My little comic is now viewable in its full, finished form in the new issue of Narwhal Magazine. The image above is an unused title page I created for it. The “gloss” referred to in the title page was mostly cut, but I’ve posting it below:
I submit to you, dear reader, a series of ten comics based on the 1909 Swiss-German novel, Jakob von Gunten. In this, Robert Walser’s most admired novel, the titular character is a young nobleman who has run away from his family to enroll in a school for servants. It seems strange at first, for a young man of his background to aspire to such a low station, but Jakob, we soon see, has an affection for servitude and submission. An affection so strong, in fact, that one begins to blush.
Reading this novel today, one detects notes of masochism and homoeroticism that could easily be dismissed as a misreading, anachronistically imposed by our own prurient age. But the pleasure Jakob takes in the play of obedience and resistance is peculiarly intense.
Jakob likes to break rules as much as to have them imposed on him, but he is always at pains not to stray too far outside the bounds of Victorian decorum. And perhaps it’s this tension between Jakob’s ardently enjoyed misbehaviour on one hand, and his prim admiration of virtue on the other, that gives the novel such delicious and sly humour. Reading it for the first time, I found myself giggling like a schoolboy at a dick joke.
Convinced that Jakob was a pervert–and I use the term affectionately–I was surprised that prominent reviews of the novel recognize only his rebellious spirit, without delving into its sexual dimension. Was the subject elided out of concerns of taste? Were writers reluctant to wade into a conversation already overloaded with theoretical baggage? Was I just dirty-minded after all? This comic is my attempt to account for my response, and hopefully share a bit of Walser’s humour in the process.
And–begging your patience, my dear reader–just one qualification: I am no cartoonist. I am neither trained nor employed in any of the visual arts. This comic, my first attempted, is one iteration of an ongoing project of literary and artistic dilettantism. I am a reader. The rest I’m figuring out as I go along.
[Lesson 1 image]
There is only one textbook in the school; it is called What is the Aim of Benjamenta’s Boys’ School? And there is only one lesson, which is endlessly repeated: How is a Boy to Behave? The story takes place in an unnamed German city alive with the excitement of the early 20th century. But Jakob rejects the hustle and bustle and striving of those of his social class, and instead seeks to become a zero, a null.
A note on the adaptation: throughout, while I quote and paraphrase Christopher Middleton’s translation, I also invent, exaggerate, and occasionally embellish. Still, the comic is true to Jakob’s spirit. He never said, “Call me a rascal again” but he certainly appreciated the epithet.
[Lesson 2 image]
From the first day of his arrival at Benjamenta’s school, Jakob is already a provocateur. He recounts with savoured embarrassment how “prim, like mother’s little boy” he behaves on the first day. And when he laments how badly he has made himself look in the eyes of the other pupils, it is hard to be sure how he really feels about that. I imagine he lay in bed that night picturing, not without some pleasure, the glowering faces of his new classmates as they looked down at him darkly.
[Lesson 3 image]
Kraus is the school’s star pupil, a servant par excellence–humble, loyal, and obedient. He is, for Jakob, an embodiment of the rules of the institute, and a paragon of virtue. Yet, even while Jakob reveres him, he also antagonizes him, deliberately provoking Kraus to anger, simply so Jakob can revel in Kraus’s righteous indignation. Jakob loves him for that wonderful anger, though this is an awfully misanthropic kind of love. Even from his degraded position, Jakob gains a kind of ascendency over his superiors through this impish play.
Jakob recognizes that sinner and saint form a complementary pair. The righteous man and the scoundrel feed off the each other. But it’s not simply breaking the rules that Jakob enjoys. It’s the fine balance of provoking “the frowning law” just enough to cause anger and annoyance, and then to beg forgiveness, and have forgiveness granted. Jakob loves to be on his knees. When he recounts his transgressions, his words are imbued with a sense of deliciousness and decadence gives these these acts the texture of something sexual: they are both a palpable joy, and a furtive, dark indulgence.
[Lesson 4 image]
Jakob’s fervent admiration of Herr Benjamenta is enough to make a modern reader wonder about the possibility of some latent homosexual desires, but Walser didn’t shy away from narrating an explicitly gay scene. Jakob’s classmate here is Tremala, who is described as a “depraved person” who “has been to sea in ships” and who “rejoices in vile tendencies”. In this scene he reaches for Jakob’s “intimate member, with the intention of doing [him] a loathsome favor.”
That Jakob notes Tremala’s sea-going experience highlights the fact that Jakob, too, has chosen to immerse himself in an almost exclusively male-populated environment. The first several entries in the journal that comprise this novel are filled with sensitive descriptions of the appearance and disposition of his various classmates–descriptions which exude an eroticism so faint they create a muted sexual tension, leaving the reader uncertain about Walser’s intent.
Jakob says that Tremala performs this act with his “digusting” hand and is quick to note, parenthetically, that “hands that do this are crude and disgusting”. Whatever his previous experience may be, Jakob seems to be professing some familiarity with activities of this sort.
But clearly, he doesn’t go in for such crudely overt behaviour. Jakob’s style is much more subtle.
[Lesson 5 image]
Soon after the incident in the kitchen, Jakob goes out to explore the city and it isn’t long before he finds himself in a brothel. This trip ends the traditional way: with the young man back on the street with no money left.
Jakob is new to the city, and enjoys its sights and vitality. But he has a complex relationship with the spirit of the times–rejecting it to a large part.
A note on the drawing of the first panel: the pedestrians, the poster, and, the buildings in the background all draw from separate paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a German expressionist painter and contemporary of Walser.
[Lesson 6 image]
Not long after Jakob’s trip to the brothel, he learns of the “improper sickness” of his fellow pupil and friend, Schacht, as they indulge in the prohibited behaviours of smoking and burning candles in the rooms. Jakob describes Schacht with great tenderness, evening remarking on how his face looks in the candlelight. He also describes trying to take Schacht’s hand in his own, and being rebuffed by him. Is he teasing Schacht when he asks to see the “object” of his sickness? Or is this something more sly. In the book, after declaring in his journal that he loves Schacht, he muses to himself, “Is that brotherly love?” His answer–“Perhaps”–I can only interpret as coyness.
[Lesson 7 image]
Lisa Benjamenta, Herr Benjamenta’s sister and the most beloved teacher in the school, falls for Jakob. In fact, both Benjamentas do. They recognize Jakob’s cleverness and apartness, and they both connect with him on a level more intimate than that of master and servant. Jakob is proud, and although that is not a desirable quality in a servant, they seem to respect him for it. Jakob, however, loves the Benjamentas in his own way, asymmetrical to theirs. Jakob treasures their hierarchical relationship–master and servant, teacher and pupil–and the thought of being on familiar terms with either of them, of being treated as an equal, frightens and angers him. He rejects their friendly (or perhaps more than friendly) overtures. He is rude, or embarrassing, or offends, or simply lapses into silence. He does whatever he can to keep the relationship calibrated to his liking. Jakob–servant and pupil though he may be–is in full control of the relationship between himself and the Benjamentas.
[Lesson 8 image]
Jakob relates a number of fascinating dreams, fantasies and musings. Perhaps the most unmistakably masochistic scene in the novel comes within a highly allegorical dream in which a phantasmagorical Lisa Benjamenta imparts knowledge and guidance. After the scenes in the top right, she takes him to an open field called “Freedom” and warns him that it is a cold and beautiful place, and one must not stay there long.
I’m particularly fond of Jakob’s fantasy of himself as one of Napoleon’s soldiers. Rather than picturing himself at a great victory, he imagines himself marching towards Moscow; in other words he fantasizes about being a foot soldier in one of the most disastrous military campaigns in history.
But most importantly to an understanding of Jakob’s character is his retelling of a scene from his childhood. The companions he tells this story to dismiss it as old-fashioned and distasteful. Nothing but the old aristocratic ways. But it is much more than that for Jakob. It might be an over-simplification of human psychology to call this the beginning of Jakob’s penchant for supplication. But perhaps it would not be an over-simplification of novelistic meaning-making.
[Lesson 9 image]
Herr Benjamenta’s motivation for this attack are mysterious. Perhaps it comes from stress related to his sister’s deteriorating condition. Perhaps it is frustration over Jakob’s reluctance to accept his friendship, thus humiliating him (pushing people’s buttons being one of Jakob’s specialties.) Perhaps he is only playing a prank on the young man. Whatever the cause, Jakob can’t help but be a little impressed.
[Lesson 10 image]
In the end, Herr Benjamenta asks Jakob to run away with him. He is inspired by the young man’s rebellious nature. Jakob, he says, is the kind of person one can have adventures with. But of course Jakob doesn’t like the idea of a “partnership”, and it is only after he has a fantasy of the two sallying forth into the world with Benjamenta in the role of knight and Jakob as his squire (rendered here in imitation of Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza), that Jakob agrees. Clearly, this is not going to be a partnership on equal footing, and Benjamenta can expect a great deal of aggravation from his dutiful and mischievous squire.