Pain and laughter peppered with irony

The moral core of Robert 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
The Swiss writer Robert Walser is one of the quiet geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser wrote a range of short stories, essays, as well as four novels, of which Jakob von Gunten is widely recognized as the finest. The book is a young man's inquisitive and irreverent account of life in what turns out to be the most uncanny of schools, whose beautiful sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau. It is the work of an outsider artist, a writer of uncompromising originality and disconcerting humor.
Jakob von Gunten is a seventeen-year-old runaway who enrolls in a school for servants. The Institute is a deeply mysterious place: the faculty lies asleep in a single room; the students, though subject to fierce discipline, come and go at will. Jakob, a spirited and subversive presence, keeps a journal in which he records his quirky impressions of the school, as well as his own enthusiasms and uncertainties, deliberations and dreams. And in the end, as the Institute itself dissolves around him like a dream, he steps out boldly to explore still-unimagined worlds.
If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.
HERMAN HESSE
Jakob Von Gunten, by Rober Walser
Translated and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton • Foreword by Susan Sontag
NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS • 200 PAGES • 1999

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