December 04, 2003

Jakob von Gunten

One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys in the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate in later life…

It is thus that we are introduced to the narrative voice of Jakob von Gunten, the eponymous protagonist of Robert Walser’s 1909 novel. This is a short book, but a resonant one, which is cast in the form of a journal, and which records Jakob’s fluctuating moods, and his experiences as a boarder at a decidedly peculiar school for domestic servants.

First of three stills from 'Institute Benjamenta', the movie adaptation of Jakob von Gunten.

Walser traces Jakob’s character by way of a tangle of conflicting desires and contradictory impulses. On one hand, he repeatedly states his wish to minimise the extent of his ambition: he actively wants his life to be of little or no account, and to this end yearns to better submit to the discpline of the school and its lessons, and to ‘learn to know suffering, and how to endure loss’. On the other hand, he boasts of petty insubordinations and impertinences, and he hankers after little luxuries and the money he needs to obtain them, and he savours such pleasures of the big-city life as he can afford. These vacillations are disconcerting. Whilst there is a good deal of irony in all his talk of self-effacement, there are traces too, I suspect, of some heartfelt wish for obscurity and oblivion. Jakob is also prone to occasional flights of fancy, most strikingly in a section of the book which relates an allegorical vision of the Institute’s ‘inner chambers’, through which he is guided by Fräulein Benjamenta, his instructress:

A door appeared and we went, she in front and me close behind, through the opening, into the glorious fire of the light. Never had I seen anything so radiant and promising, so I was really quite stunned. The Fräulein spoke with a smile, in an even more friendly voice: ‘Does the light dazzle you? Then make every effort to endure it. It means joy and one must know how to feel and endure it. You can also think, if you like, that it means your future happiness, but look what’s happening? It’s disappearing. The light is falling to pieces. So, Jakob, you’ll have no long-enduring happiness...’
Second of three stills from 'Institute Benjamenta', the movie adaptation of Jakob von Gunten.

After a spell in a dismal cellar, meant, we are told, to symbolize poverty and deprivation, and an encounter with ‘the wall of worries,’ von Gunten and his guide emerge once more above ground:

…we found ourselves on a smooth, spacious but narrow track of ice or glass. We floated along it, as if on marvellous skates, and we were dancing too, for like a wave the track rose and fell beneath us. It was delightful. I had never seen anything like it and I shouted for joy, ‘How glorious!’ And overhead the stars were shimmering, in a sky that was strangely all pale blue and yet dark, and the moon with its unearthly light was shining down on us skaters. ‘This is freedom,’ said the instructress, ‘it’s something very wintry, and cannot be borne for long. One must always keep moving, as we are doing here, one must dance in freedom. It is cold and beautiful. Never fall in love with it. That would only make you sad afterwards, for one can only be in the realm of freedom for a moment, no longer. Look how the wonderful track we are floating on is slowly melting away. Now you can watch freedom dying, if you open your eyes…’

Jakob’s opinion of his fellow-boarders is likewise often full of contradiction and caprice, most especially with regard to the stolid Kraus, the teachers’ pet and a model of the perfect servant-to-be, whom von Gunten enviously admires one moment, and is contemptuous of the next.

Last of three stills from 'Institute Benjamenta', the movie adaptation of Jakob von Gunten.

It is a puzzling book, but one whose mystery seems slightly lessened when one learns the outline of Walser’s life. For many years Walser struggled to support himself with his writing: producing stories, poems and novels when he was able, with sporadic financial help from family and friends, but meanwhile trying his hand at a number of trades, including, in the winter of 1905, a spell at a school for butlers in Berlin. My guess is that the novel reflects Walser’s unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the demands of his art with those of his mundane survival in the grotesque theatre of workaday life. In 1933, suffering from depression, Walser was admitted to the first of two asylums, where he was to spend the remainder of his life, apparently misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic. When asked by a visitor there whether he was still writing, he is supposed to have replied I am not here to write, but to be mad.

The images above are stills from a film adaptation of the novel (which I’ve not seen), directed by the oft-namedropped Brothers Quay, which was released under the title Institute Benjamenta in 1995.

Posted by misteraitch at December 4, 2003 11:00 AM | TrackBack

Thank you very much for this entry on Robert Walser. He is nearly forgotten, but when Kafka published his first stories, kafka was thought of as one of those 'Walser writers'.
We owe much to Susan Sontag for preventing him to fall into total obscurity.
Walser led a sad live, finally ending up in a mental care ward. His fragil sensibility is also found in his work. Here is a small story of his:

He was just to friendly to survive in this world.

Posted by: barbnaby snap on December 5, 2003 11:16 AM

You must see the film as soon as possible; it definitely hovers in my top three favorite films of all time. It makes a lot more sense after reading the book, too. Funnily, our topics collided a tad on this day.

Posted by: A. R. Hall on December 10, 2003 06:55 AM

Jakob von Gunten adapted to the stage:

Posted by: Theft on June 9, 2004 03:10 AM

I had no idea that this was ever adapted to the stage. I would've loved to see the stage production of one of my favorite books ever but it looks like it was a beautiful show. Any Walser fans should check it out: It was directed by Gokcen Ergene which I hadn't heard of until I visited the website. Interesting stuff. His title was also neat: Institute Benjamenta: a journal of listening to a plateau which people call the world.

Posted by: Dread on June 24, 2004 02:02 AM
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