Short stories come in so many different types you never know what you’re getting until you open the book and plough into the first two or three. Sometimes the main purpose of them is entertainment as with collections of crime or humorous stories. Other times they have a message, perhaps being little vignettes illustrating the difficulties of life. Sometimes they seem like elongated poems, written in precisely worded prose to give an impression of a mood or an atmosphere. Or if you go back to the great short story writers like Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant you fine writers who saw their job as writing miniature novels with an opening scene setting, a small cast of characters, a plot and a conclusion.
On the whole, I find that the majority of the more “literary” short stories rather disappointing. I suppose I think that a short story should be above all else, “a story”. It’s not enough just to present a scene with no narrative form and no ending. The words, however nicely put together are not enough, there has be a flow of action: something has to happen.
Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm falls loosely in the middle of the story/literary axis with his new collection of stories, We’re Flying. Something usually happens in his stories, but on the other hand he is mostly concerned with the word picture he creates. And unfortunately (from my perspective) the stories are almost unremittingly down-beat (despite little flashes of light and hope to relieve the bleakness). His Wikipedia entry describes his “cool and sparse” writing style which certainly seems to be an accurate description.
As a reviewer, I shouldn’t divulge the whole content of a story but for the sake of illustration I’ll break the rule and describe the story, Holy Sacrament. A Pastor has moved to Lake Constance because he thought that the people in southern Germany would be more open to a creative ministry. Once he gets to his new parish he finds that the people are as conservative as anywhere. He upsets the lady organist by using his wife’s guitar playing skills in the service. He upsets the congregation by using bread and grape juice for Communion rather than wafers and wine. His sermons on developments in the Middle East and the need for reconciliation are poorly received and the congregation dwindles away. He steps outside the church after a troubled service and notices a seagull hovering above him and in a moment of inspiration casts a piece of bread upwards, immediately finding that a flock of gulls descend on the basket and takes the remaining pieces of bread. He flings the basket up into the air and cries out, “All are welcome!” and as he does so he finds he can’t stop laughing and “at the end of weeks of darkness, he finally saw the light”.
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.
Institute Benjamenta is the third Robert Walser novel I have reviewed on A Common Reader, the other two, The Tanners and The Assistant, sharing with this one, a common theme of “servanthood”.
W G Sebald wrote of Robert Walser (1878-1956), “The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether. . . he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways”. It can be seen that Institute Benjamenta springs naturally from such a life, being the story of a man who undergoes a lengthy course of training in becoming little more than a nothing.
The book is written in the first person by Jakob von Gunten, a 17 year old boy who enrols in a private academy for servants, the Institute Benjamenta. The Institute is like a boys’ boarding school, run by an eccentric couple, Frau and Fraulein Benjamenta who teach the basics of a servant’s behaviour and duties such as entering a room, behaviour towards women and waiting on table etc. But more importantly, they also attempt to train their pupils in the inner attitude of a servant which seems to consist of a daily personal humiliation in which the servant’s character is moulded by an almost Christian principle of denying oneself.
I have had a very busy week and have been suffering mild literary withdrawal symptoms due to the demands of visitors preventing me from updating A Common Reader for the last few days, or even responding properly to those who have commented on my reviews – apologies to those.
However, I’ve managed to snatch some reading time and have enjoyed reading The Tanners by Robert Walser. The only other book I’ve read by Walser is The Assistant, which I enjoyed greatly so I came to this newly published edition of The Tanners with a sense of anticipation.
Swiss writer Robert Walser wrote during the first part of the 20th century, and was a unique writer and as his Wikipedia entry says, “A characteristic of Walser’s texts is a playful serenity behind which hide existential fears. Today, Walser’s texts, completely re-edited since the 1970s, are regarded as among the most important writings of literary modernism”. Walser led an outwardly limited life, never marrying and ending his years in an asylum. He died while out for a long lonely walk in the snow
Robert Walser is an important writer for those with an interest in this period and in writers who followed in his wake such as W G Sebald. Sebald in fact provides a critical biography of Walser in his 36 page introduction to this edition of The Tanners which is worth the purchase price in itself, beginning with the words,
The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether. . . he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways.