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Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten (Jakob von Gunten)

Jakob von Gunten is not Robert Walser but, at least in part, his story is based on Walser’s own. Walser came from a well-to-do family but attended a school for servants, as is the case with Jakob von Gunten. His family seems to be well-off. His father seems to be an alderman and Jakob was afraid of being suffocated by his excellence. His mother had a box at the theatre. Though he does not appear to have any contact with his parents during the course of this book, he does meet his brother, Johann, a few times. Johann is a successful artist and moves in bourgeois circles. Despite all this, Jakob has essentially ran away from home and signed up for the Benjamenta. Institute which seems to be an institute for servants, similar to the one Walser himself attended.

Jakob has brought the fees, which he pays to the headmaster, Mr. Benjamenta. Jakob comments that all the boys are similar that is in our complete poverty and dependence. We are small, small all the way down the scale to utter worthlessness. Self-deprecation by Jakob is found throughout this book but Jakob is also full of contradictions. He can put himself down but, later, feel full of self-confidence and superior to the other boys. We see this also in his relationship with Mr. Benjamenta, as he at times servile towards him and at others, rebellious. How fortunate I am not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching!, he says of himself.

The school does not seem to be very efficient. There are teachers but they do not seem to do much. In particular, they do not seem to teach. They are lazy and completely indifferent to their pupils. The educators and teachers are asleep, or they are dead, or seemingly dead, or they are fossilized, no matter, in any case we get nothing from them. What teaching there is given primarily by Lisa Benjamenta, the headmaster’s sister. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all.

Jakob later complains about this lack of teaching to Mr. Benjamenta and asks for his money back. Benjamenta declines and tells Jakob Learn, first of all, to know your surroundings. Your comrades are worth the attempt to get to know them. Talk with them. I advise you, keep calm. Nice and calm. Jakob is not very keen to follow this advice.

He mentions several of the other pupils but does not seem to get too close to them. Indeed, when he arrives he is told that he is to share a room with three other boys. He is horrified and refuses. Finally, a small room is found for him, which he has on his own. Kraus, the obedient, dutiful, faithful knight Kraus, is nominally his best friend but every time we meet Kraus, he is either criticising Jakob (he does not like his rebelliousness) or Jakob is speaking sarcastically or critically of him. Lisa Benjamenta notes that the two are often quarrelling.

What does Jakob want to get out of this? Apparently, he and the others are looking for a job and, towards the end, several of them including Kraus do go off to a job. Jakob’s brother tells him Try to earn lots and lots of money. Everything else has gone wrong, but not money but then says Rich people, Jakob, are very unsatisfied and unhappy. The rich today: they’ve got nothing left. Contradictions like this abound in this book. Jakob does indeed covet a job but Benjamenta is reluctant to let him go.

Jakob has a decidedly ambiguous relationship with Mr. Benjamenta. At first, he clashes with him. Indeed, Benjamenta hits him early on, blaming him for starting a fight, which he did not, in fact, start. Jakob can be both critical of and servile to Benjamenta, determined both to keep his independence, by breaking rules, but also to show that he is one to follow the rules when necessary. However, towards the end, Benjamenta seems to have a much greater affection for Jakob, which Jakob tries, to a certain degree, to keep at arm’s length.

This is a very unusual book given when it was published. It influenced Kafka and others. Jakob is a character who is a certain mixture of contradictions, a young man who lives inside his head, with strange dreams and fantasies. He may well be an unreliable narrator. Clearly, he is not entirely clear who he is and what he wants to be. I feel that life demands impulses, not considerations he says at the end of the book and it is clear that logical thought is not a key to his character. Indeed, he is, for his era, a most original, unusual and fascinating character. Like other great writers, Walser was ahead of his time and only really received the reputation he reserved after his sad and tragic death (found dead in the snow).

Publishing history

First published in 1909 by Cassirer
First English publication in 1969 by University of Texas Press
Translated by Christopher Middleton