Why the City is Literature, and Vice Versa
7 February 2012 |
The blog of the New York Review of Books has run a wonderful excerpt from Robert Walser’s 1908 Berlin Stories, a book their press just came out with as a classic reprint.
Walser, author of Jakob von Gunten, is the Swiss master of the particular, the authorial voice of precise judgment and observation, and in love with the city as a stage. Here, the narrator is on an electric tram, a new invention at the turn-of-the-century:
From time to time you do nonetheless look straight ahead again. After completing this straightforward exercise, you may permit your eyes a modest excursion. Your gaze sweeps through the interior of the car, crossing fat, drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl, until you’ve had your fill of these studies in the quotidian and gradually begin to observe your own footgear, which could use proper mending. And always new stations are arriving, new streets, and the journey takes you past squares and bridges, past the war ministry and the department store, and all this while it is continuing to rain, and you continue to behave as if you were a tad bored, and you continue to find this conduct the most suitable.
But it might also be that while you were riding along like that, you heard or saw something beautiful, gay, or sad, something you will never forget.
I tried to say these same things in Song of the City, the images flaring in my own eyes, hoping to pinpoint all the despair and beauty.