sábado, 25 de julio de 2009

Jakob von Gunten

Jakob von Gunten (NYRB Classics, 1999)
by Robert Walser (translated from the German by Christopher Middleton)
Germany, 1909

"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 to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all. Inward successes, yes. But what does one get from such as these? Do inward acquisitions give one food to eat? I would like to be rich, to ride in coaches and squander money. I have discussed this with Kraus, my school-friend, but he only shrugged his shoulders in scorn and did not honor me with a single word of reply. Kraus has principles, he sits firmly in the saddle, he rides satisfaction, and that is a horse which people should not mount if they want to do some galloping." (Jakob von Gunten, 3-4)

I don't think I'd even heard of the Swiss Walser up until about a year or so ago, but Vila-Matas' championing of him in Bartleby & Co. and his Bolaño-like status in some of my favorite blogs* finally got my attention. While the exceptional Jakob von Gunten certainly lives up to all the hype, it's an odd book to get a handle on--how does one explain the merits of a work purporting to be the diary entries of a student in a boarding school for servants? Part of the answer has to do with Walser's spare, utilitarian prose (eminently believable), but a larger part has to do with the title character himself (a teenaged dreamer who shares Rimbaud's disdain for European culture and capacity for being out of sync with his own self). If Jakob's experiences at the Benjamenta Institute seem to drift between reality and unreality with unsettling ease, his narrative voice is so convincing that I frequently worried about what was going to happen next. Of course, what often happened is that some transcendent dream sequence would appear that was completely startling or lovely or both. Walser himself later gave up writing and spent the last years of his life in various mental institutions; when asked why he didn't write anymore, he famously told one visitor, "I am not here to write, but to be mad." This novel does justice to that same level of disconcerting honesty and self-awareness. (http://www.nyrb.com/)
Jakob von Gunten (NYRB Classics, 1999)
por Robert Walser (traducido del alemán por Christopher Middleton)
Alemania, 1909

No creo que había oído del suizo Walser hasta más o menos un año atrás, pero él por fin me llamó la atención después de que yo leí el elogio por Vilas-Matas en Bartleby y compañía y otros comentarios parecidos por algunos de mis blogueros preferidos.* Aunque es verdad que Jakob von Gunten merece su fama como un libro excepcional, ya es un poco difícil describirlo: ¿cómo explicar los méritos de una obra que pretende ser el diario de un estudiante de un internado para criados? Una parte de la respuesta tiene que ver con la prosa de Walser que es sencilla, utilitaria, y creíble al mismo tiempo. No obstante, la mejor parte del libro tiene que ver con el protagonista, un soñador adolescente que comparte el desprecio de Rimbaud por la cultura europea (y, a veces, por sí mismo: es un poco "desincronizado" con su época). Si las experiencias de Jakob al Instituto Benjamenta parecen fluir entre la realidad y la irrealidad con una facilidad inquietante, la voz narrativa del personaje fue tan convincente que yo frecuentamente tenía miedo de lo que iba a pasar. Por supuesto, lo que pasó con frecuencia es que una secuencia onírica transcendente aparecería para sorprenderme con su calidad asombrosa y/o lírica. Walser más tarde le dio la espalda a la escritura, y pasó los últimos años de su vida en varios manicomios; cuando un visitante le preguntó por qué había dejado escribir, Walser le dijo: "No estoy acá para escribir sino para estar loco". Esta novela está a la altura del mismo nivel de desconcertante franqueza. (http://www.nyrb.com/)

"Since I have been at the Benjamenta Institute I have already contrived to become a mystery to myself. Even I have been infected by a quite remarkable feeling of satisfaction, which I never knew before. I obey tolerably well, not so well as Kraus, who has a masterly understanding of how to rush forward helterskelter for commands to obey. In one thing we pupils are all similar, Kraus, Schacht, Schilinski, Fuchs, Beanpole Peter, and me, all of us--and that is in our complete poverty and dependence. We are small, small all the way down the scale to utter worthlessness. If anyone owns a single mark in pocket money, he is regarded as a privileged prince. If anyone smokes cigarettes, as I do, he arouses concern about the wastefulness in which he is indulging. We wear uniforms. Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us. We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace, but we also look nice in our uniforms, and that sets us apart from the deep disgrace of those people who walk around in their very own clothes but in torn and dirty ones. To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on. But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being. Perhaps there is a very commonplace person inside me. But perhaps I have aristocratic blood in my veins. I don't know. But one thing I do know for certain: in later life I shall be a charming, utterly spherical zero. As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish." (Jakob von Gunten, 4-5)

Robert Walser, 1905

*Gracias a Ever, Katrina y Mariano (entre otros) por introducirme a Walser. Se puede encontrar la reseña de Katrina sobre Jakob von Gunten aquí.

7 comentarios:

  1. A boarding school for servants sounds like such an intriguing setup. For a long time I shied away from German translations, after encountering three truly unreadable ones right in a row, but for some reason I'm kind of in a Germanic mood right now. Maybe I'll check out some Walser!

  2. Lo primero que conseguí de Walser fue El paseo, después hallé otra referencia: que Walser había sido uno de los escritores favoritos de Kafka, suficiente para que la curiosidad sea mucha. Los bloggeros hicieron el resto y por supuesto, el genial libro Jakov Von Gunten, que lo leí de hojas A4 que vomitó una epson 480.

    saludos Richard, muy buena reseña

  3. Hola, Richard
    me encanta este personaje, el de jakov, y la admiración por walser me impide siempre hablar de él. pero bueno, en el fondo, ser alumnos del instituto benjamenta es lo que hacemos todos los días, ¿no?
    walser fue maestro de kafka y de Musil, y alumno de los manicomios, las caminatas y nevadas de ciudad.

  4. *Hi Emily: I don't know any German and I'm very weak on German writers not named Wolfram von Eschenbach anyway (!), but I'd say Middleton did a superb job translating Walser's (Swiss) German: it all flows really well. I'm pretty sure you would love this story, too, as it has the unpredictability and richness you seem to appreciate in other authors' works. Let me know what you think if you try it!

    *Hola Mariano: ¡Qué anécdota ésa de leer a JvG con la "ayuda" de una Epson 480! Por cierto intentaré leer algo más de Walser antes del fin del año, pero en estos días mi lista de lecturas pendientes sigue creciendo sin parar. De todos modos, ¡un saludo!

    *Hola Ever: Sí, ¡Jakob/Jakov es un personaje encantador! Y me gusta lo que dices sobre todo el mundo ser alumnos del Instituto Benjamenta. Aunque Kafka me ha dejado un poco frío en el pasado, quizás sea tiempo para otra novela suya. Mientras tanto, estoy pensando en o leer Torless o empezar El hombre sin cualidades en agosto o septiembre. ¡Saludos!

  5. Yo lo tenía preparado para cuando llegase el momento (entre montañas de libros pendientes), pero después de leerte se ha reposicionado, y ahora está al alcance de la mano. :)
    ¡Un saludo!

  6. Hi, did you know that the Orbis Short Story mini challenge has started. If your still interested find detail at

  7. *Hola Andrómeda: Entonces, ¡digamos que ha llegado el momento! Je, je, je. :) Espero que tú lo disfrutes el libro. ¡Saludos!

    *Hi Katrina: Thanks for the reminder. I had kind of forgotten about that, but I'll try and get it together for August. Cheers!