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Jakob von Gunten (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – September 30, 1999

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics (Book 10)
  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (September 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0940322218
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322219
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #177,368 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of theConfessions. But—as Walser’s first French translator, Marthe Robert, pointed out—there is in Jakob, too, something of the hero of the traditional German folk tale, of the lad who braves the castle of the giant and triumphs against all odds. Franz Kafka, early in his career, admired Walser’s work (Max Brod records with what delight Kafka would read Walser’s humorous sketches aloud). Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.’s demonically obstructive “assistants” in The Castle, have Jakob as their prototype." -- J.M. Coetzee

Wonderful . . . eccentric.
— The New York Sun

The moral core of Walser’s art is the refusal of power; of domination…. Walser’s virtues are those of the most mature, most civilized art. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer.
— Susan Sontag

If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.
— Hermann Hesse

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German

More About the Author

Robert Walser (1878-1956) worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor's assistant before discovering what William H. Gass calls his "true profession." From 1899 until he was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic in 1933 and institutionalized for the rest of his life, Walser produced nine novels and more than a thousand stories.

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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I think this quote from the book explains it all.
It's also easy to pick-up and put-down because the whole thing is broken up into short episodic sub-chapter sections.
Dan Mash
I believe the translation must be very good as the prose is fluid with Jacob's idiosyncrasies of speech intact.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Gulley Jimson on January 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
Jakov von Gunten is not like any novel I have read before and not, despite all the comparisons, like any novel of Kafka's. It is more like a series of first person reflections, with only the repeating cast of characters and the narrator to hold the novel together. Kafka's novels all have a certain narrative drive, and here there is very little, although the story of the slow dissolution of the school is strangely moving.
Bernard van Dieren once wrote that every original mind is a cosmos in itself: Walser gains nothing from being continually advertised as Kafka-lite. He is his own writer. By any standard, he is not as great a writer as Kafka, but his outlook is much more genial - less insular and more human - despite the fact that Walser and not Kafka was the one who ended up in the insane asylum. This book is his long masterpiece. The episodic rambling quality of the novel betrays Walser's roots in the short story, but the material never feels scattershot or forced together.
Something Jakob says gets at what Walser might be trying to do - he's writing about the hair of the students in the school: "And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord."
A strange thought for someone writing in a diary! But maybe the diary form is the closest that any writer can come to approximating the feeling of life, and letting the reader make his or her own observations.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By sweetmolly on October 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
Jacob is a young man attending a bizarre school to train servants (butlers) for upper class families. We are never certain if it is the school that is so odd or Jacob. He decides the other teachers "either do not exist, of they are still asleep, or they seem to have forgotten their profession" for the teaching responsibilities are taken solely by Herr Benjamenta or his dying sister Fraulein Benamenta.
This slim novel is Jacob's soliloquy to us. He is charming, buoyant, perhaps mad, and never intimidated. He reflects upon himself, his fellow students, his family and the Benjamentas with interest, sympathy, and occasional sadness.
Even when Jacob is frightened (rarely), he is intrigued and fascinated at what is happening to and around him, as when he incurs the ire of Herr Benjamenta:
"I'm writing this in a hurry. I'm trembling all over. There are lights dancing and flickering before my eyes. Something terrible has happened, seems to have happened, I hardly know what it was. Herr Benjamenta has had a fit and tried to-strangle me. Is this true? I can't think straight; I can't say what happened is true. But I'm so upset it must be true-"
I ended this novel very fond of Jacob. I know I will find him unforgettable. I believe the translation must be very good as the prose is fluid with Jacob's idiosyncrasies of speech intact. Highly recommended.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on May 26, 2008
Format: Paperback
Jakob is a student at a Berlin institution that seems to train young men for employment as servants or butlers (Kazuo I. must have read this before he did the Remains of the Day). He came to the metropolis from a provincial town, where he ran away from his aristocratic family, from which he wants no support, without being a 'rebel'. He writes a diary, which is dated 1909. He observes his colleagues and teachers, he has dreams and fantasies, he does have some adventures (like when he spends his last 10 Marks on an orgy in a 'restaurant with serving ladies', who teach him how to say 'Guten Tag' - possibly the most hilarious description of a brothel visit that you can find in German literature), he meets his well-to-do brother and some of his artist circle. At last, the school somehow comes to an end.
What you read above is a totally useless summary of the 'story'. It may give you the totally wrong idea that we have a conventional boarding school novel, maybe like Musil's Toerless.
In reality, to quote Master Bruno, we have a writer scaling the heights of mental disorder. Walser would later spend a long time in mental care. He was a schizophrenic. The novel has elements of autobiography, but 'bare reality is a thief, it takes things away, but then can't use them.' Jakob is forever exploring his own mind. I am unable to tell myself the truth. I am a mystery to myself. I will be a charming, spheric zero in life. I love restrictions, because it is such joy to disobey. I love fights and arguments.
Walser's/Jakob's deceptively simple language puts things in new contexts, finds new uses for words, creates new words. A modern classic, already a hundred years old now.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
In 1910, Franz Kafka began writing his journals. This was one year after the publication in Germany of Robert Walser's eccentric little novel, "Jakob von Gunten". The fact is worth noting because Kafka had read Walser and liked his writing, writing which can be characterized as "Kafkaesque" even though it preceded the publication of Kafka's work by several years. The resemblances between Walser and Kafka-- in sensibility, in prose style, in eccentricity of thought and syntax--are remarkable.
"Jakob von Gunten" is the first person journal of a student at the Benjamenta Institute, a school for butlers in an unidentified city. In young Jakob's words, "one learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life."
The Institute is run by Herr Benjamenta and all classes are taught by his sister, Fraulein Lisa Benajamenta. There are no other teachers, all of the others being either "asleep, or they are dead, or seemingly dead, or they are fossilized." It is a narrowly circumscribed world full of students who are enchanted with the most mundane and trivial matters. But it is also a mysterious world, a world alienated from reality, a dreamlike projection of Jakob's mind expressed in the concrete language of the real. "The Benjamentas are secluded in the inner chambers and in the classroom there's an emptiness, an emptiness that almost sickens one."
Humorous and absurd, disturbing and, at times, childlike in its simplicity, "Jakob von Gunten" is the work of an undeservedly obscure master of modern prose.
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