Cover image for Jakob von Gunten
Jakob von Gunten
Walser, Robert, 1878-1956.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Jakob von Gunten. English
Publication Information:
New York, NY : New York Review of Books, 1999.

Physical Description:
xxii, 176 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
"Number 10"--Cover.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Library

On Order



The Swiss writer Robert Walser is one of the quiet geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser wrote a range of short stories, essays, as well as four novels, of which Jakob von Gunten is widely recognized as the finest. The book is a young man's inquisitive and irreverent account of life in what turns out to be the most uncanny of schools. It is the work of an outsider artist, a writer of uncompromising originality and disconcerting humor, whose beautiful sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau.

Author Notes

Robert Walser (1878-1956) was born into a German speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the "prose pieces" that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser's works available in English are Berlin Stories and Jakob von Gunten (both available as NYRB classics), Thirty Poems , The Walk , The Tanners , Microscripts , The Assistant , The Robber , Masquerade and Other Stories ,
and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932 .

Christopher Middleton (b. 1926) is a poet, essayist, and translator. He teaches Germanic languages and literature at the University of Texas at Austin and has translated numerous works, including Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser.



Excerpt 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. 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 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.     We pupils, or cadets, have really very little to do, we are given hardly any assignments. We learn the rules by heart. Or we read in the book What Is the Aim of Benjamenta's Boys' School? Kraus is also studying French, on his own, for there are no foreign languages or suchlike things on our timetable. There is only a single class, and that is always repeated: "How Should a Boy Behave?" Basically, all our instruction is centered on this question. We are not taught anything. There is a shortage, as I said before, of teachers, that is to say, 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. Instead of the teachers, who for some strange reason really are lying around like dead men, and sleeping, a young lady instructs and rules us, Fräulein Lisa Benjamenta, the sister of the Principal. She comes, with a small white cane in her hand, into the classroom and the class. We all stand up at our desks when she appears. Once she has sat down, we are allowed to sit down also. She gives three sharp and imperious knocks on the edge of her desk, and the instruction begins. What instruction! But I would be telling lies if I found it curious. No. I find the things that Fräulein Benjamenta teaches us adorable. It is little, and we are always revising, but perhaps there is some mystery hidden behind all these nothings and laughable things. Laughable? We boys of the Benjamenta Institute never feel like laughing. Our faces and our manners are very serious. Even Schilinski, who is still a complete child, laughs very seldom. Kraus never laughs, or, when he is carried away, he gives a very short laugh only, and then he is angry that he let himself be drawn into adopting such a prohibited tone. Generally, we pupils do not like to laugh, that is to say, we are hardly able to any more. We lack the requisite jolliness and airiness. Am I wrong? God knows, sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream.     The youngest and smallest of us pupils is Heinrich. One can't help feeling gentle toward this young man, without thinking anything of it. He stands quietly in front of shopwindows, quite absorbed by the sight of the goods and of the tasty things in there. Then he usually goes in and buys some sweets for six groschen. Heinrich is still a complete child, but he already talks and behaves like a grown person, with good manners. His hair is always faultlessly combed and parted, which compels me at once to realize that, in this important detail, I am very slovenly. His voice is as thin as a delicate twittering of birds. One involuntarily puts an arm around his shoulders when one goes for a walk with him, or when one speaks with him. He has no character, for he still has no idea at all what that is. Certainly he has not thought about life yet, and why should he think about it? He is very polite, ready to serve, and well-mannered, but without knowing it. Yes, he is like a bird. Coziness comes out all over him. A bird gives one its hand when he does so, a bird walks like that and stands like that. Everything about Heinrich is innocent, peaceful, and happy. He wants to be a page, he says. But he says it without any indelicate wistfulness, and indeed the profession of page is thoroughly right and apt for him. The tenderness of his behavior and feeling aspires in some direction or other, and look, it reaches the right goal. What sort of experiences will he have? Will any experiences and any knowledge venture to approach this boy at all? Will not life's raw disappointments be too shy to upset him, him, with his pixie delicateness? I also observe that he is a little cold, there is nothing tempestuous and challenging about him. Perhaps he will not even notice many things that might have struck him low, and will not feel many things that might have robbed him of his blitheness. Who knows if I'm right! But I like, very very much, to make such observations. Heinrich is, to a certain extent, mindless. That is his good fortune, and one must allow him it. If he were a prince, I would be the first to bow my knee before him and make obeisance. What a pity!     How stupidly I behaved when I arrived here! Mainly I was shocked at the shabbiness of the front steps. Well, all right, they were just the stairs to an ordinary big-city backstreet building. Then I rang the bell and a monkeylike being opened the door. It was Kraus. But at that time I simply thought of him as a monkey, whereas today I have a high opinion of him, because of the very personal quality which adorns him. I asked if I could speak to Herr Benjamenta. Kraus said: "Yes, sir!" and bowed to me, deeply and stupidly. This bow infused me with strange terror, for I told myself at once that there must be something wrong with the place. And from that moment, I regarded the Benjamenta school as a swindle. I went to the Principal's office. How I laugh when I think back on the scene that followed! Herr Benjamenta asked me what I wanted. I told him quietly that I wanted to become his pupil. At this, he fell silent and read newspapers. The office, the Principal, the monkey who led me in, the doors, the way of falling silent and reading newspapers, everything, everything seemed deeply suspicious to me, a promise of destruction. Suddenly I was asked for my name and where I came from. Now I thought I was lost, for suddenly I felt that I would never escape from the place. I stuttered out the information, I even ventured to emphasize that I came from a very good family. Among other things, I said that my father was an alderman, and that I had run away from him because I was afraid of being suffocated by his excellence. Again the Principal fell silent for a while. My fear that I had been deceived grew most intense. I even thought of secret murder, of being slowly strangled. Then the Principal inquired, in his imperious voice, if I had any money with me, and I said that I had. "Give it to me, then. Quickly!" he commanded, and, strange to relate, I obeyed at once, although I was shaking with misery. I was now quite certain that I had fallen into the clutches of a robber and swindler, and all the same I obediently laid the school fees down. How laughable my feelings at that time now seem to me! Then I found the heroic courage to ask, quietly, for a receipt, but I was given the following answer: "Rascals like you don't get receipts!" I almost fainted. The Principal rang a bell. Immediately the silly monkey Kraus rushed into the room. Silly monkey? Oh, not at all. Kraus is a dear, dear person. Only I understood no better at that time. "This is Jakob, the new pupil. Take him to the classroom." The Principal had hardly spoken when Kraus grabbed me and thrust me into the presence of the instructress. How childish one is when one is frightened! There is no worse behavior than that which comes from distrust and ignorance. That is how I became a pupil.     My school-friend Schacht is a strange person. He dreams of becoming a musician. He tells me that he plays the violin marvelously, with the help of his imagination, and I quite believe him. He likes to laugh, but then he lapses suddenly into wistful melancholy, which suits his face and bearing incredibly well. Schacht has a completely white face and long slender hands, which express a nameless suffering of soul. Being slight, as to the build of his body, he is easily all a-fidget, it is difficult for him to stand, or to sit, still. He is like a sickly, obstinate girl, he also likes grumbling, which makes him even more like a young and somewhat warped female being. He and I, we often lie together in my room on the bed, in our clothes, without taking our shoes off, and smoke cigarettes, which is against the rules. Schacht likes to offend against the rules and I, to be candid, unfortunately no less. We tell each other whole stories, when we are lying thus, stories from our lives, that is, experiences, but even more often invented stories, with the facts plucked from the air. When we do so, it seems to us that a soft music plays all up and down the walls. The narrow dark room expands, streets appear, palatial rooms, cities, châteaux, unknown people and landscapes, there are thunders and whisperings, voices speak and weep, et cetera. It is nice to talk to this slightly dreamy Schacht. He seems to understand everything that one tells him, and from time to time he says something significant himself. And then he often complains, and that is what I like about our conversation. I like hearing people complain. Then one can look just so at the person speaking, and have deep, intimate sympathy with him, and Schacht has something about him that rouses sympathy, even when he does not say depressing things. If there dwells in any man a delicate-minded dissatisfaction, that is, the yearning for something beautiful and lofty, it has made itself at home in Schacht. Schacht has a soul. Who knows, perhaps he has the disposition of an artist. He has confided to me that he is sick, and, since it is a question of a rather improper sickness, he has asked me urgently not to speak about it, which I have naturally promised, on my word of honor, in order to put his mind at rest. Then I asked him to show me the object of his malaise, but at that point he became a little angry and he turned to the wall. "You're terrible," he told me. Once I ventured to take his hand gently in mine, but he withdrew it and said: "What silliness are you up to now? Stop it." Schacht prefers to go about with me, this in particular I notice clearly, but in such matters clarity is not at all necessary. As a matter of fact, I like him enormously and regard him as an enrichment of my existence. Naturally I never told him such things. We say stupid things to each other, often serious things too, but avoiding big words. Fine words are much too boring. Ah, the meetings with Schacht in my room make me realize it: we pupils at the Benjamenta Institute are condemned to a strange idleness, often lasting half the day. We always crouch, sit, stand, or lie around somewhere. Schacht and I often light candles in my room, for our enjoyment. It is strictly forbidden. But that is why it is so much fun. Whatever may be said in the rules: candlelight is so beautiful, so mysterious. And how my friend's face looks when the small red flame illuminates it! When I see candles burning, I always feel that I am wealthy. The next moment, in comes the janitor and gives me a scolding. That is all very senseless, but this senselessness has a pretty mouth, and it smiles. Actually Schacht has coarse features, but the pallor which suffuses his face refines them. His nose is too big, so are his ears. His mouth is tight shut. Sometimes when I see Schacht in this way I feel that this person will have a bitterly hard time one day. How I love people who evoke this mournful impression! Is that brotherly love? Yes, perhaps.     On the first day my behavior was enormously prim, I was like mother's little boy. I was shown the room in which I was to sleep together with the others, i.e., with Kraus, Schacht, and Schilinski. A fourth to make up the party, as it were. Everyone was there, my comrades, the Principal, who was looking at me grimly, and his sister. Well, and then I simply threw myself at the maiden's feet and exclaimed: "No, I can't sleep in that room, it's impossible! I can't breathe in there. I'd rather spend the night on the street." While I was speaking, I clung to the young lady's legs. She seemed to be annoyed and told me to stand up. I said: "I won't stand up until you promise to give me a decent room to sleep in. I ask you, Fraulein, I implore you, put me somewhere else, in a hole, for all I care, but not in here. I can't be here. I certainly won't offend my fellow-pupils, and if I've already done so I'm sorry, but to sleep together with three people, as a fourth person, and in such a small room, too? It won't do. Ah, Fräulein!" She was smiling now, I noticed it, and so I quickly added, clinging even more tightly to her: "I'll be good, I promise you. I'll obey all your commands. You'll never, never have to complain of my behavior." Fräulein Benjamenta asked: "Is that so? Shall I never have to complain?" "No, it certainly isn't so, Fraulein," I replied. She exchanged a meaningful look with her brother, the Principal, and said to me: "Do please first stand up. Good heavens, what insistency and what a fuss! And now come along. You can sleep somewhere else, for all I care." She took me to the room in which I live now, showed it to me, and asked: "Do you like this room?" I was cheeky enough to say: "It's small. At home the windows had curtains. And the sun shone into the rooms there. Here there's only a narrow bed and a washstand. At home there were completely furnished rooms. But don't be angry Fraulein Benjamenta. I like it, and thank you. At home it was much more refined, friendlier and more elegant, but it's very nice here too. Forgive me for coming at you with the comparisons with how it was at home, and heaven knows what else besides. But I find the room very very charming. To be sure, the window up there in the wall can hardly be called a window. And the whole thing is definitely rather like a rat's hole, or a dog-kennel. But I like it. And I'm impertinent and ungrateful to talk to you like this, aren't I? Perhaps the best thing would be for you to take the room away from me again, though I have a really high opinion of it, and give me strict orders to sleep with the others. My comrades certainly feel offended. And you, Fräulein, are angry. I see it. It makes me very sad." She said to me: "You're a silly boy, and now you be quiet." And yet she was smiling. How silly it all was, on that first day. I was ashamed of myself, and I'm ashamed, to this day, when I think how improperly I behaved. I slept very restlessly the first night. I dreamed of the instructress. And as regards my own room, I would to this day be quite happy to share it with one or two other people. One is always half mad when one is shy of people. (Continues...) Copyright © 1969 Christopher Middleton. All rights reserved.