Berlin Stories: A reading

The "Berlin Stories" reading

In recognition of the recent publication Berlin Stories by New York Review Books Classics (profiled in last week’s post), 192 Books hosted a reading by the book’s translator Susan Bernofsky.

I. The Book

Berlin Stories is a collection of 38 short works which Walser himself described as “prose pieces” — a mixture of essay, fiction, and at times even the personal letter.  All of these works relate to the 8 years Walser spent in Berlin, starting in 1905 when he was 27 years old. Walser had moved to Berlin from Bern Switzerland to pursue his dream of writing. Berlin during this time period was, like New York today, a bustling, cosmopolitan center that drew in the artistically ambitious from all over Germany and Europe. Robert Walser’s brother, Karl Walser, had established himself as the foremost stage set designer in Berlin at that time, and so when Robert arrived Karl introduced him to some of the most prominent members of Berlin’s art scene. As is evident from many of the sketches in Berlin Stories, though entranced by Berlin, Walser was never entirely comfortable among his brother’s elite social set.

This was my first experience reading Walser and I found many aspects of Berlin Stories to be striking. Berlin Stories is a book infused with the impressions of a struggling artist. A provincial wandering cosmopolitan Berlin and recording his spontaneous thoughts. A writer who has confronted the dull monotony of wage lifestyle and rendered it into something beautiful. And an artist facing the reality that pursuing success in the great metropolis often means dealing with a relentlessly insular and conventional bourgeoisie patron class.

Walser’s reflections of walking around Berlin are some of the finest and most accurate descriptions of city life that I have ever encountered. The narrators of these stories speak in unique and natural voice that have the feel of fleeting reflections though in reality they are often poignant and incisive observations. Walser is able to make even the most prosaic situations, for instance a morning commute, utterly beautiful.

Aside from these beautiful reflections there is another aspect to this book: Walser’s frustrations with his brother’s elite social set in Berlin. When Walser delivers invective it is in a tone of serene naivety, which makes it all the more devastating. In Berlin and the Artist he reminds us that “[t]he souls of artists must always be woken a little from the magic spell in which they lie fettered.” Sure, the artist can “pace up and down like a tiger, in his cave of artistic creation, mad with desire and worry over achieving some output of beauty,” but “[o]ne thing he must never forget: he is all but required to pay court to beautiful, wealthy women at least a little.”

One of the harshest works in the collection is The Little Berliner. Written in voice of the twelve year old daughter of wealthy patron, the narration constitutes something of a catalogue of this class’s defects: their myopia, their overconfidence in their own abilities, and their disregard for those poorer than they are. “What do I know of poverty,” she ponders, “I don’t feel sorry for the poor children. I would jump out the window under such conditions.”

Berlin Stories is a book that can be enjoyed purely on aesthetic grounds; for its beautiful prose, its unique voice, and the quality of its observations. But for anyone living in New York, particularly anyone who is an artist or associates with them, this book is surprisingly relevant despite the distance of a century and a continent. It makes me think that all of the technological changes our society has undergone are utterly superficial. One is still sent into reveries about the all of the other lives that surround us on a crowded train, just as one must still watch one’s beloved artist friends pander to an insipid wealthy class.

II. The Reading

Susan Bernofsky’s reading of several stories from Berlin Stories at 192 Books was engaging throughout. Ms. Bernofsky is the current chair of the PEN translation committee and teaches creative writing and translation at Queens College. She is in the process of writing a biography on Walser and has translated a number of his other works so she has an intimately close knowledge of Walser’s writing and his life. In between her readings of his stories she provided background material on Walser including a picture of the servant’s school Walser briefly attended,a picture drawn by his brother Karl, and an excerpt (translated earlier that day) from the memoirs of the famous actress Tilla Durieux, a famous actress.

I found the passage from Tilla Durieux’s memoirs interesting because it gave a lot of color to who Robert Walser was. Durieux describes a night in 1907 when she invited a number of people to a gathering at her house including the “two enormously tall Walser brothers.” After a long night of drinking Karl, Robert Walser’s brother, proposed a “Hoselupf” contest with the playwright Franz Wedekind. “Hoselupf” is a kind of Swiss wrestling in which the competitors grab on to each other’s pants by the waist and try to wrestle each other to the ground. Wedekind was embarrassed by the challenge and refused but the Walser brothers continued to press him. Eventually, Wedekind stormed out and Durieux herself left her own house in frustration.

The Walser brothers continued with these pranks well into the evening, culminating finally with Wedekind being stuck in a revolving door while the Walser brothers screamed “Schafskopf” (“muttonhead”) at him (a story also recounted in Bernofsky’s introduction to Berlin Stories). Ms. Bernofsky also pointed out that it was Dureix’s affair with the art dealer Paul Cassirer that was the inspiration for “Frau Bähni,” one of the pieces in Berlin Stories. (Another interesting fact: Cassirer committed suicide just before his divorce from Dureix).

It was these anecdotes and small but fascinating bits of information that made the reading so informative and worthwhile, and since much of this background material is not available in English it was all the more valuable.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Federal mediator joins Met Opera labor talks as…

Unions representing the orchestra and chorus of the Met Opera agreed to have a federal mediator join labor talks on Thursday as a threatened lockout loomed.

Local

Winning $7 million New York lottery ticket sold…

The only $7 million winning New York Lottery ticket for Monday's Cash4Life drawing was sold at a Queens 7-Eleven, officials said on Tuesday.

Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

Movies

Review: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is a refreshingly…

Marvel is sitting so high on a cash mountain that it's now thrown $170 million at the relatively obscure and very silly title "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Movies

Review: 'Get on Up' is a war between…

James Brown finally gets his own boring biopic with "Get on Up," but the Godfather of Soul puts up a good fight against the usual cliches.

Movies

Review: 'Child of God' finds director James Franco…

James Franco's 11th directed feature is a noble but sloppy adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God," about a feral mountain man (Scott Haze).

Movies

Review: Alex Gibney's Fela Kuti doc 'Finding Fela'…

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney takes on Afrobeat god Fela Kuti in "Finding Fela," but fails to capture his unique essence.

MLB

Yankees land Stephen Drew, Martin Prado at trade…

Yankees land Stephen Drew, Martin Prado at trade deadline

College

Playing the Field: Valentine's Day coupling edition

  It’s Valentine’s Day, a day created by Hallmark to make couples spend loads and loads of money on candy, flowers and gourmet dinners. Or…

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

Career

What do you wear to a career fair?…

Getting that gig starts with presenting the most polished and memorable version of yourself, so refer to our expert fashion advice.

Style

Editors pick: Margiela's finger armor ring

These cool rings from Maison Martin Margiela are designed to overlap over the finger, covering each joint like armor.

Style

Givenchy champions diversity

Riccardo Tisci's uses a variety of ethnically diverse ladies for his spring campaign including Erykah Badu.

Wellbeing

Don't settle for the hotel fitness center with…

Travelers who want to skip the hotel fitness center in favor of local gyms that may offer better equipment, classes and amenities can turn to…