Unlike other Walser novels or collections, the effect of a completely Berlin orientated prose collection could easily have felt like an historical series of newspaper articles, worthy in their factual detail. But lets's not forget this is Robert Walser. And in no way could it be simply said 'this was Berlin at the time', or perhaps 'Walser was at these times precisely like this'. Walser has, as a part or as a whole, stepped outside of history with his style. As ever he has effusive commentary, detached, almost Sherlock Holmes attention to details, waylaid with absolutely no ambition whatsoever to come across as superior to his material.
There is a journalistic feel to the pieces of work, at varying periods, some reflective & from a distance. Taken piecemeal, the pieces may register as glimpses of the times, but of course Walser's rendering is both expressionist and impressionist. The resulting overview from this Berlin state of being, if i may be so bold, reflects and renders clearer his swiss and very personal flavour, even going so far as putting him in sharper relief.
And why read Walser at all, even if German bourgeois critique is not your bag?...This is not the best place to start for Walserianness, but any appreciation of his style, his sheer enthusiasm & enjoyment in the minutae of everything, his mood sways (more dance than swing), all accumulate to form an honest & pleasant human whose efforvescent expression could scarce be limited by paper borders or history itself. A keen observer & incisive outsider, should appeal to same.
Most of these pieces started life as 'feuilleton' essays in Berlin papers, and are impressionistic sketches of various aspects of life in the city early in the twentieth century, As such they often contain insights into the corners of life in urban Germany seen form the perspective of a sensitive and witty provincial lad from Switzerland, in awe perhaps of the bright lights and artistic celebrities he came into contact with, but also paradoxically unimpressed by the posers and braggarts. There are also some fascinating short pieces of fiction, told from a range of points of view: delicate, poised and slightly strange.
Robert Walser it has to be admitted won't be to everyone's taste. Although he was admired by critics and his fellow writers he was never a big hit with the reading public, and let's be honest, that is where it counts for fame and fortune. Forgotten by most for a number of years he has gradually come back into the mainstream as people are starting to realise that there is something good here.
This book contains a selection of short pieces by Walser, I hesitate to say short stories, as although some are, others are much more like sketches as such, which do bring to life Berlin, at the time Walser was writing. Indeed it is probably these sketches that will appeal to more people than the short stories as such, as they create a vivid portrait of Berlin before the First World War, and are also relevant to us today, as city life hasn't really changed; we are all still bustling about, fighting through crowds to reach our destinations. Pieces here will make you think, such as the ride on a tram, which you could easily transpose to a train or a bus, and the thought that you don't really know anyone sitting around you. For instance the woman sitting behind you could be a prostitute; the man sitting across from you could be planning a bank robbery. He also makes us think about taking a step back and do some people watching, as we look at everyone else rushing past around us.
Along with that there are some good little stories in here, such as the thoughts of a little girl whose parents are estranged. As such there is a good eye for detail here, an understanding of things in a greater depth than we usually take to look at them. Walser is also quite comical at times, and some of these pieces will make you laugh.
If you are thinking of purchasing this book then I would strongly suggest that you read the Introduction where some things are explained in more detail that doesn't really come across in a translation. Walser was a German speaking Swiss, and so he uses some slang that would be understood in German, but when translated into English doesn't have the same effect. As I have already mentioned, Walser isn't really an author that has ever had a big reader base, and so whether you actually like what he writes is a pure matter of taste, although this little selection here is a good introduction to his writings.