Review: Some German-language short stories

I recently read two books of short stories by early 20th century German writers – Selected Stories of Robert Walser (actually a Swiss national, but writing in German), and Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar.   These writers are almost equally strange.  Hermann Ungar was a Czech Zionist who died at the age of 38 in 1929 and who, although he never met Kafka, was given posthumous membership of the “Prague Circle” of writers who transformed Czech-German literature of the period.  Robert Walser spent the latter years of his life in a mental hospital and is renowned for his microscripts:  “narrow strips of paper covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high”  which have recently been published in a volume containing both facsimiles and transcriptions.

Robert Walser's Microscipts - (grabbed from amazon.co.uk book listing)

I won’t go into the life-stories of these two eccentric authors as Hermann Ungar’s life is described well in this biography on the Twisted Spoon website and Robert Walser’s in this excellent article by J M Coetzee on the New York Review of Books website.

Walser’s Selected Stories is a very satisfying little volume containing some very short stories and a a smaller number of longer ones.  The most substantial story seems to be The Walk.  Walser specialises in descriptions of his over-sensitive state of mind and delights in writing about banal, trivial events but with a level of descriptive writing which reminds me slightly of a Buddhist writings which exhort one to value the present moment (“mindfulness”) and to meditate on little things as a way to enlightenment.

In this story, the narrator wakes up in a relaxed state of mind and sets out on a long rambling walk, partly to conduct a couple of items of business but mostly to experience the flow of daily life around him.

I found myself, as I walked in the open, bright and cheerful street, in a romantically adventurous state of mind, which pleased me profoundly.  The morning world spread out before my eyes appeared as beautiful to me as if I saw it for the first time.  Everything I saw made upon me a delightful impression of frienliness, of goodliness, and of youth.  All sorrow, all pain, and all grave thoughts were as vanished, although I vividly sensed a certain seriousness, a tone, still before me and behind me.

The narrator proceeds to visit a bookshop, a bank, a tailor, a tax office.  Along the way he encounters various people who he stops to talk to.  In one sense, the “story” is completely pointless other than as a vehicle for the narrator’s meditations on life and current affairs (his intense dislike of motor cars for example).  But I believe the “point” as such is as I mentioned above, to take a certain joy in the simple routines of daily life.  I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau, who when asked if he was much travelled, replied, “I have travelled much in Concord County”.  A man who could live by Walden Pond for two years would surely have appreciated the writings of Robert Walser.

With an introduction by Susan Sontag, Selected Stories would be a good introduction to Walser’s work and is a very attractive book to dip into.

As an aside, I’d like to include this painting of the Robert Walser’s death, by British artist and novelist Billy Childish.  Robert Walser was found dead in the snow while walking near the asylum in which he spent the last 27 years of his life.   Childish produced this memorable painting which I am allowed to reproduce here due to its inclusion in Wikimedia.

Hermann Ungar’s book of stories Boys and Murderers is a much less innocent volume of stories than Robert Walser’s.  Ungar’s tone is sinister, even disturbing, and when we embark on reading one we never know what strange people we are going to encounter there.  In The Story of a Murder for example, we read of a hunch-backed barber Hascheck, who cruelly manipulates the narrator’s pathetic father by encouraging him in a series of lies about his past, and then suggesting that he is about to be exposed as a fraud.  It is not so much the emerging story which holds the reader’s interest, fascinating though it is, as the dark thoughts and convoluted reasonings of the characters.

Similarly, in A Man and Maid, we learn of a young man’s obsession with an older house-maid despite her unattractiveness and her complete lack of personal qualities.  As he rises in his career and becomes wealthy, he persuades her to travel with him to America where he eventually installs her in a brothel – for disreputable reasons which are only partly elucidated by Ungar’s description of his inner dialogue.

Despite the unpromising material of many of these stories, Ungar created a unique collection quite unlike anything else – with the possible exception of other writers of the Kafka school of writing.

I took these two books on holiday with me – neither qualified as typical holiday reading but they were good to dip in and out of and are definitely two small volumes which will remain on my shelves rather than ending up in my usual charity-shop book boxes.

9 comments to Review: Some German-language short stories

  • two good looking collection I ve been after a wasler for a while unfortunately my library dosen’t have it so will at some point have to buy a copy ,the microscripts look amazing ,all the best stu

  • Ooh, and the Walser book is an NYRB classic, which is just the sort of book I’m looking for..

  • Tom

    Iris – its a great book to dip into. Definitely a classic

  • Tom

    Stu – thanks for visiting. I’d buy the microscript book but I think its probably best for those who read German – and I don’t!

  • HOw interesting. I read both the articles you linked to and that got me intrigued by the authors. I hadn’t heard of either (despite studying German literature at university) and I would definitely like to try Walser. I’ll have to see what is available. Thank you for the heads-up!

  • Tom

    litlove – thanks for visiting. I think both these authors are a little weird – hardly mainstream, thus your not finding them in your course at University.

  • Carola Huttmann

    Hi Tom,

    Greetings from Orkney. I’m delighted to have found your website.

    Thank you for these great reviews. I read both Ungar and Walser as a teenager in Germany. I’m thrilled to know these authors have now been translated into English. I’m off to Amazon right now to see if these books are available there.

    Best wishes.

  • I have just begun to read Robert Walser for the first time. I am really intrigued by his work and hope to read a good bit more.

  • Hello Mel – I’m sure you’ll enjoy Walter. I recommend The Assistant as being one of his most enjoyable books

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