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.