The wonderful New York Review Books — which I praise frequently on this site — has done it again. Just after releasing the first English translation of Gregor von Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol, which I wrote about just last week, they have now published a collection of short pieces by Robert Walser called Berlin Stories. I have written about Walser before (The Tanners and Microscripts) , but the works in this short volume are all focused on the period, starting around 1905 and lasting for a few years, in which he lived in Berlin. In doing so he was following the path set by his older brother Karl, who had moved to Berlin earlier and became a very prominent scenic designer in the theater there. Walser tried to make his living by writing short pieces of the sort included in this book for magazines and newspapers.
Here is an example, from the story called "Good Morning, Giantess!”: "He then walks along like this and is almost taken up by a compulsion to join in this running, this gasping haste, swinging his arms to and fro; the bustle and activity are just so contagious — the way a beautiful smile can be contagious. Well no, not like that."
Here is another, from "Friedrichstrasse": "Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth, dark ground below looks as if it's been polished by human destinies."
Beyond the fact that they both wrote in German there is almost no similarity between Walser and Rezzori: the latter with his dazzling technique and ability to meld a myriad of characters and settings into an organic whole, the former much more linear, focused on the small (W.G. Sebald called him "the clairvoyant of the small"), but always with a sense that as much is being concealed as is being spoken; for this reason he was greatly admired by Kafka (according to the introduction to Berlin Stories, Kafka's friend and biographer "describes Kafka collapsing in paroxysms of laughter while reading...aloud" the story entitled "Mountain Halls").
I have been calling the works in this volume stories, but I'm not completely sure that Walser would have described them in that way. The feuilleton occupies a kind of middle ground between fiction and non-fiction, and certainly the many pieces on aspects of Berlin life (parks, restaurants, theaters) are largely non-fiction, but transformed by the author's unique sensibility. In his years in Berlin he did write actual fiction, the three novels for which he is best known, but they were not successful and apparently his economic situation became quite dire. The last section of the book contains some pieces written later, looking back at the Berlin years, but showing a sadness that does not appear in the earlier works; these later works are longer than the earlier ones, and perhaps more profound.
It would be very inconsiderate of me not to mention the excellent translations by Susan Bernofsky, who has tirelessly taken up Walser's cause in recent years by translating a number of his works. I think that once you read Berlin Stories you will be eager for more.
— Jeremy Nussbaum