New York Review Books, £7.99. Order for £7.59 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Berlin Stories, By Robert Walser
The third time proved charmed for Robert Walser (1878-1956). In 1905, after two initial attempts, the writer left Switzerland to settle in Berlin, where he would remain until 1913, joining his brother Karl, a painter. As it happens, Robert arrived right in the midst of Karl's annus mirabilis, which saw the elder Walser produce cover illustrations for bestsellers, as well as designing theatre sets for Max Reinhardt.
As translator Susan Bernofsky notes in her excellent introduction, it was thanks to Karl that Walser was introduced to the characters he would later parody. Because of this, and despite the title, it is not so much Berlin that we get in these stories, but more a Portrait of the Artist as the younger, frustrated brother of a successful set designer.
Walser forgets himself enough to fulfil his promise in only a few of the 38 stories, but when he does, the result is outstanding: as in "Kutsch" – his take on a scribbler with delusions of grandeur – and "The Little Berliner", where an upper-class 12-year-old girl voices her unintentionally hilarious opinions on her city, her Papa, and her privileged vision of the world. Flashes of genius aside, the city of Berlin is rendered far too vaguely to leave any lasting impressions; many of Walser's observations could apply to any other city at any other point in time.
On the other hand, stories like "Aschinger" and "Mountain Halls" have a hangover's painful clarity: captivating, perceptive studies of drinking holes and variety shows. Here is the ending of "Aschinger": "Anyone who does not insist on particularly heartfelt shows of warmth can still have a heart here, he is allowed that much."
Another stand-out is "Frau Wilke", where a poet sublets a room from an old woman who is soon evicted by the landlady; as a result, she dies in abject poverty. Walser's description of the poet's naïve world as it falls apart is masterful. He has him stare at Frau Wilke's possessions until the bleakness of her quarters prompts him on to the street with a clearer understanding of the human condition. There is much that is inconsequential in Berlin Stories, but Walser's wit and eye for detail have a way of pulsing through regardless.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 2 Margaret Thatcher 'expressed fears of Asian rising' at Anglo-Irish summit in 1984
- 3 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 4 Sussex couple die in suspected Christmas Day 'suicide pact'
- 5 The Unluckiest People of the Year 2014 (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
Doctor Who Christmas special, review: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
The Interview film review: Controversial gross-out satire is broad, bawdy and bad - but undeniably entertaining
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever