Magazine article World Literature Today

Berlin Stories

Magazine article World Literature Today

Berlin Stories

Article excerpt

Robert Walser. Berlin Stories. Jochen Greven, ed. Susan Bernofsky, tr. New York. New York Review Books. 2012. isbn 9781590174548

The work of Swiss writer Robert Walser, who was born in 1878 and wrote in German, is enjoying a renaissance. No fewer than three American editions of his work have either been recently released or are waiting to be released in the next few months. Why this is happening now is as curious as all whims of literary posterity, but in this case especially so, given the fact that Walser had stopped writing a long time before he was found dead, from a heart attack, near a snowcovered trail not far from the Swiss sanatorium where he spent the final twenty-odd years of his life, on Christmas day in 1956. Why Walser had stopped writing and, equally interesting, why he refused to move out of the sanatorium in Herisau, even though he had been certified as healthy by the local doctors long before his death, will probably never be answered, though some have speculated that the decision had something to do, at least initially, with the Nazis banning his books.

Berlin Stories is a collection of feuilletons and literary sketches written for journals and newspapers. As such, the pieces are decisively brief, yet filled with keen observations, giving us wonderful insight into the hustle and bustle of turnof- the-century Berlin, which, then as now, brimmed with human activity and, in Walser's words, could only be described as "exceptional." The collection is divided into four sections ("The City Streets," "The Theater," "Berlin Life," and "Looking Back"), but sampling it at will, rather than reading it straight through, is equally rewarding and perhaps the better approach, for Walser, who was twenty- seven when he moved to Berlin in the footsteps of his brother Karl, a stage-set designer and painter, is constantly in awe of the place that's about to "burst at the seams with newness. …

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