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Jakob Von Gunten (New York Review Books) [Paperback]

Robert Walser
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 July 1999 New York Review Books (Book 10)
The Swiss writer Robert Walser is one of the quiet geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser wrote a range of short stories, essays, as well as four novels, of which "Jakob von Gunten" is widely recognized as the finest. The book is a young man's inquisitive and irreverent account of life in what turns out to be the most uncanny of schools. It is the work of an outsider artist, a writer of uncompromising originality and disconcerting humor, whose beautiful sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: The New York Review of Books, Inc (1 July 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0940322218
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322219
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.4 x 20.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 85,987 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky's Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the"Confessions". But--as Walser's first French translator, Marthe Robert, pointed out--there is in Jakob, too, something of the hero of the traditional German folk tale, of the lad who braves the castle of the giant and triumphs against all odds. Franz Kafka, early in his career, admired Walser's work (Max Brod records with what delight Kafka would read Walser's humorous sketches aloud). Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.'s demonically obstructive "assistants" in "The Castle", have Jakob as their prototype." -- J.M. CoetzeeWonderful . . . eccentric. -- ""The New York Sun"The moral core of Walser's art is the refusal of power; of domination.... Walser's virtues are those of the most mature, most civilized art. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer.-- Susan SontagIf he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.-- Hermann Hesse "

About the Author

Robert Walser (1878-1956) was born into a German speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the "prose pieces" that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser's works available in English are "Berlin Stories" and "Jakob von Gunten" (both available as NYRB classics), "Thirty Poems," "The Walk," "The Tanners," "Microscripts," "The Assistant," "The Robber," "Masquerade and Other Stories," and "Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932." Christopher Middleton (b. 1926) is a poet, essayist, and translator. He teaches Germanic languages and literature at the University of Texas at Austin and has translated numerous works, including "Jakob von Gunten" by Robert Walser.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a beautiful experience 1 July 2012
By cam
I read this book about two years ago after it was recommended by a friend at university. To read this book is to have a wonderful experience in the moment. It conjures up such interesting images. It has been made into a film by the Quay Brothers. I admire the film but i do not think of it too much in relation to the book. The book will create for each reader a different set of images. I gave this book to a writer friend as a thank you after i took her course and i miss it. I need to re-read it in order to revisit the experience i had the first time.
It is worth reading other works by Walser, predominantly they come far shorter than this novel.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A strange wonderful book 8 Jan 2004
By Gulley Jimson - Published on Amazon.com
Jakov von Gunten is not like any novel I have read before and not, despite all the comparisons, like any novel of Kafka's. It is more like a series of first person reflections, with only the repeating cast of characters and the narrator to hold the novel together. Kafka's novels all have a certain narrative drive, and here there is very little, although the story of the slow dissolution of the school is strangely moving.
Bernard van Dieren once wrote that every original mind is a cosmos in itself: Walser gains nothing from being continually advertised as Kafka-lite. He is his own writer. By any standard, he is not as great a writer as Kafka, but his outlook is much more genial - less insular and more human - despite the fact that Walser and not Kafka was the one who ended up in the insane asylum. This book is his long masterpiece. The episodic rambling quality of the novel betrays Walser's roots in the short story, but the material never feels scattershot or forced together.
Something Jakob says gets at what Walser might be trying to do - he's writing about the hair of the students in the school: "And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord."
A strange thought for someone writing in a diary! But maybe the diary form is the closest that any writer can come to approximating the feeling of life, and letting the reader make his or her own observations. Walser does seem to have a certain distrust of the intellect, but he is not a naive, untutored talent; what he sees, though, is the limitations of intellect, which is perhaps his closest relationship with Kafka - "One is always wrong when one takes up with big words," he writes, and produces a masterpiece using all small ones.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jacob the Unique 15 Oct 2001
By sweetmolly - Published on Amazon.com
Jacob is a young man attending a bizarre school to train servants (butlers) for upper class families. We are never certain if it is the school that is so odd or Jacob. He decides the other teachers "either do not exist, of they are still asleep, or they seem to have forgotten their profession" for the teaching responsibilities are taken solely by Herr Benjamenta or his dying sister Fraulein Benamenta.
This slim novel is Jacob's soliloquy to us. He is charming, buoyant, perhaps mad, and never intimidated. He reflects upon himself, his fellow students, his family and the Benjamentas with interest, sympathy, and occasional sadness.
Even when Jacob is frightened (rarely), he is intrigued and fascinated at what is happening to and around him, as when he incurs the ire of Herr Benjamenta:
"I'm writing this in a hurry. I'm trembling all over. There are lights dancing and flickering before my eyes. Something terrible has happened, seems to have happened, I hardly know what it was. Herr Benjamenta has had a fit and tried to-strangle me. Is this true? I can't think straight; I can't say what happened is true. But I'm so upset it must be true-"
I ended this novel very fond of Jacob. I know I will find him unforgettable. I believe the translation must be very good as the prose is fluid with Jacob's idiosyncrasies of speech intact. Highly recommended.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comical melancholy from a prose poet and wordsmith 26 May 2008
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Jakob is a student at a Berlin institution that seems to train young men for employment as servants or butlers (Kazuo I. must have read this before he did the Remains of the Day). He came to the metropolis from a provincial town, where he ran away from his aristocratic family, from which he wants no support, without being a 'rebel'. He writes a diary, which is dated 1909. He observes his colleagues and teachers, he has dreams and fantasies, he does have some adventures (like when he spends his last 10 Marks on an orgy in a 'restaurant with serving ladies', who teach him how to say 'Guten Tag' - possibly the most hilarious description of a brothel visit that you can find in German literature), he meets his well-to-do brother and some of his artist circle. At last, the school somehow comes to an end.
What you read above is a totally useless summary of the 'story'. It may give you the totally wrong idea that we have a conventional boarding school novel, maybe like Musil's Toerless.
In reality, to quote Master Bruno, we have a writer scaling the heights of mental disorder. Walser would later spend a long time in mental care. He was a schizophrenic. The novel has elements of autobiography, but 'bare reality is a thief, it takes things away, but then can't use them.' Jakob is forever exploring his own mind. I am unable to tell myself the truth. I am a mystery to myself. I will be a charming, spheric zero in life. I love restrictions, because it is such joy to disobey. I love fights and arguments.
Walser's/Jakob's deceptively simple language puts things in new contexts, finds new uses for words, creates new words. A modern classic, already a hundred years old now.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Eccentric, Kafkaesque Little Novel Written Before Kafka 19 Sep 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
In 1910, Franz Kafka began writing his journals. This was one year after the publication in Germany of Robert Walser's eccentric little novel, "Jakob von Gunten". The fact is worth noting because Kafka had read Walser and liked his writing, writing which can be characterized as "Kafkaesque" even though it preceded the publication of Kafka's work by several years. The resemblances between Walser and Kafka-- in sensibility, in prose style, in eccentricity of thought and syntax--are remarkable.
"Jakob von Gunten" is the first person journal of a student at the Benjamenta Institute, a school for butlers in an unidentified city. In young Jakob's words, "one learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life."
The Institute is run by Herr Benjamenta and all classes are taught by his sister, Fraulein Lisa Benajamenta. There are no other teachers, all of the others being either "asleep, or they are dead, or seemingly dead, or they are fossilized." It is a narrowly circumscribed world full of students who are enchanted with the most mundane and trivial matters. But it is also a mysterious world, a world alienated from reality, a dreamlike projection of Jakob's mind expressed in the concrete language of the real. "The Benjamentas are secluded in the inner chambers and in the classroom there's an emptiness, an emptiness that almost sickens one."
Humorous and absurd, disturbing and, at times, childlike in its simplicity, "Jakob von Gunten" is the work of an undeservedly obscure master of modern prose. Thus, Christopher Middleton, the translator, in his fascinating and useful introduction, describes Walser as "in significant ways untutored, something of a primitive." More precisely, Middleton notes that Walser's prose "can display the essential luminous naivete of an artist who creates as if self-reflection were not a barred door but a bridge of light to the real." It is, in other words, prose which seeks to rewrite the "real" in the distorted image of the narrator's mind, making simple descriptions of mundane experience absurd. It is Kafkaesque writing before the advent of Kafka, a diminutive precursor of the Master of Prague.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greats 7 Sep 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Fans of Kafka, Pessoa, or any of the alienated, little-man-behind-a-desk anti-heros of 20c. lit should grab this one. Set in a school for servants, and taking the form of a diary, this is a funny, touching, yadda yadda, joy to read. People who prefer shorter fiction should pick up Walser's short stories, which at times out-Kafka Kafka (Franz K. was a fan though a bit too constipated and egotistical to freely admit it). Walser is one of those tragically overlooked, quiet, humble writers who can change your life. Fascintating reading, fascinating writer. Very few compare to Walser at his best.
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