Length: approximately 1,000 words
Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories provides important vignettes, even snapshots, of the Berlin of one hundred years ago, and so I would like you to choose one particular area of Berlin life and explore it in more detail, using Walser as your key source while making use of other historical sources for support. Essays should be around four to five pages (not including the title page or bibliography). Your essay should have an introductory paragraph that closes with a proper and specific thesis statement, paragraphs organized around topics that reinforce your thesis, and a strong concluding paragraph.
For this essay I want you to use at least three critical, peer-reviewed sources, so check with the library and with me to find the most appropriate books and/or articles. For books, the website Novanet provides a complete listing of all books and journals held by universities in Nova Scotia. For articles, the website JSTOR (which is free to access as Dalhousie students) provides thousands of articles on numerous subjects. Note: Internet sources such as Wikipedia, Douban, SparkNotes, and CliffsNotes are not critical sources. Please ask me if you have any questions about the validity of a source. Be specific, focus in on key scenes or elements, and make sure that your argument is well supported with evidence and quotations from the works. When it comes to quoting from the text, comment on the quotes you use and do not simply allow them to speak for themselves. If you have any questions while writing your essays, or if you would like me to see rough drafts, please let me know.
When it comes to the subject or area of Berlin life that you choose, this will be determined by Walser’s work. Possible subjects include: transportation, the theatre (there are several ways that this subject can be tackled), modern inventions, the nature of city life, gardens and parks, etc. Basically, I would like you to first use Walser as a way into the topic, all the while quoting from him directly; following that, I would like you to bring in the secondary material (largely but not necessarily wholly historical) to deepen your exploration. Does Walser’s presentation accord with the history? What does it still suggest to us today?
Berlin Life Through Robert Walser
Despite gaining recognition and respect long after he was gone, Robert Walser stands out as a mysterious and idiosyncratic writer whose works give insight into the nature of city life in Berlin that time. Indeed, his prose’ texture sparkles with numberless details whose opulence does not diminish in their concrete representation of a twentieth century city and the nature of life therein. This paper discusses the nature of life in Berlin through Walser as reflected in his Berlin Stories
Berlin life, like life in any city, might have appeared to be a public spectacle but in essence it entailed the juxtaposed privacies of its inhabitants. Walser writes of many public places and settings where thousands of strangers met as they went about their activities without necessarily speaking to one another. In his work a reader notices a particular kind of melancholy in daily life, more so in the impersonal courtesy exercised by the city’s inhabitants even as they tried to coexist; this they had to do independently amid the city’s hustle and bustle. Billings (2012: p. 190) quotes from Walser’s The Park as thus:
“The marvelous boredom that is in all things, the sunny seclusion, this half-heartedness and drowsiness beneath the green, this melancholy, these legs, whose legs? Yes, I’m too indolent to make observations, I gaze down at my legs and march onwards”.
By and large, through Walser’s own life and his description of other city dwellers, Berlin is portrayed as a place where individuals could disappear and lose themselves in the crowd. The author’s fascination with the idea of disappearing offers interior spaces a kind of enchantment, for it is in these that privacy played out. This was particularly so for the theater which is he says was a place for the city inhabitants to dream (Walser, 2012). In a word, Berlin life may have seemed to be as public as life in any other city but in essence it entailed the juxtaposed privacies of its inhabitants.
The nature of life in Berlin might have not been be without the misfortune and hardship that characterize many cities, but an even more important aspect was its structural functionalism. While many a time the unnatural formation and degenerate nature of cities is what catches the eye, Walser does well to illuminate useful social relations and working components of city life, as opposed to entirely concentrating on the negative aspects of such an urban setting. Walser’s portrayal of Berlin and the life of its inhabitants is congruent with that by Fritzsche (1994), an author who also portrays the city’s deplorable conditions as well as its advantages. For instance, his revelation of the significance of the theatre in the life of Berliners renders it some kind of cultural value since going there to dream had become part and parcel of life.
Berlin life was also fast-paced and very turbulent. This assertion is indeed true and finds support in the fact that shortly after moving to Berlin, Walser was prompted to reflect upon the metropolis as well as the role of metropolitan arts. In his work, the author expresses his preference of the street over the theatre and primitive newspaper articles to well-written novels. In choosing this artistic mediums and spaces, Walser was suggesting that in his view, traditional literary mediums, spaces, and formats were not capable of perfectly capturing and presenting the turbulent fast-paced and ever-changing nature of city life. Newspapers’ discontinuous short reportage as well as adventurous layout seemed perfect for capturing the fragmented and largely provisional nature of Berlin life. More imperatively, his youthful pronouncement pointed to a broader debate concerning life in the city and the place of modern art in the same context. In his view, the city’s fast-paced and expanding precincts as well as turbulence called for the adoption of new artistic and literary forms. He was not alone in this; according to Mayne and Baudelaire (2012), Baudelaire had earlier on presented that considering the role of art in society and the rapid nature of fugitive formations that time, there was need to improvise and transform artistic practice specifically in the spirit of keeping up with the speed at which external things were metamorphosing. Considering the manner in which Walser narrates of his own tribulations in the city, the metropolis had generally come to be identified with indeterminate, largely self-reflective perspectives that were also definitive of modernism that time (Frisby, 2014). In relation to the role of art and the place of artists in society, Walser (2012) emphasizes that an artist had to pay attention in Berlin. This assertion is yet another indication of the fast-paced and turbulent nature of life in Berlin that time, for a high level of attention was needed lest many details could be missed and therefore not be represented in art. It was no wonder that Walser never stayed at one place for long; he shifted far too often, an observation that is perhaps suggestive of city life turbulence and challenges.
Last yet important, Berlin life was void of tradition or memory orientation. It was characteristic of any industrial setting and, in the words of Cappetti (1993: p.11), inhabitants seemed to swim towards “a shoreless future”. This was true even in terms of urban landmarks and buildings that were being reconfigured from time to time so that the city never had a permanent physiognomy. In fact, its present physiognomy attests to this fact since clearly it is not the same as it was a century ago. Cappetti’s point makes sense when one considers the toll of war later on as detailed by Geyer (1992). The lack of tradition and/or memory orientation could also be noted in artistic formats whereby Walser himself preferred boulevard newspapers over the traditional novel. This narrative was further advanced by other actors in the literary scene who, for instance, revised metropolis conceptions to include social and geographical parameters in the context of city reportage in a bid to capture city characters not only in their liveliness but also in their complexity. There was no particular way of doing things and this unpredictability characterized every aspect of Berlin life.
In conclusion, Robert Walser’s prose texture sparkles with numberless details whose opulence does not diminish in their concrete representation of a twentieth century city and the nature of life therein. Reading through his work, it becomes clear that while Berlin life might have seemed as public as life in any other city, it largely entailed the juxtaposed privacies of its inhabitants. It was also fast-paced and turbulent besides lacking tradition or memory orientation. Walser’s work could not do better to reflect the nature of life in Berlin a century ago.
Billings, J. (2012). Robert Walser: Berlin Stories. Literary Review, 189-191.
Cappetti, C. (1993). Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York.
Frisby, D. (2014). Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin. London: Routledge.
Fritzsche, P. (1994). Vagabond in the Fugitive City: Hans Ostwold, Imperial Berlin and the Grossstadt- Dokumente. Journal of Contemporary History, 29(3), 385-402.
Geyer, M. (1992). The Stigma of Violence, Nationalism, and War in Twentieth-Century Germany. German Studies Review 6(3),75-110.
Mayne, J. (2012). The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. London: Phaidon.
Walser, R. (2012). Berlin Stories. Trans. Susan Bernofsky. New York Review Books.