How does one begin to write even an on-the-fly review of such a novel, one that should be experienced as a series of deceptively simple vignettes in the young life of the titular character and be relished as Walser carries one along with Jakob’s singular voice? Jakob von Gunten is also a difficult novel from which to quote given how the reader manages to catch small glimpses of how the narrative voice will develop and evolve, something that this reviewer would not wish to ruin for any future reader of this very precious book.Walser really is a master at the microcosmic: the Benjamenta Institute—where Jakob installs himself to learn (or not learn) the ways of the world—truly is the world. Just as The Walk and The Assistant offer microcosmic and often claustrophobic scenes that suggest their application to society and culture at large, so, too, does Jakob von Gunten.
In all of these works—which, to date, are the only works by Walser I’ve had the chance to read—Walser gives us searing and incisive psychological portraits of his protagonists; at the same time, Walser is superbly nonjudgmental in presenting both their virtues and their vices. His humanism and compassion is evident, as well as an overarching concern with morality, class divisions, the function of dreams and fantasies in forging a creative and cosmopolitan place in society, and the ways in which industrialization and urbanization (always in the background in Walser’s work, but a prevalent motif all the same) cause individuals to lose some sense of a shared, common history.Jakob’s voice is that of a child and yet he is also emphatically not a child. Instead, Walser suggests that there is no distinction to be made between childhood and adulthood; in so doing, he also breaks down other dualistic and dichotomous categories, causing Jakob’s precarious, playful, perverse, and inquisitive questioning of the world in which he lives to become the questions that we all pose when faced with change of any sort.(And despite the quick nature of this review, it seems Modern World Lit has decided to feature it. MWL is a great resource: check it out if you don't already know about it.)