Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book Review: "Jakob von Gunten" by Robert Walser

Robert Walser is an underrated genius in the realm of literature. Walser contributed to the existential movement of the early twentieth century that also featured writers such as Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, providing views that sounded so absurd, but made so much sense. Born in Switzerland, Walser lives in both his home country and in Germany on and off, producing novels, short stories, and poems until being institutionalized for being deemed a Schizophrenic. While he produced writings based off of manuscripts, he assured himself that he was here to be mad and not to write. While the man went on to decay, his work (while not very well known) holds strong. Hermann Hesse rightfully asserted his belief that, "if he [Walser] had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place." While it would take patience, understanding, and a clear mind to agree, the point is one very well taken.

Jakob von Gunten is Walser's most recognizable work. While it is inspired by his time in servant's school, it symbolizes not just a dormant education system, but the entire practice of being an introvert in a world that rotates so abnormally. I will honestly say that to be able to figure this novel out within one attempt is almost impossible, for this novel needs a massive amount of close reading, in addition to rounds of re-reading in order to figure out the meaning of the different characters. The characters that provide the most complexity are Herr Benjamenta, who serves as the principal that oversees the school, but yet does little more than sit in his office, keep track of the finances, and provide his feedback within his own terms. His sister, Fraulein Lisa Benjamenta, is an even more complex character. She is the only adult figure to provide any kind of order or educational authority to the school, in addition to overseeing the only class, "How Should a Boy Behave?" This particular question allows those within the school to work toward their goal of being placed as a servant to their particular environment. We will get back to Fraulein Benjamenta, for her role becomes important as the story progresses.

Jakob runs away from his family in order to seek a life and a name for himself. Despite heading off, he still contemplates about writing to his mother and holds a fondness for his brother. The story is told through submissions within his diary, so the story is written is the order with which the thoughts are recalled within Jakob's mind. With that being said, the story can go from discussing an event that just occurred during the day or earlier on around the time he had first started. Of all of his fellow students, the one he talks about most is Kraus. Kraus is the overachiever of the group and the one Jakob thinks the fondest of. In many ways, Kraus is like the Bert to Jakob's Ernie, though while Ernie comes off as being very carefree, we can easily tell that Jakob thinks highly of the world around him. In fact, the whole story is meant to serve the purpose of how students think about the purposeless world around them. When Jakob demands a refund from Herr Benjamenta, who is described as being a beastly creature with an ugly looking brown beard, the Herr questions Jakob's reasoning for not getting anything out of the school. The Herr points out that he learns from those around him. It takes awhile for a figure with a lot of thought to grasp such an idea, but to be with minds that are either alike, yet not alike, provide a sense of how the world is working around them. The Herr is a complex creature that can go from complimenting Jakob for being a good student that the Herr was fond of to becoming beastly and feeling the need to attack.

Jakob's disposition to relationships comes off as being very much distant. In a cheeky matter, he writes about his encounter with a prostitute. While much of what is being said has to be intended by the reader, Jakob informs us that she performs an act known as "saying hello" and that by the time their visit was done, he had lost a lot of his money. Fraulein Benjamenta eventually expresses her fondness of Jakob, which involves showing him the complexity of the inner chambers, which is more of a vision than a physical area, but yet the character of Fraulein is very much vague.

The final accounts and the ultimate realization deal with a key factor to Jakob's mission. I am not going to tell you what exactly happens, I AM going to point out the message that is being conveyed. Jakob comes to realize that we are not meant to live in a world of thought and that there are some things that should just be left to fate, to a higher being, or to God. The fact that Jakob leaves a life of thought behind to go forward with a life of letting things be as they are (or as Doris Day says, "Que Sera, Sera") IS the conclusion and thus the story he has told is but a contribution to this particular idea. It would take a particular epiphany to reach this particular point, which even the Fraulein could not touch upon when she started to beseech that he just obey and follow her lead. In turn, this means the Benjamenta Institute may have been dormant in how it ran, but stood as an explanation to grab one's attention in how it could change a way of life.

Jakob von Gunten is a novel of enlightenment. What Walser is putting forth is a valuable lesson about not over thinking things that cannot be controlled and allowing life around you to just happen as they may. Jakob was an excellent subject to demonstrate this particular point, for he had a bit of a quirky personality and yet he held a mind of thought that just about anyone would definitely bear in this particular instance. The fact that this is based off an experience in Walser's own life is just a piece of historical information that drove the author to construct the foundation of the story. What really makes this story amazing is that there is a valuable lesson regarding an important piece to moving forward in life. There are plenty of occasions where thought is necessary, but there are also occasions where thought is pointless and burdensome, which is where Walser keeps his concentration.

I am not going to give a numerical verdict. My mind lies somewhere between an eight and a ten. The way this piece was written and the mind behind it would get a ten in my mind and may have a good chance at making my next top ten list. This may, however, be very misleading for one that may come across this novel and think they are in for a fluffy little beach read. This is NOT a fluffy little beach read. This is a novel that takes a lot of thought within the text and beyond the text. Even when all was said and done, pieces had to be put together. If you are up to the task of putting the pieces together, I highly encourage that you indulge in Robert Walser's genius and read this thought changing piece about the meaning of life and how it should be grasped.

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