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.