Berlin Stories by Robert Walser

Posted on Jun 6, 2023
tl;dr: Read this collection.

If at any time you find yourself enamoured by the thrum of a metropolis, by Melbourne, Rome, Manchester or any other suitably sized place, ‘Berlin Stories’ will put words to the possibility you feel pulsing there. Robert Walser, in his signature ‘prose pieces’ – a combination of poetic prose and essay – perfectly encapsulates what is so invigorating about a city. Masterfully selected, the ‘Berlin Stories’ collection edited by Susan Bernovsky traverses Walser’s time in Berlin: from joyful youth to the still joyful but matured man who eventually returned to his Swiss origin. Hinted at in my June Currently-Reading, here’s my full review for ‘Berlin Stories’.

The City Streets

The first quarter of the collection, ‘The City Streets’ is marked by a remarkable optimism and joie de vivre. Walser loves life in a way that no other writer I have ever read seems to. In ‘Good Morning, Giantess!’, the reader is awakened to this as the city of Berlin stretches its own limbs and comes to life. In ‘The Park’, Walser writes about the wonder of a Sunday morning stroll. In ‘Market’, country and city life intermingle with food brought from outside the city and the universal chaos of market bargaining making it possible for a moment to forget the grand size of Berlin. It seems as though Walser simply does not have an ounce of dourness in his body as he explores the vitality of the metropolis. If nothing else, these first 30 pages (as my ereader numbered them) are well worth a read.

“…still you keep on walking, giving everything a passing glance: things in motion and things fixed in place, hackney cabs indolently lumbering along, the electric tram just now starting its run, from whose windows human eyes regard you… you glance at everything, just as you yourself are a fleeting target for all these other eyes.” - ‘Good Morning, Giantess’

The Theater

The second section, ‘The Theater’, maintains roughly the same level of youthful naivete as the first, although with a hint of bitterness about art critics. On the theatre, Walser extols the beauty of the Russian ballet recently brought to fame by in Berlin. Anna Pavlova is reverently spoken of, known previously to me for having the classic Australian (suck it New Zealand) meringue desert named after her. Walser captures the allure of the stage, the movement of the dancers, and above all pure joy at the chance to sit admiring art for hours at a time amongst other admirers. It is perhaps diminished purity of admiration which he dislikes among critics. In ‘Portrait Sketch’ we see the first real hint of politics, where he humorously paints the portrait of a young aristocrat who has declared himself a connoisseur of the arts, and maintains that title on the pure basis of his status over his talent.

“Anna Pavlova sits like a youthful regent upon a rickety, implausible, small balcony, gazing with wonderful gestures upon the crowd below – Italians apparently – who apparently are indulging in all manner of nocturnal, adventuresome, serenading, troubadourish pastimes. An perhaps the daintiest, most dazzling, and loveliest of all was this magic spell of a balcony.” - ‘A Person Possessed of Curiosity’

Berlin Life

The middle section of the book, ‘Berlin Life’, the romanticism of Walser for all (or at least most) aspects of modern, revolutionary life is on full display. Maybe it was because I was on a train to the airport while reading it, but ‘Something About the Railway’ is one of my favourite pieces from the book. Having travelled little by his own account (a damn shame in my opinion since I’d love to hear him describe the whole world), . In ‘Flower Days’ he speaks of femininity and tradition. It is as ‘cottagecore’ a piece as any. Walser speaks to feelings and dreams that you have resting in your bones of times in memory and fantasy. He speaks so beautifully that you cannot help but want to write your own epithets of appreciation for any number of mundane yet wonderful things. And while the representation of women has aged a little, it is on the whole extremely favourable to femininity, which Walser seems to revere. I have little doubt that the women he parried with treasured any letter which he sent them – the man seems more romantic than any writer I’ve read. Even as life knocked him, he seems to have for a time resisted the jaded disillusion most adults (and many children) have about the world. Each challenge is taken in stride, and if not beauty, humour is found in it.

“As for me, as I may fortunately declare, I am radiant on flower days, with sheer flowery and flowerish satisfaction, and I am one of the most flower-encrusted persons among all those who are beautified, adorned, and beflowered. In a word, on such a Day of Plants I am like a swaying, tender plant, and on the charging charging Violet Day that soon is coming I shall, this I know for certain, appear in the world myself as a modest and secluded violet. For some magnanimous purpose I might even be able to transform myself into a daisy. In future, let anyone, I would here heartily plead, stick and wedge his buttercup between his lips, whether they be opened or grimly tight shut.” - ‘Flower Days’

Looking Back

By the last section of the book, it is clear that while Walser remains the eternal optimist, he has become far less naive. In the stories ‘Frau Scheer’, ‘Frau Wilke’ and ‘The Millionairess’ we learn of a wildly successful businesses woman that in every other sense was “the poorest of women.” Indeed, she did not even enjoy wealth but simply having it, for “stinginess became her child.” It was unclear to me in these stories to what extent those portrayed were real, that their sentiments had thus been expressed. It seemed undoubtedly true that Walser put onto her a regret that seemed unlikely to have been so communicated, making a fable out of her sad, lonely existence. Such themes of loneliness were recurrent in the latter stories of the collection, as it seemed the great society that Walser had been surrounded by in his younger years had largely rejected him, and he never sustained the level of wealth required to frequent the stage shows he had so loved. His criticism of the pursuit of wealth in the portrayal of Frau Scheer hinted toward a general bitterness at the capitalistic structures of society (though not through such modern wording.) What However, even on darker subjects, Walser’s thought is peppered with a sustaining love for life. The same love and empathy extended to the character of Frau Scheer seemed to inform everything.

“Poor millionairess! In the city where she lived, there are many, many poor little children who do not even have enough to eat.” - ‘The Millionairess'

Walser at times appears to foresee his own untimely death. In ‘A Homecoming in Snow’ which closes the collection, Walser reflects on his personal journey in Berlin before returning to his homeland. While this, in context, was speaking to his own perennial optimism, it is unfortunate that it was indeed the snow that he succumbed to. As he ages, he consistently gains more appreciation for things aged and ancient. Where in his youth he wondered the point of looking at old buildings at all, he later describes them with a comprehensive romanticism. I wonder what role, if any, the fate of Berlin in the late 1920s and early 30s played on the rapid decline in the rapid decline of his mental health that led to institutionalisation in 1933. Though he did not live there any more, it would maybe feel something like a deep wound to the soul to hear what it was becoming, and the shadow it had become by the end of WW2. Thankfully, though, modern visitors to Berlin will surely appreciate the renewed vitality it has, and will be able to relate to Walsers early pieces on the city as if they were written yesterday.

“Almost never did I look forward to the future, even though I was making a humble retreat. Yet at the time I by nomeans considered myself crushed, rather I had a nation to call myself a conqueror, which then made me laugh. I was not wearing a coat. I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.” - ‘A Homecoming in Snow’

Though it is perhaps unnecessary to say, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. And if you’re looking for a better review than mine Better Than Food has you covered.