‘Jakob Von Gunten’ by Robert Walser – The Hare and the Tortoise Revisited

 

‘Jakob Von Gunten’ by Robert Walser (1908) – 176 pages Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

‘Jakob Von Gunten’ is a fictional journal kept by young Jakob Von Gunten during the time he spent attending and living at the Benjamenta Institute. This private institute is a school for training young men to become servants. It is run by Herr Benjamenta and his sister Fraulein Benjamenta. Robert Walser did actually attend such a school, and the novel is based on his experiences there.

Jakob Von Gunten is a young guy who is a born writer in a society that has no use for writers, much like Robert Walser himself.

How fortunate I am not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.”

The following journal entry will give you a good idea of the playful ironic spirit of this novel.

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.”

Jakob refuses to take himself too seriously. Jakob prides himself on being silly, impolite, cheeky, and stubborn. Jakob gets bored quite easily. There is another guy named Kraus at the Institute who is the exact opposite of Jakob Kraus is extremely hard-working and has a serious demeanor and does what he is told without questions or even thinking. Kraus never gets bored because he is always concentrating on the task at hand and looking for ways to improve it. Krauss’s motto is “make yourself invisible, or get busy with something.” In contrast Jakob sometimes sleeps late at the Institute, and Kraus comes around and pushes him out of bed and tells Jakob to get to work. However Jakob gets his revenge by teasing and annoying Kraus mercilessly.

Much of the novel is taken up with the interaction between these two guys, Jakob and Kraus. This is a fundamental difference between people, somewhat similar to the difference between the hare and the tortoise in that Aesop’s fable race. Jakob is the hare, and Kraus is the tortoise The hare is at least ten times quicker but is easily distracted and winds up losing the race to the slow and steady tortoise. When I look back on my own years at work, I must admit I was always more of a Jakob, a hare, than a Kraus, a tortoise. I was more of a wise guy who seemingly didn’t take the work all that seriously and got bored with routine tasks, and thus got into conflicts with the tortoise types.

But there is much more to the novel than the interactions between these two guys. We get an entire picture of the Institute including its founders. The writing is always lively and intense. It is not the easiest novel to read because some of the things referred to are foreign or dated, but the overall story is well worth the effort even today.

Here is an interesting side note on the author Robert Walser. At the age of fifty, after suffering from anxieties and hallucinations for many years, he checked himself into a mental institution called Waldau in Bern, Switzerland where he lived for 29 more years. He was known for taking long walks in the surrounding area. He gave up fiction writing completely, and was rumored to have said, “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,”

 

Grade : A

 

2 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds fascinating and Walser is now on my reading list! I have alwayse enjoyed novels about servants, whether they are in a Henry Green novel or Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly. How bizarre to think of a school for servants.

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    Reply

    • Hi Kat.
      A bit of a coincidence that you mentioned Henry Green. The next novel I will be reading after I finish my current one will be ‘Doting’. That will be my fifth Henry Green novel.

      Like

      Reply

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