All this talk (or rather, reading) about the development of seismology to which I’ve been exposing myself lately has instilled a burning need for some honest-to-goodness modernism. All of those earnest 19th-century Europeans tromping around and beyond the continent’s borders, trying to be objective and proper and to note dispassionately the time and duration of a temblor when thrown out of their beds for the first time: well, the bearing of those eager beavers had me thirsting for the particular variety of literary clarity only someone like Robert Walser can provide, and so I flew straight into the arms of his Jakob von Gunten.
I especially love when tales from this particular subset of time and place also happen to be set in an educational environment, one of my favorite examples being Robert Musil’s Young Törless. The fact that said genre’s depictions of boarding school life are often stark and cruel*, and that they still have me feeling slightly cheated that I never experienced that form of institutional existence, speaks volumes for these authors’ way with words– but in particular, for their ability to bring out those environments’ pervasive, saving air of mystery, especially with regard to instructors. Anyone, even lowly public school kids like me, who’s ever had a crush, whether platonic or more, on some beloved teacher, will know what I’m talking about.** I can only imagine how much more heightened is the intensity of sick teenage infatuation when everyone’s living on the same premises, and when adolescent imaginings and naïveté only feed off of and strengthen each other without respite. At the same time, those authority figures who seem so immune to your own youthful anxieties, and who have no desperate need of guidance or intense friendship, become even more alluringly mysterious and (because they have to be even more purposeful than their off-campus counterparts about guarding their privacy) maddeningly out of reach.
There’s so much to love about this book– but as should now be no surprise, I zeroed lovingly in on its way of portraying students’ obsessions with their teachers, and the disappointments or uncertainties that may emerge if said authority figures actually end up reciprocating a young person’s desires for a personal relationship. And so, Jakob lets us know early on that “… [he was] always thinking of him, of both of them, of him and Fräulein, the way they go on living here with us boys. What are they always doing in there, in their apartment? How do they keep themselves busy… perhaps one day I shall penetrate into these inner chambers… I know it, somewhere here there are marvelous things.” And as his daydreaming invades his reality, we’re sometimes unsure of how Herr or Fräulein Benjamenta is really acting, whether either or both is truly confessing to him (precisely what the love-struck student hopes for!)– but we do catch glimpses of Jakob’s disillusionment as the brother and sister become a little more human for him: “Everything’s collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules… Something is going on and I don’t understand it yet;” “I’ve been, at least, in the authentic inner chambers, and I must say, they don’t exist.”***
Even though Jakob looks as though he might finally set aside his fantasies of the principal and his sister (and maybe even of his own aim in being at the institute), his acceptance of his own self-delusion reveals what we may all be longing for on some level, and why so many of us will agree to the tenets of doubtful, yet guiding, propositions, beliefs, and people: namely, at least having something to hold onto. As Jakob decides, “This person suits me and I’m not asking myself why any more.” **** Even if it means having to continually repair and reconstruct– and overcome being let down by– an image crafted of your own imagination and longing; even then, it’s a bit of a relief to stop having to ask yourself why.
* This characterization doesn’t really apply in Jakob von Gunten– but the school in it is still really not a model of educational aspiration.
** I still have very little understanding of why I, at least, thought teachers possessed some transcendent quality, that their everyday routines were somehow fraught with special allure. Yes, yes; I’ve always wanted to learn everything anyone could teach me– but that doesn’t even come close to explaining this particular emotional mystery.
*** Citations in this paragraph are from Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, transl. Christopher Middleton (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 17-18, 128, 139. Probably the most devastating tale of what schoolgirls’ naïve fantasies about their teachers could result in is depicted in the 2002 film, Blue Car, with David Strathairn turning in a creepily, believably brilliant performance of a could-have-been.
**** ibid., 176. Also, this is the completely wrong place for this question, especially since I’m addressing the end of this book– but who is this brilliant translator and introducer-of-the-work, Christopher Middleton? I don’t believe I’ve ever been driven to find out more about the introducer’s own work, based on his/her introductory remarks– but this Mr. Middleton has made me terribly curious about what other literary output he’s got up his sleeve.
Well, I reached the end of Walser’s The Assistant, without having encountered any hoped-for plot twist or sudden increase in understanding as to why this story was even really that worth telling. However! About sixty pages from the end, Frau Tobler, the super-bourgeois housewife (for whom young Joseph bears feelings the strength of which he may be unaware) becomes, well, interesting. Having sat there more or less unobtrusively for the previous 240-or-so pages, the good Frau admits to Joseph that, nope, she doesn’t love her daughter. Her other kids? Sure– but she just can’t feel anything but disgust for little Silvi, and you can’t force someone to possess affection or love for another human being, even if you make a good effort, which she thinks she has.
The book was written in 1907, so we’re not smack in the age of a 1950s domestic cult– but I imagine the admission of that possibility was a shock to the reader, especially when placed in the mouth of such a paragon of upper-middle-class values. It seems to be a literary precursor of suspicions that were still appearing in the early 21st century; there’s a fantastic passage in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections about a mother feeling triumph and satisfaction at punishing her kid who refuses to eat his dinner– a passing encounter that came out of a couple of years before Lionel Shriver’s excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin. These latter treatments may have had something to do, at least peripherally, with addressing the sentiments and questions behind the child-free movement that was starting to gather steam– but that possibility, of being unable to love one’s own child, has most likely been with us in literary form for a much longer time, even if it might have been taboo to have brought it up. (If anyone knows of other examples, send them my way.)
A few pages after dropping her bomb, Frau Tobler also reveals that yes, she is solidly aware of how reality functions, of how inept her husband is at business, and consequently, of what’s in store for the family and its rapidly dwindling funds. More follows about the situation of (married) women, and seems to point to an analysis or critique of how gender expectations play out and could possibly undermine themselves– but Walser doesn’t move beyond the housewife showing some brief sparks of insight and will– with Joseph, at least, but never with her blustering husband, whose authority she truly seems to accept, even if in resigned fashion. At one point, I wondered if the Frau could be the real protagonist of the story, but the way she fit into the narrative, this story, at least, was humdrum Joseph’s.
Result? I’ll check this one off the list, trying to take comfort in the fact that literary success doesn’t always necessitate telling a great tale.
What with managing an injury, fending off a cold, trying to get through a pile of work at the job, and hosting a friend for the weekend, musing publicly about books has fallen by the wayside. So, too, has trying to get through the few things I’m reading, and which I’d love to complete in order to move on to something else.
One of those volumes is Amélie Nothomb’s Péplum, a sort of philosophical/sci-fi piece that, halfway in, is reading like a His Girl Friday version of a latter-day Socratic dialogue, with the wit and one-liners flying back and forth at each other while, in typically Gallic fashion, everyone seems to maintain a victoriously thick skin and to just keep the snappy exchange rolling. Probably the most interesting thing I’ve come across so far is the report of a future-man that, way back in the day, people were so unable to deal with the thought of unpleasantness that someone rewrote the Bible, excising all its sad parts and transforming hard-to-digest stories into feel-good tales that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Called “The Happy Bible,” the thing was slapped together in under a hundred pages, and its general incomprehensibility started a trend in storytelling that pretty much did away with plot and narrative altogether, and kept any given piece small, including the rewrites of classics that say, brought Zola’s L’Assommoir down from 500-plus to forty pages. Nothomb was writing this all in 1995, and although she didn’t predict anything like a Twitter Bible, I’ll have to give her credit for seeing something of how the tide was turning, in terms of people’s attention spans and rejection of things not meant to offer cheap elevations of mood.
Robert Walser’s The Assistant is another one I’m working on– and to my surprise, given his incredible short stories, I’ve begun to wonder what the purpose of this little novel is. A depiction of bourgeois emptiness, etc., etc., sure– but what Walser’s doing with this tale is nothing new, and it’s almost not even interesting. I’m waiting for some sort of modernist plot twist to throw a wrench into things, but I’ll admit my hope isn’t all that strong.
And that’s it for now; with a conference coming up and 4,000 things to get done before then, that’s about the best I can offer. More on the two tales I just mentioned if anything of note develops…