SEDUCED BY BERLIN

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Robert Walser's "Berlin Stories", translated into English for the first time, have humble subjects and fabulous images, writes Simon Willis ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

Title "Berlin Stories"
Original title "Berlin gibt immer den Ton an"
Original language German
Translator Susan Bernofsky

These aren’t quite stories, but alloys of fiction, journalism and penetrating reflection. And the title of the German edition (“Berlin always sets the tone”) is more interesting and accurate than the English one. Robert Walser (1878-1956), who was Swiss, moved to Berlin in 1905, drawn by its “seductive gleam” and hoping to make his name as a writer, before sloping home again in 1913. He made money by contributing prose sketches to newspapers and magazines. There are 38 here, only three of them published in English before, and they are like flecks of precious metal. 

W.G. Sebald called Walser a “clairvoyant of the small”. He chose humble subjects: a walk in the park or a ride on an electric streetcar. These modest activities are elevated by his eye for fabulous images. A café singer’s voice is like “the progress of a snail, so resplendently languorous, so lazy, so brown, so very reptant, so slimy”. But the collection is more than a series of snapshots. It is also an oblique autobiography of an outsider. Ladies are seen on park benches but never engaged, and when, in the longest story here, Walser befriends his landlady Frau Scheer, it’s an alliance of loners. He died in 1956, while crossing a wintry field in Switzerland. His end is eerily prefigured by the coda to this collection, “A Homecoming in the Snow” (1917), where, in his retreat from Berlin, the familiar Swiss snow is like a “splendidly warm coat”. 

His solitude makes his joy catch in the throat. “How lovely”, he says about a walk in the Tiergarten, “to be doing something another person is doing as well.” These are the stories of a man in love with the world, but unable to take part in it. 

"Berlin Stories" is published by New York Review Books on January 24th

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life, and a former associate editor of Granta