A New York Review Books Original
In 1905 the young Swiss writer Robert Walser arrived in Berlin to join his older brother Karl, already an important stage-set designer, and immediately threw himself into the vibrant social and cultural life of the city. Berlin Stories collects his alternately celebratory, droll, and satirical observations on every aspect of the bustling German capital, from its theaters, cabarets, painters’ galleries, and literary salons, to the metropolitan street, markets, the Tiergarten, rapid-service restaurants, and the electric tram. Originally appearing in literary magazines as well as the feuilleton sections of newspapers, the early stories are characterized by a joyous urgency and the generosity of an unconventional guide. Later pieces take the form of more personal reflections on the writing process, memories, and character studies. All are full of counter-intuitive images and vignettes of startling clarity, showcasing a unique talent for whom no detail was trivial, at grips with a city diving headlong into modernity.
In the first English translation of his stories, Walser (an early twentieth century Swiss writer and European modernist) portrays Berlin through vignettes organized in four sections: "The City Streets"; "The Theater"; "Berlin Life"; and "Looking Back." With journalistic, mostly first- and second-person accounts, and an eye toward middle-class domesticity, he considers topics ranging from a weekly market to gustatory pleasures at a local bar, and from the anticipation of theatrical novelties to conflict in the life of a millionairess. Set before the violence of the Weimar Republic, these selections feature characters who display affection toward the city and their countrymen rather than disenchantment, and with minimal departures, who reveal some of the author's own gratitude and optimism. Unswayed by "all this elegance and splendor," they are as attuned to pockets of nature as they are to public transport, such that the commonplace can inspire simple wonder and dream-like musings. Modern readers may consider the return to Berlin as a seat of culture, intellect, and civility to be nostalgic, but refreshing.