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This article is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

Tobold translated by Idris Parry Robert Walser

The Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) placed the hero of his novel Jakob von Gunten in a school for servants. Throughout life Walser was attracted by the idea of submission, which, for his work, implied unqualified exposure to the things of this world But theory was not enough: Walser actually became a servant. In the autumn of 1905 he entered service as a footman to a noble family at Schloss Dambrau, a great country house in Silesia. In his meekness does the writer inherit the earth?

My name used to be Peter; this is what a strange quiet man called Tobold said to me one day; and he went on calmly to tell me his story:

I used to sit in my little back room writing poetry, dreaming of life as a great celebrity, of being loved by women, about all kinds of marvellous great things. I never slept at night, but to be sleepless was a pleasure. Always awake, always full of ideas, that's how I was. I was enchanted by nature and by secret paths through forests and meadows. All day long I had visions and dreams, yet I never really knew what I was yearning for. I knew, and the next minute I didn't know. But I was passionately fond of my indefinable longing and I wouldn't have liked to be without it. I longed for danger, for greatness, for something romantic. The poems I wrote as Peter I published much later ...

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