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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.