The New York Review of Books has published a new edition of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, and they’re posting excerpts on their blog to promote it. Here’s an excerpt of their excerpt of a story called “In the Electric Tram.”
People do, after all, tend to get somewhat bored on such trips, which often require twenty or thirty minutes or even more, and what do you do to provide yourself with some modicum of entertainment? You look straight ahead. To show by one’s gaze and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with a quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn’t that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.
It is prohibited for the conductor to converse with the esteemed passengers. But what if prohibitions are sidestepped, laws violated, admonitions of so refined and humane a nature disregarded? This happens fairly often. Chatting with the conductor offers prospects of the most charming recreation, and I am particularly adept at seizing opportunities to engage in the most amusing and profitable conversations with this tramway employee. It pays to ignore certain regulations, and summoning one’s powers to render uniforms loquacious helps create a convivial mood.
From time to time you do nonetheless look straight ahead again. After completing this straightforward exercise, you may permit your eyes a modest excursion. Your gaze sweeps through the interior of the car, crossing fat, drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl, until you’ve had your fill of these studies in the quotidian and gradually begin to observe your own footgear, which could use proper mending. And always new stations are arriving, new streets, and the journey takes you past squares and bridges, past the war ministry and the department store, and all this while it is continuing to rain, and you continue to behave as if you were a tad bored, and you continue to find this conduct the most suitable.
But it might also be that while you were riding along like that, you heard or saw something beautiful, gay, or sad, something you will never forget.