Robert Walser

Photograph by Sherman Ong

So many times, as I rode through the streets of Berlin and Berlin life in the quaint, lumbering and yet buoyantly plodding horse-drawn omnibus, which never failed to invigorate and charm me anew, I would hear the aging, good-natured conductor humbly and humorously uttering a single insignificant and yet also at that moment quite significant word, which in addition, by the way, was written for the sake of correctness and order upon a panel that could be either concealed or displayed. When the inscription


was hanging tidily and properly in its place, people knew that for the time being no one else would be allowed to climb and clamber aboard because the gondola or pleasure palace rolling along on its wheels was already packed suffocatingly full, a regrettable circumstance that was announced in no uncertain terms by the warning placard: "Stop! Whosoever they may be, this line they shall not cross!" At times however, despite the rejecting, dismissive plaque, there would be a crowd pressing forward, expressing the impetuous desire to climb up and be carried off. And then someone, such as the chamberlain on duty, would say in a courteous voice: "Folks, we're full up," or he would say: "No shoving, please. It won't do any good," or perhaps it would occur to him to say: "With the greatest pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, would I invite you to climb aboard and take your seats, but it is my harsh duty to draw your attention to the fact that the car is already stuffed to the cracks with passengers. I do beg your pardon for having to deny you access and entry." Sallies and attacks on one side, rebuffs and refusals on the other, the vessel continues to sail calmly and gaily through all the metropolitan traffic, which almost resembles an ocean. Once again some hasty hothead is about to leap aboard, and once again an imperturbable "Full!" resounds in the daredevil's ears, whereupon he is obliged to remove his foot cautiously from the footboard once more.

Once when the omnibus was cruising full steam ahead, everything proceeding smoothly and properly, and with no one even remotely plotting an ambush or violent coup, someone slipped aboard—a person who apparently had been accustomed from an early age to go through thick and thin and strike down anyone and anything that got in his way.

"Full up, sir," the official remarked.

"Stupid, ridiculous nonsense" replied Monsieur Dreadnought. He was without a doubt the sort who thought it advisable to engage in the most ruthless power politics. "I beg your pardon, did you not hear what I said?" the good carman inquired. But now a veritable downpour of invectives was unleashed upon his unfortunate head. This powerful flood of unforeseen unpleasantnesses was so overwhelming that the good man was forced to give in. All the same he complained, saying:

"It's just not right, not right at all, and it's a good thing not all people are like this gentleman who's cursing me even though all I did was tell him we were full. It was my duty to tell him so, but certain people insist on trampling and flattening everything once they've made up their minds to do something. I don't go around saying 'full' for my own amusement, or because I want to antagonize people, or out of Schadenfreude. Every person has his tasks to perform and his duties to fulfill, and it just happens to be my duty to tell people 'full' when the car is full up. It isn't fair for a person to take offense like that. It's downright preposterous how quick some people are to fly into a rage. Well then! I'll stick with the ones who have some sense; thanks and praises be to God, there's still some of them left."

This is what the conductor said as the omnibus unhurriedly trundled on its way.

translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

"Full" is taken from Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, forthcoming in late 2011, translated and with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky, New York Review Books Classics.

The German original is used by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag.

Read the original in German

Read translator’s note

Robert Walser (1878–1956)—the great Swiss-German writer admired by Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Walter Benjamin—wrote as many as eight novels (four have survived) and thousands of the short prose texts that became his trademark. Called "a clairvoyant of the small" by W. G. Sebald, Walser drafted many of his works on small slips of found paper in a pencil script so tiny that when a trove of manuscripts was discovered after his death, it was believed initially that he had been writing in secret code. Berlin Stories, a collection of his early short fiction translated by Susan Bernofsky, is forthcoming from New York Review Books Classics.

Susan Bernofsky has translated seventeen books, including six by Robert Walser as well as novels by Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse, and others. She received the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize as well as awards and fellowships from the NEH, NEA, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Lannan Foundation. She is currently serving as Chair of the PEN Translation Committee and teaching in the MFA program at Queens College of the City University of New York. She also blogs about translation at this website. Her most recent translation of Walser is Microscripts (Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2010).

"Full" is a story about life in Berlin, but Robert Walser wrote this story in 1916, three years after he had left the bustle of the metropolis behind to return to his native Biel in Switzerland, a quiet town on the shores of a lake where Rousseau once spent a winter in seclusion. While the Great War was raging just across the border, Walser began to meditate on the complexities of modern life in a new way. This story shows not just a fascination with the fast-paced life of the still young 20th century, as often seen in his earlier work, but also a sense of the implicit violence imposed on human society by the stresses and demands of the modern world with its technological advances. This is a theme that would become even more pronounced in his work of the 1920s, when he often had his characters longing for earlier, simpler, more "authentic" times. (See, for example, "A Sort of Cleopatra" in Microscripts.)

The omnibus described in "Full" was already a relic when Walser first arrived in Berlin in 1905; the world's first electric streetcar had been tested in that city in 1881, and by the dawn of the 20th century, Berlin was filled with them. Horse-drawn omnibuses still existed to provide transportation in areas not yet served by the quickly-expanding streetcar network, but meanwhile the streetcars (which could transport larger numbers of passengers more quickly) had already come to define the pace of city life. The scene depicted in the story shows us this pace as observed in the microcosm of the omnibus, where 19th and 20th century lifestyles collide.

In translating the story, I paid a great deal of attention to Walser's use of choppy, sometimes jarring syntactical structures that give expression to and embody this conflict. Walser makes his sentences intentionally disjointed to produce the verbal representation of what Walter Benjamin would later call Zerstreuung [distraction], a key feature of existence in the modern age. Hence all the asides ("in addition," "by the way") in the first sentence. At the same time, I concentrated on maintaining the faintly ironic or wry tone that signals the distance – the amusement as well as bemusement – with which the narrator observes these events.