«”One learns very little here,” observes young Jakob von Gunten after his first day at the Benjamenta Institute, where he has enrolled himself as a student. The teachers lie around like dead men. There is only one textbook, What is the Aim of Benjamenta’s Boys’ School?, and only one lesson, “How Should a Boy Behave?” All the teaching is done by Fräulein Lisa Benjamenta, sister of the principal. Herr Benjamenta himself sits in his office and counts his money, like an ogre in a fairy tale. In fact, the school is a bit of a swindle».
«Jakob von Gunten purports to be the diary Jakob keeps during his stay at the Institute. It consists mainly of his reflections on the education he receives there—an education in humility (…). The humility taught by the Benjamentas is not of the religious variety. Their graduates aspire to be serving men or butlers, not saints. But Jakob is a special case, a pupil for whom the lessons in humility have a deep personal resonance. “How fortunate I am,” he writes, “not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.”»
«”I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad”, he told a visitor. Besides, he said, the time for litterateurs was over.»
«More interesting than the script itself is the question of what the “pencil method” made possible to Walser (…). The answer seems to be that, like an artist with a stick of charcoal between his fingers, Walser needed to get a steady, rhythmic hand movement going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which reverie, composition, and the flow of the writing tool became much the same thing. In a piece entitled “Pencil Sketch” dating from 1926-1927, he mentions the “unique bliss” that the pencil method allowed him. “It calms me down and cheers me up,” he said elsewhere. Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist. The pencil and the self-invented stenographic script allowed the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood».
«Fundamentally The Robber is “about” nothing more than the adventure of its own writing. Its charm lies in its surprising twists and turns of direction, its delicately ironic handling of the formulas of amatory play, and its supple and inventive exploitation of the resources of German. Its author figure, flustered by the multiplicity of narrative strands he suddenly has to manage now that the pencil in his hand is moving, is reminiscent above all of Laurence Sterne, the gentler, later Sterne, without the leering and the double entendres.»
«[From “The Robber”:] “He was always…lone as a little lost lamb. People persecuted him to help him learn how to live. He gave such a vulnerable impression. He resembled the leaf that a little boy strikes down from its branch with a stick, because its singularity makes it conspicuous. In other words, he invited persecution”. As Walser remarked, with equal irony but in propria persona, in a letter from the same period: “At times I feel eaten up, that is to say half or wholly consumed, by the love, concern, and interest of my so excellent countrymen”».
«He has never felt the urge to spend nights with women, he says, yet has “quite horrifying stockpiles of amorous potential,” so much so that “every time I go out on the street, I immediately start falling in love.” The only stratagem that brings him happiness is to think up stories about himself and his erotic object in which he is “the subordinate, obedient, sacrificing, scrutinized, and chaperoned [one].” Sometimes, in fact, he feels he is really a girl. Yet at the same time there is also a boy inside him, a naughty boy. The doctor’s response is eminently sage. You seem to know yourself very well, he says—don’t try to change.»
«”The Robber” is more or less contemporary in composition with Joyce’s Ulysses and with the later volumes of Proust’s Recherche. Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature, opening up and even legitimating as a subject the adventures of the writing (or dreaming) self and of the meandering line of ink (or pencil) that emerges under the writing hand».
«All his prose pieces, he suggested in retrospect, might be read as chapters in “a long, plotless, realistic story,” a “cut up or disjoined book of the self [Ich-Buch].”
Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness. In a late poem Walser wrote:
I would wish it on no one to be me.
Only I am capable of bearing myself.
To know so much, to have seen so much, and
To say nothing, just about nothing.»
– “The Genius of Robert Walser” by J.M. Coetzee