A charming zero

INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA by Robert Walser trs Christopher Middleton, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
"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."

Thus begins Jakob von Gunten's extraordinary journal, and rite of passage through a vortex of inanity. At the Institute Benjamenta children spend their days practising absurdly ritualised bows and greetings, or memorise maxims such as "Good behaviour is a garden full of flowers". Their clipped routines ape the world of the "little man" with a youthful zeal. Jakob's great expectation in life is to be "a charming, utterly spherical zero". Meanwhile he notes the lack of qualities in his companions: Hans "doesn't demand pensiveness"; "To know something about Fuchs is ... a coarse and bothersome superfluity."

First published in Berlin in 1909, Walser's novel is the kind of anti- Bildungsroman that crystallised in the works of Kafka and Musil. Instead of being educated through experience into the broader horizons of adult understanding, Jakob learns to acquire "a very very mobile, small, pliant, and supple dignity" in a world that is cupboard-like, and drained of meaning.

Arriving so late in the day, and published to coincide with a film of the book by the Brothers Quay, it is bound to be preceded by expectations of Kafkaesque angst. And indeed, the Institute seems to harbour some disturbing secrets. As its two principals are drawn into an obsessive relationship with Jakob, his comfortable world opens to reveal flooding visions and terrible dreams.

However, Walser's writing exudes lightness and charm. Jakob is in his element at the Institute: "Yes, yes, I admit I like being repressed." It is left to the reader to decide whether he is an imbecile, a masochist or a great satiric invention.

Such indeterminacy surrounds Walser himself. When he first turned up in his hiking suit in the literary salons of Berlin, he was received as an innocent pastoral loafer. The reality was a life of poverty, isolation and, eventually, persecution by voices. He turned out a mountain of miniature prose gems and a handful of novels, three of which he destroyed. He entered an asylum as a schizophrenic in 1929, never returned to the outside world and died while on his daily walk in 1956.

In Walser's work, too, charm and nightmare coexist in a pattern of instability. As the Institute teeters along towards its hallucinatory dissolution, the fascination lies in Jakob's volatile observations. His notebook is an existential fugue, by turns audacious, charming, analytical, wistful, dignified, insipid, artful, obsequious and poetic. Christopher Middleton's translation brilliantly captures these shifting nuances that unravel rather than concretise experience.

What is evaded is any relation to pain. Jakob, like the characters in much of Walser's writing - what he called the "torn-apart book of myself" - anticipates nastiness and turns aside. Any hint of a design on life is dispersed to make way for the homely pleasures of interior strolling. Yet Walser's work has a more complex relation to power, and it is possibly the diffuseness of his tone which has delayed Institute Benjamenta's recognition as a classic modern novel.