Friday 9 November 2012

Jakob Von Gunten

Jakob Von Gunten - Robert Wasler

Wasler is one of those writers I have become steadily more aware of over the past couple of years as his name cropped up in blog after blog. He was published in his lifetime and is often cited as an influence, both during his lifetime and afterwards. Kafka and Hesse, it is often mentioned, were fans. He is also cited as an outsider artist, spending much of the latter part of his life in asylums, and producing work written in pencil in a miniscule script which wasn't published until long after his death.

I have just finished reading Knut Hamsun's Hunger and it seems to me that the two books share a lot. They both deal largely with the tension between renunciation, pride and desire. They are both narrated by people who are on a knife edge, physically or mentally.

 Narrator/(anti)hero Jakob is attending a school which prepares its students for a life of service. We hear a lot about obedience and humility, and of Jakob's embrace of these 'virtues'. However we also hear a lot about Jakob's refusal to act as he should. The tension between the two would appear to be the main thing that gives Jakob pleasure: "To be supposed not to do something is so alluring sometimes that one cannot help doing it. Therefore I love deeply every kind of compulsion, because it allows me to take joy in what is illicit. If there were no commandments, no duties in the world, I would die, starve, be crippled by boredom."

Jakob, it appears, has renounced a position in the middle class world to become a servant: "my father was an alderman, and I had run away from him because I was afraid of being suffocated by his excellence." It is as if the world is a temptation which he must not give in to. Money, power and even intelligence are problems for their possessors. After all, what are any of these without purpose? "What is the use of thoughts and ideas if one feels, as I do, that one doesn't know what to do with them." Jakob seems to be trying to embrace humility. Hegel's view that the master is as dependent on the slave as the slave is of the master is reiterated in numerous ways. "Seriously: people obeying look just like the people giving orders."The people with the power, they are the really starving people." 

Being able to exist on little or nothing, obliterating need, is after all as straight a path to freedom as is the pursuit of wealth. Similarly, an education and an intellect can cause as many problems as they solve. "A person can be utterly foolish and unknowing: as long as he knows the way to adapt, to be flexible, and how to move about, he is still not lost, but will come through life better perhaps than someone who is clever and stuffed with knowledge."

Jakob has an odd relationship with Kraus, one of the other students. He often argues with him and enjoys the fact that his behaviour irritates Kraus. At the same time he professes admiration for how Kraus embodies the ideals of the Benjamenta Institute and of service. He simply DOES things without reflecting and without any sense of profiting from his acts. "Kraus is a knight from head to toe. Truly, he belongs to the Middle Ages, and it really is a pity that he hasn't got a Twelfth Century at his disposal."

And yet there are hints that this faux innocence is simply a front. Jakob asks a question about obedience which sounds like it is aware of the wars and horrors to come in the decades which followed this book. "We obey, without considering what will one day come of all this thoughtless obedience.." Indeed his loyalty is very questionable, and at one point he compares himself obliquely to Sancho Panza: "I was always the Squire and the Principal was the Knight."

When he says things like "If one thinks, one resists, and that is always so ugly and ruinous to things. Thinkers, if only they knew what harm they do", you have to laugh. I thought also of Candide. It seems that the world-view of Jakob imposes itself on what is happening round him to the extent that we cannot trust his interpretations. He is inconsolable by choice. "Can anyone console a Jakob Von Gunten? As long as I have a healthy body, there can be no question of it."

There is also a dark undertone poking through, a sense that this is a very difficult world to live in. "Perhaps all we present day people are something like slaves, ruled by an angry, whip-wielding, unrefined idea of the world."; "the world is incomprehensibly crass, tyrannical, moody, and cruel to sickly and sensitive people." "Bare reality: what a crook it sometimes is. It steals things, and afterwards it has no idea what to do with them. It just seems to spread sorrow for fun. Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it's very valuable, very. It shapes one."

The suggestion is that all you can hope for is to find a strategy which will allow you to survive. "Here at the Benjamenta Institute one learns to suffer and endure losses, and that is in my view a craft, an exercise without which any person will always remain a big child, a sort of crybaby, however important he may be."

This is a very interesting book, which creates a powerfully sustained voice at once naive and world weary. "I was never really a child, and therefore something in the nature of childhood will cling to me always." It has made me curious to read more by Wasler, particularly his micro-writings.

I was in part inspired to read this by GermanLitMonth, hosted at Lizzy's Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. I'm hoping to finish and blog about some more GermanLit and am currently reading Heinrich Böll's Group Portrait with Lady.

Follow #Germanlitmonth on Twitter.


  1. Some wonderful quotations there :) Another writer to take his place in the list of those whose works I *must* get around to at some point...

    ...it's a *very* long list though :(

    1. Well Tony, the list of works to 'get around to' grows every time you read something! One book leads to another, if not to another few. I keep arriving home with more books and wondering if I'll ever get to pick them off the shelves.

  2. Agree with Tony - very nice quotes and referencing other works. I must admit I've never heard of Wasler before so there you go, you learn something new everyday! I've never been to your blog before either and just noticed you've recently read The Woman in White - so just popping to read your review of that, as I read it recently too!

  3. I like his micro-writings - as you call them - very much but never got around to read anything longer.
    I got his collected works, so this is among them as well and one day...
    The only thing that bothers me occasionally when I read him is the fact that, like most Swiss writers, the writing contains a lot of Swiss words which I do not like so much. I was wondering how and if that could be captured in a translation.