None of us boys in the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.
In his recent New Yorker review of Death with Interruptions, James Wood calls José Saramago a “cunningly modest” writer – a phrase I think is also eminently suited to Robert Walser (1878-1956). In Walser’s richly suggestive, endlessly elusive novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), the Benjamenta Institute is a school that ostensibly teaches young men to enter servitude as a profession, although no one in the novel manages to be truly servile. Even Jakob, our narrator, dreams that he “would like to be rich, to ride in coaches, and squander money.” Almost always anxious to please, Jakob nevertheless feels most alive when breaking the rules or rebelling against colleagues or school. The Benjamenta Institute is a complex and almost comic web of hope and disappointment, dignity and shame, love and masochism where, in the end, the identities of master and servant are blurred, if not exchanged. In this regard, Walser’s Institute is a variant on the private schools and military academies sprinkled throughout the history of literature (Robert Musil’s classic Young Torless, which takes place in a military school, had just been published in 1906).
The real reason that Jakob and most of his fellow rebels enter the Institute is to try to trim away ambitions, desires, and other troublesome attitudes that will lead only to disappointment in life for those of meager means. Jakob, who is wickedly observant and quick to deflate any pomposity, senses that the best strategy for happiness and success is to lie low, have modest hopes, and to not develop the kind of intelligence that only becomes a hindrance.
A person who sets a high value on himself is never safe from discouragement and humiliations…we pupils aren’t by any means without dignity, but the dignity we have is a very, very mobile, small, pliant, and supple dignity.
…if a hand, a situation, a wave were ever to raise me up and carry me to where I could command power and influence, I would destroy the circumstances that had favored me, and I would hurl myself down into the humble, speechless, insignificant darkness. I can only breathe in the lower regions.
Jakob would rather relieve himself of the burden of consciousness. Toward the end of the novel he imagines he is a soldier marching to Russia in Napolean’s army.
Soldierly discipline and patience would have made me into a firm and impenetrable, almost empty lump of body…I would feel no more pain…
Essentially plotless, Jakob von Gunten is a series of observations and meditations, mostly on Jakob’s fellow students, where Walser is wickedly funny
[Peter’s] father is a policeman, and Peter was trained as a clerk in a rope works, but he seems to have played being very ignorant, unusable, and unsuccessful, which I, privately, find very endearing.
Fuchs is crosswise, Fuchs is askew. He speaks like a flopped somersault and behaves like a big improbability pummeled into human shape.
I am unbelievable fond of silly people. I hate the kind of person who pretends he understands everything and beamingly parades knowledge and wit. Sly and knowing people are to me an unspeakable abomination.
Walser is so sly a novelist that we scarcely notice that he never gives us a mental map to orient ourselves. By the end of the book it is not possible to physicaly descibe the Institute where we have just spend several hours. Is it a series of buildings or only a few rooms? We don’t know. The manner in which Walser cloaks the Institute in vagaries, mysteries, and rumors points the way to Kafka’s use of the legal system or a castle as structures for grand parables.
W.G. Sebald, who admired Walser, is in many ways the polar opposite. Among other contrasts, Sebald’s erudite narrators prize history and specificity. I have a sense that Sebald, the literary scholar whose works draw upon many literary traditions and strategies, admired Walser precisely for his un-literaryness. I sense in Sebald at times a yearning to be untrained and hence more “natural.” Alas, here Walser was right: once you bite into the apple of knowledge you can never really go back.