The Immensity of an Afternoon: Reading Berlin Stories

By Mariah Eppes

“Strange, the way we look into each other’s eyes on a Sunday afternoon like this, as if we had something to say to one another, but we have nothing at all to say, we say to ourselves.”

—Robert Walser, Berlin Stories, “The Park”

I met Berlin Stories in 2014, on a perfect fall Sunday in Princeton, New Jersey. I was a twenty-one-year-old senior at Rutgers University. I was trying to figure out how to become a writer. 

I was also restless. Friends and I used to take the train to Princeton on the weekend, a relatively inexpensive way to satisfy the urge for movement and novelty. Despite its proximity on the train, Princeton felt like a different world. The primary draw for me was a bookstore—a well-curated, beautiful bookstore. I’d browse the shelves there, get my fill of the new books, then walk to the Princeton Public Library, where used books were sold for a dollar or two.

I still remember finding Berlin Stories, in more detail than most spontaneous book purchases. I had been looking at the used books for a long time. My friends were waiting for me. I remember the early afternoon light coming in through the windows on the library’s walls. I had a floating, charged feeling that I tend to get on particularly lovely days spent wandering in new places: a feeling of possibility. I can read anything or write anything, all of it will be fascinating, and existence bursts with potential in an almost overwhelming way.

Berlin Stories was on a middle shelf, about eye level, on the right side. I pulled the book off the shelf immediately upon recognizing the spine. It was published by New York Review Books, in their distinct Classics series. I’d been introduced to New York Review Books recently, perhaps just the previous week, in one of my classes. I thought the series’ cover designs were so pretty. I remember thinking what a coincidence it was that I’d happened to find one here, and how lucky I was to find it so cheap. Full price was at least fifteen dollars.

I’d never heard of Robert Walser, but I’d had an interest in Germany for years that I was starting to explore (I was taking a literature course in the German department; the theme was the Übermensch). These three circumstances—a sense of openness in my mind, an aesthetic appreciation of NYRB, and an interest in Germany—led me to buy that copy of Berlin Stories. The book proceeded to sit on my bookshelf for nearly five years, moving from New Jersey to New York, and living in three different apartments.

***

In the summer of 2019, I was packing, looking for a book to bring to the beach. Berlin Stories caught my eye. I felt bad for neglecting the book—it was always associated with the good memory of that Sunday in Princeton. So in the bag it went. 

I read the stories on a quiet part of the beach under an umbrella. I’d read one, put the book on my knee, look around for a while, pick up the book again, read another. The first story in the collection—titled “Good Morning, Giantess!”—charts the sights and sounds of the city streets on a typical morning. The rhythm of the writing perfectly matched the rhythm of a city as it shifts to its daily bustle. Walser had been able to capture this somehow. I was reminded of my own mornings in New York. From this first story, I was floored. Recommendations from others represent the bulk of my favorite books, and I love those origin stories. But Berlin Stories is one of those special encounters: a book discovered randomly that changes your life. 

***

I still find Walser’s “prose pieces” (as he calls them) hard to describe, except to say that I think they’re perfect. This may be because I read them at the perfect moment. I had just spent the winter and spring rewriting a novel draft and felt frustrated by the constraints of the form. I was questioning what writing was even for. What was the purpose of all the novelistic boxes I’d been trying to check, the structures I’d been trying to produce or perform?

Berlin Stories showed me brevity, uncertainty, confusion, and contradiction. All of this was suddenly possible in writing. There weren’t any endings or “meanings” here. Just moments, sketches, observations, tinged with melancholy whimsy. 

***

The first time I tried to describe the effect Berlin Stories had on me, I wrote the following: 

The prose pieces are towering and minute. Grounded, but floating just an inch. When I read them, every sentence seems gorgeous and important, like he is trying to tell me something more than what he’s written that I can’t quite grasp.

Writing about it now, I want to revise my suggestion that there is some “importance” hidden by an appearance of simplicity. Now I think the stories are just that: simple. There is nothing more to reveal. 

The stories are simple, the world is simple, and writing is simple. Within simplicity there remains great complexity. Walser’s writing made me think that perhaps “simple or complex” was not a very useful distinction at all. 

This feels true for all kinds of human experience. What about loss? Loss and grief are complex feelings, but they are simultaneously simple feelings. Or love? A complex feeling, rife with situational complications. And also a simple feeling.

After Berlin Stories, I noticed simple-and-extraordinary moments occurring constantly. Take this scene I witnessed on the subway some years ago, which I noted for later:

Saw a guy walking with an umbrella on the Manhattan Bridge. As the train passed by, right in that moment, some kind of box fell from above, hit his umbrella, and fell to the ground beside him. He moved his umbrella away from his face and looked upward. The train sped away, and then I saw two birds flying in parallel. 

I never had much desire to write about my own life, but Walser’s form made my experiences more accessible to me. I was freed by not having to locate a narrative throughline. I wrote about New York, directly inspired by this volume. I wrote about growing up in Las Vegas. I wrote about the impact of Fox News on my upbringing. I wrote about my first experiences in love. It was like opening a floodgate. The writing came easily and remains—in my opinion—the best work I’ve done so far. 

Robert Walser teaches me that writing is more than a (rather inefficient) method of producing saleable, organized words. Berlin Stories contains within it the state of mind I had when I discovered it—the yearning for something more, the potential in everything, the immensity of an afternoon. It shows a way one might live with those yearnings and hopes: by noticing the vastness in the minute. 

And then, of course, writing it down.


Mariah Eppes (she/her) is a writer in New York City. You can find more of her work around the internet and at birdbyrocket.com. She’s on Twitter at @BirdByRocket and on Instagram at @bird.by.rocket.

Mariah Eppes
Mariah Eppes

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