You Can’t Go Back (to Thun) Again

I’ve been traveling around Switzerland for the past two weeks, and haven’t managed to blog about it yet, mostly because I’ve been traveling around at too lively a clip to find the time. The first week was spent as part of a band of 19 Robert Walser translators from 16 languages temporarily imported by the Swiss cultural foundation Pro Helvetia, the Robert Walser-Zentrum in Bern and the Universität Lausanne, which has a vibrant translation studies program. I’ll blog about the week’s adventures soon, but first I want to say something about Thun, because that is where I am right now. Once the official group program ended last weekend, I set off on my own to do some research for my biography-in-progress of Walser. In particular, I’ve been traveling to various places where he lived and checking them out, so that the book won’t be lamentably short on local color. And for the most part I’ve been able to find spiritus loci galore. But in Thun, not so much.

Robert Walser lived in Thun for a few months in spring 1899, working in the brewery here, if we can believe the narrator of his 1907 story “Kleist in Thun,” who makes this claim. The claim is made more plausible by the fact that Thun did indeed have a brewery back then, though it doesn’t now. All that remains of the brewery is a bus stop (“Brauerei”), now in the middle of a neighborhood of 1950s-looking apartment buildings that adjoin an admittedly lovely hayfield with a view of the Alps. Much of Thun has a view of the Alps, and this is one thing about Thun that will probably never change, though as I learned today, one of the grandest of the Alps visible from Thun has now had two holes for electric lights bored into its knobby tip so that it can be lit up on special occasions for the amusement of tourists.

I first visited Thun 25 years ago (in July 1988, I think it was), and found the town sleepy, quiet, idyllic, though it was probably a bustling metropole compared to the Thun Walser had found not quite a century before. Now it’s kind of like Banff: Just look at those mountains! Who cares about the town. People come here to practice various sports. Thun does still have an old village center that’s still more or less authentic-looking, and the building where Walser rented a furnished room (at Obere Haupstrasse [Upper Main Street] 39) is still standing. That street is interesting too: it features raised sidewalks, so passers-by have the choice of

walking down in the street (lined with ground-floor shops) or one story above them, where the ground-floor shops are actually on the second floor. In “Kleist in Thun,” Walser describes the street-level spaces being used to display market goods. (Walser’s house is the yellow-orange one at the far left in this picture.)

The most striking thing about Thun is its castle. Construction began around 1190, so it’s been around for a while. Its characteristic four symmetrical towers are visible far off in every direction, and that’s kind of the point. This castle was never meant to serve as a residence; it was to be a symbol of Duke Berchtold V’s power and easily defensible, which it clearly was, perched up on its hill. The only real room built into it was an enormous Knights’ Hall (39 x 62 feet) that was anything but cosy. But there are lots of great slot windows for pouring boiling oil down on your enemies, if they make it that far. The moment I got to town I scampered up the hill to visit the towers, from which you have amazing views of the entire countryside. Then I noticed the crane next door. When I came down the dozen flights of steps, the nice lady at the entryway told me that the city had sold off this public property (castle outbuildings which used to house municipal offices) to a private investor who was raising the roof and adding one story to the building. She said no one in Thun understood what had made the city council sell off the building.

The house where Kleist stayed in 1802 and 1803, on a little island in the Aare River, is no longer standing, though it was still here when Robert Walser passed through. Some rich person later bought the island, tore down the old villa and built a new one. There’s a sign posted in the little park outside, suggesting that visitors instead enjoy the Kleist statue (hideous) that was originally meant to mark his gravesite at Wannsee outside Berlin, but the Berliners rejected it (probably because it’s so ugly), and so it wound up in Thun. The sign points out that it was free. In “Kleist in Thun,” Walser describes a marble plaque on the house that visitors to the island can admire, be they Jews, Christians or swallows, suggesting that the island used to be open to the public.

Maybe I feel so disheartened by Thun because the beautiful old hotel Zunfthaus zu Metzgern (Butcher’s Guild, though the name actually sounds nice in German) where I blissfully stayed 25 years ago – big rooms, big fluffy beds, big breakfasts with pots of hot tea and milk – has been hideously renovated, basically turned into a big student dormitory. I am writing this in a tiny little room that might be described as monastic if that were one of the furniture themes available at IKEA. The innkeeper made me pay in advance, explaining that she’s had trouble with people taking off without paying their bills, possibly because no one is on duty until 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., apparently, which I take to mean that no breakfast will be served. There’s WiFi, but only downstairs in the cornily-decorated restaurant, four flights down (I counted them as I was lugging my suitcase up the stairs – no elevator either).

Ah, whining about bad hotels, a classic blog gambit. The best way to forget about trifles like having to

use a bathroom down the hall is to take a walk along the shoreline promenade to Lake Thun, which is completely lined with mountains on its southern edge, truly a spectacular sight. I’m sure Robert Walser enjoyed it too, even though he wasn’t inclined toward Alpinism (he liked to look at mountains but didn’t climb them – the ones he did climb were actually hills). Walser didn’t write his story set in Thun until seven years after he left the place, giving his memories time to develop the golden sheen visible about the edges of this story, which is really one of his best, though untypical for his work. He really does set out to write a voice for Kleist that diverges from his own, with a lot of uncharacteristically short sentences (like: “Nice idea that. Easy enough to think up in Potsdam,” when Kleist is just remembering he’d wanted to become a farmer when it occurred to him to come to Switzerland). In short: go read Walser’s story, and read Kleist as well, and then maybe just skip the trip to Thun. Next up: Bern, Biel, Bellelay, Täuffelen, or who knows what else.

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  1. St. Petersinsel is really nice, though it’s Rousseau’s haunt, not Walser’s. There’s nice wine to be had in Twann, am Bielersee, which is much more Walser country.

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