likely thought this way, at least to an extent. While writing, he led a life balanced precariously on the precipice of financial disaster. He did not have concern for material things and perhaps felt out of place in the larger world outside his creative pursuits. Regrettably, he never found much literary success during his lifetime, later becoming suicidal and eventually institutionalized, at which point he stopped publishing altogether.

Jakob counters the boredom of life in his school with healthy amounts of daydreaming. He imagines things to be a certain way, such as the ‘chambers’ in which the principal and his sister, the instructress, live. For most of the novel Jakob is not allowed in this private area of the school, and dreams it up to be a network of intricate castle rooms and apartments, full of corridors and spiral staircases. And yet he is profoundly disappointed when finally he enters those rooms and finds them simple and frugally furnished. This clash of reality with his dream life constantly chafes at him:

Bare reality: what a crook it sometimes is. It steals things, and afterwards it has no idea what to do with them. It just seems to spread sorrow for fun.

Despite his sometimes uneven nature, Jakob is an immediately likeable narrator. And even though this is meant to be a journal, Walser uses certain literary devices to help string together what is largely an erratic and meandering narrative arc. For example, he has Jakob peer through the keyhole of the principal’s office and laugh following each meeting he has with Herr Benjamenta. This recalled to my mind a similar technique Thomas Wolfe used in Look Homeward, Angel, itself a Bildungsroman of the American variety. In that novel, Wolfe associates certain repetitive phrases and actions with particular characters, which I think helps maintain a tighter narrative flow, in addition to quickly endearing the characters to a reader.

The humor in this book frequently borders on the absurd, and is one of its strengths. Jakob likes to often end his entries with non sequiturs. He is snarky and usually perceptive in his snarkiness. Walser was clearly a close observer of human nature and behavior. He imbues Jakob with these skills, and so while we get a lot of ridiculous banter from him, we also glean sharp insights. The result is a short compact novel that generates both laughs and moments of contemplation, often on the same exact page.

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