Walking with Walser

New reviews from The Quarterly Conversation

K. Thomas Kahn reviews Robert Walser's A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky) and Elfriede Jelinek's Her Not All Her (translated by Damion Searls) in The Quarterly Conversation:
What is “a writer’s writer”? Although the phrase is often used both haphazardly and problematically, there is something inherently useful about it when discussing the enduring legacy of certain authors. The OED attributes the first use of the term “a writer’s writer” to Orwell, who uses this description when writing about Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is particularly fitting, perhaps, as Julian Barnes—in his London Review of Books review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—brings Davis’s own discussion of Hopkins’s work to bear on what Barnes refers to as Davis’s status as “a writer’s writer’s writer.”

Recently, too, J. M. Coetzee’s assessment of Gerald Murnane’s work in The New York Review of Books raises this question of inspiration and influence: as Coetzee himself is often described as “a writer’s writer,” does his praise of Murnane’s literary output cast Murnane into the realm of “a writer’s writer’s writer”? To be sure, while the term “a writer’s writer” is often ascribed to “difficult” prose, such as Proust’s and Beckett’s, it’s usually used to emphasize their influence on other writers and artists.

Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser is perhaps the most unsung of these influential “writer’s writers,” and two recent collaborative texts underscore his ability to speak across artistic mediums. A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser, to be published in April by New Directions, includes short microscript pieces by Walser himself, as well as essays, creative writing, and art objects ranging from installation pieces to etchings, all of which speak to Walser’s own microscripts. This collection stems from a series of exhibitions curated by the late Donald Young in Chicago from December 2011 to October 2012, who, in his introduction, explains how he “became more and more interested in the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists.” Another text, Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s dramatic monologue Her Not All Her, with intercalated images by Thomas Newbolt, is collaborative in that Jelinek asserts in her subtitle that she is writing the piece “On/With Robert Walser.” In his afterward, Reto Sorg notes how Jelinek’s own text mixes with those of Walser: “It is almost impossible to tell when any given utterance has Jelinek speaking directly or when she is quoting texts by or about Walser, since the voices and languages intertwine, overlap, and blend together.” Indeed, the very title of Jelinek’s piece (in German, er nicht als er) is itself “formed out of the sounds of Robert Walser’s name.”

Texts like these demonstrate not only Walser’s effect on the literary and aesthetic work in world literature half a century after his death but also his status as a niche author, a seeming prerequisite for any “writer’s writer.” Although Hermann Hesse has famously remarked that if Walser “had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” his continued status as a marginal “writer’s writer” also causes a sense of protection and adoration to be aroused in his admirers; as one of Walser’s major English-language translators, Christopher Middleton, puts it: “Robert Walser was known only to a happy few, and his writing has a resistant purity which will keep any larger public, I hope, at bay forever.” Similar strains of idolizing homage and protective insulation are found in both A Little Ramble and Her Not All Her. [Read More]

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