Berlin Stories: Reading #1

Below is first of three short articles by Robert Walser, written while he was in Berlin. All excepts are from: Walser, Robert. Berlin Stories. New York: New York Review of Books, 2012.

Good Morning, Giantess!

It’s as if a giantess were shaking her curls and sticking one leg out of bed when—early in the morning, before even the electric trams are running, and driven by some duty or other—you venture out into the metropolis. Cold and white the streets lie there, like outstretched human arms; you trot along, rubbing your hands, and watch people coming out of the gates and doorways of their buildings, as though some impatient monster were spewing out warm, flaming saliva. You encounter eyes as you walk along like this: girls’ eyes and the eyes of men, mirthless and gay; legs are trotting behind and before you, and you too are legging along as best you can, gazing with your own eyes, glancing the same glances as everyone else. And each breast bears some somnolent secret, each head is haunted by some melancholy or inspiring thought. Splendid, splendid.

So it is a cold morning—half sunny, half gray—and many, many people are still snug in their beds: revelers who’ve lived and adventured their way though the entire night and half the morning, refined persons who make it a habit to arise late, lazy dogs that wake up, give a yawn, and go back to snoring twenty times in a row, graybeards and invalids who can no longer get up at all or only with difficulty, women who have loved, artists who say to themselves: Get up early? What rubbish!, the children of wealthy, beautiful parents—fabulously coddled, sheltered creatures who go on sleeping in their own little rooms behind snow-white curtains, their little mouths open, immersed in fairy-tale dreams until nine, ten, or eleven o’clock. At such an early hour of morning, the wild maze of streets is all a-skitter and a-scurry with if not stage-set painters, then at least paperhangers, clerks who copy addresses, paltry insignificant middlemen, as well as persons intending to catch an early train to Vienna, Munich, Paris, or Hamburg, for the most part people of no significance, girls from all possible spheres of employment, working girls, in other words. Anyone observing this hubbub will have no choice but to declare it exceptional. He then walks along like this and is almost taken up by a compulsion to join in this running, this gasping haste, swinging his arms to and fro; the bustle and activity are just so contagious—the way a beautiful smile can be contagious. Well no, not like that.

The early morning is something completely different. It flings, for example, one last pair of grimily clad night owls with loathsomely red-painted faces out of their barrooms and onto the blinding, dusty white street where they loiter, stupefied, for quite some time with their crooked sticks over their shoulders, annoying the passersby. How the drunken night shines forth from their sullied eyes! “Onward, onward. That blue-eyed marvel, the early morning, has no time to waste on drunkards. It has a thousand shimmering threads with which it draws you on; it pushes you from behind and smiles coaxingly from the front. You glance up to where a whitish, veiled sky is letting a few scraps of blue peek out; behind you, to gaze after a person who interests you; beside you, at an opulent portal behind which a regal palace morosely, elegantly towers up. Statues beckon you from gardens and parks; still you keep on walking, giving everything a passing glance: things in motion and things fixed in place, hackney cabs indolently lumbering along, the electric tram just now starting its run, from whose windows human eyes regard you, a constable’s idiotic helmet, a person with tattered shoes and trousers, a person of no doubt erstwhile high standing who is sweeping the street in a top hat and fur coat; you glance at everything, just as you yourself are a fleeting target for all these other eyes.

That is what is so miraculous about a city: that each person’s bearing and conduct vanishes among all these thousand types, that everything is observed in passing, judgments made in an instant, and forgetting a matter of course. Past. What’s gone past? A façade from the Empire period? Where? Back there? Could a person possibly decide to turn around once more so as to give the old architecture a supplementary glance? Good heavens, no. Onward, onward. The chest expands, the giantess Metropolis has just, with the most voluptuous leisureliness, pulled on her sun-shimmery chemise. A giantess like this doesn’t dress so quickly; but each of her beautiful, huge motions is fragrant and steams and pounds and peals. Hackney cabs with American luggage on top clatter past mangling the language. Now you are walking in the park; the motionless canals are still covered in gray ice, the meadows make you shiver, the slender, thin, bare trees chase you swiftly on with their icily quivering appearance; carts are being pushed, two stately carriages from the coach house of some person or other of official standing sweep past, each bearing two coachmen and a lackey; always there is something, and each time you wish to observe this something more closely, it’s already gone.

Naturally you have a large number of thoughts during your one-hour march, you are a poet and can practice your art without removing your hands from the pockets of your—let us hope—respectable overcoat, you are a painter and perhaps have already finished five pictures during your morning stroll. You are an aristocrat, hero, lion tamer, Socialist, African explorer, ballet dancer, gymnast, or bartender, and you’ve fleetingly dreamed just now of having been introduced to the Kaiser. He climbed down from his throne and drew you into a friendly half-hour chat in which his lady the Empress may also have taken part. In your thoughts you rode the metropolitan railway, tore the laurel wreath from Dernburg’s brow, got married and settled down in a village in Switzerland, wrote a stage-worthy drama—jolly, jolly, onward, hey there, what? Could that be … ? Indeed, then you ran into your colleague Kitsch, and the two of you went home together for a cup of chocolate.

1907.

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