In Memoriam Jochen Greven

I have been indebted to Jochen Greven my entire professional life. His name first entered my consciousness when I was seventeen: I had requested as a birthday gift Das Gesamtwerk by Robert Walser, which turned out to be a softcover boxed set published by Suhrkamp Verlag, each of its twelve volumes beautifully wrapped in linen, in a shade of forest-green I have associated with Walser and German literature ever since. Jochen Greven was the editor of those twelve meticulously annotated volumes, and of the fourteen-volume Kossodo Verlag edition that had proceeded it (published starting the year of my birth), along with many other editions of Walser’s work in the years and decades to follow. He was the first scholar of Walser’s work, and the first to write a dissertation on Walser, begun several months before Walser’s death in 1956 – Greven was 23 – and finished several years after. He was also the first to recognize that Walser’s tiny microscript manuscripts were written in an actual legible (or at least decipherable) script. After Walser’s death, Walser’s guardian Carl Seelig had published a few microscript samples in the magazine Du, including one magnified image, and Greven, peering more closely at this text than Seelig must ever have done, realized that he could make out individual words. He wrote to Seelig with his discovery, and received no response. Seelig was possessive, wanted to maintain his own position as the sole repository of Walserian knowledge, and he must have seen the eager young scholar as a threat. Greven never laid eyes on an actual microscript until the year after Seelig’s death in 1962, when the executor of Seelig’s will, lawyer Elio Fröhlich, summoned Greven to Zurich to help him sort through Walser’s literary estate. Those tiny red numbers on the microscripts are in his handwriting (a circumstance he later felt sheepish about – at the time, he explained to me, it wasn’t clear what significance these miniature manuscripts would have). In short, Jochen Greven established himself early on – through a deep love of Walser’s work and a sense of scholarly responsibility – as the foremost expert on all things Walser. He was a walking Robert Walser encyclopedia: He seemed to have read everything Walser ever wrote and everything ever written about him, and apparently he never forgot anything he had read. Asking him a question was like opening the pages of a huge, friendly book filled with the most wonderful Walser lore. I so loved being able to ask him things. He was always so generous with his knowledge, always eager to share information, to educate the next generation of Walserians. I hate that I am now using the past tense to talk about him. Jochen Greven passed away in the early-morning hours of March 29.

I last saw Jochen in December 2010, in Paris, where both of us had been invited to speak about Walser at the Palais de Tokyo. It was thrilling to interview him on stage for an English-speaking Parisian audience, thrilling to sit down with him for a long conversation about the microscripts and Walser’s last years (I took copious notes), and thrilling that after years of acquaintance he suddenly started calling me du (i.e. using the informal/intimate mode of address, like tu in French) – very much an honor given his habitual formality. It was a privilege to be able to spend time with him, to be able to send him countless e-mail queries as I worked on this or the other Walser project over the years, and to receive – often startlingly fast – his erudite responses.

Berlin Stories – the most recent of my Walser translations to appear in print – is a translation of Berlin gibt immer den Ton an [Berlin always sets the tone], one of the last collections of Walser’s prose that Jochen edited in German. The last, to my knowledge, was Im Bureau: Aus dem Leben der Angestellten [In the Office: From the Life of the Employees], which will surely be making its way into English-language print one of these days soon (I’ve had queries), perhaps under the title Office Stories.

Meanwhile, what a loss. The world of Walser scholarship and Walser lore looks very different without Jochen. I miss having him here.

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  1. Hi, Susan. I like your tribute to Herr Greven, although I knew nothing of him until I read your eulogy. I must thank everybody responsible for fostering Walser’s legacy–it was wholly by happenstance that I ever read anything by Walser (picking up NYRB’s Selected Stories when they reprinted it, simply because the book had NYRB’s imprimatur). You and Christopher Middleton had brought graceful, seamless translations to us English speakers (my German falling by the wayside once I graduated from high school). And if Herr Greven has passed Walser’s torch onto you, I am grateful. My dream is that one day there will be an English “Gesamtwerk” of Walser’s writing–a uniform edition perhaps even overseen by yourself. Maybe you’re inching things along in the direction, a direction I hope is taken up in full force once your bio of Walser comes out. Thank you for your years of dedication to his literature.

  2. Thank you so much for these kind words. As for a complete edition, who knows, maybe we’ll get there some day, but that day is a long way off – there’s still so much material yet to be translated. The good news is that there’s still so much material yet to be translated. And for anyone who reads German, here are two lovely tributes to Jochen Greven that appeared this week: and

  3. Wonderful to share ..thanx friend

  4. Man Fred says:

    Hallo Susan, I just come from the Hermann-Hesse Museum in Gaienhofen / Hoeri, a place, where Jochen Greven was very close to. And I found now your words about Jochen and his work and death in this forum and I will thank you for the articel. Jochen was a real fantastic person and Nr. 1 in feeling the spirit of Robert Walser, maybe one of the ten greatest writers in the last century. Thanks to you that you bring his words to the english speaking community. Manfred

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