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Jakob von Gunten (1909)

by Robert Walser

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,0523115,101 (3.92)1 / 33
The Swiss writer Robert Walser is one of the quiet geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser wrote a range of short stories, essays, as well as four novels, of which Jakob von Gunten is widely recognized as the finest. The book is a young man's inquisitive and irreverent account of life in what turns out to be the most uncanny of schools. It is the work of an outsider artist, a writer of uncompromising originality and disconcerting humor, whose beautiful sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau.… (more)
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English (30)  Dutch (1)  All languages (31)
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
The rabbit hole down which the protagonist/narrator Jakob tumbles is a school for training butlers. In an earlier time, a similar youth might have entered a monastery to obey without question the commands of a master, and to love the rules of its book. Jakob is ambivalent about whether he believes in God, so he chooses this option instead. Nonetheless, he is a seeker. Like Siddhartha or Francis of Assisi, he renounces his well-situated family and comfortable home to embark on a life of self-abnegation. So is he a saint or the prodigal son?
The book contains many echoes of the Bible and other spiritual literature, especially when, just like his namesake, Jakob grabs another character by the ankles and vows not to let her loose until his wish is granted (the motif of falling to the feet of another is repeated twice).
Walser’s writing is rich, both in its descriptions of life in the institute and in street scenes and daydreams. His insights into Jakob are sharp. “Alles Verbotene lebt auf hundertfache Art und Weise; also lebt nur lebendiger, was tot sein sollte,” notes Jakob in his diary while musing on the delights of forbidden fruit. A tantalizing glimpse of it comes at the halfway point in the story. Immediately after this, the youth is led by the hand on a phantasmagoric journey that is an evocative sublimation of erotic desire and experience. A masterpiece of writing, and possibly a model for the magic theater passage in Hesse’s Steppenwolf.
The school Jakob enters doesn’t seem entirely on the level, but that doesn’t matter to him. It may even add to its attraction, given the masochistic personality that unfolds in the course of this book. In keeping with his self-abnegation, the resolution of his ambivalent yearnings does not come in the form of an inner decision as much as in an exterior event. A character representing one pole dies, a symbolically rich plot element, and Jakob passively acquiesces to the remaining option. Is Jakob a saint? Perhaps not quite. He fits better in another, closely-related tradition, that of the holy fool.
By the way, this book is available for free as a download since it is out-of-copyright. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
I'm sorry, everybody who told me to read this. We tortured each other for about seventy pages and I gave up before it did.

When somebody visited him in the lunatic asylum and asked him how his writing was going, Walser famously replied 'I didn't come here to write, I came here to be mad.'

Fair enough, Robert. But you ain't taking me with you.
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
I'm sorry, everybody who told me to read this. We tortured each other for about seventy pages and I gave up before it did.

When somebody visited him in the lunatic asylum and asked him how his writing was going, Walser famously replied 'I didn't come here to write, I came here to be mad.'

Fair enough, Robert. But you ain't taking me with you.
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
I'm sorry, everybody who told me to read this. We tortured each other for about seventy pages and I gave up before it did.

When somebody visited him in the lunatic asylum and asked him how his writing was going, Walser famously replied 'I didn't come here to write, I came here to be mad.'

Fair enough, Robert. But you ain't taking me with you.
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
I feel such kinship with Robert Walser but this book bores me tears. What is it? I know I'm smart enough but now is maybe not the right time. ( )
  uncleflannery | May 16, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Walser, Robertprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
BascoveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brouwers, JeroenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Charvát, RadovanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Middleton, ChristopherTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ros, MartinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stefani, GuidoAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.
Quotations
...I imagine that it would be unspeakably lovely to die with the terrible knowledge that I have offended whomsoever I love the most and have filled them with bad opinions of me. Nobody will understand that, or only someone who can sense tremblings of beauty in defiance.
...I love so deeply every kind of compulsion, because it allows me to take joy in what is illicit.
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The Swiss writer Robert Walser is one of the quiet geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser wrote a range of short stories, essays, as well as four novels, of which Jakob von Gunten is widely recognized as the finest. The book is a young man's inquisitive and irreverent account of life in what turns out to be the most uncanny of schools. It is the work of an outsider artist, a writer of uncompromising originality and disconcerting humor, whose beautiful sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau.

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