A recent publication from the NYRB
|Robert Walser, Berlin Stories|
Those of you compelled to take public transport might find some wisdom in this piece of advice on what to do if the journey goes past the half-hour mark, and is getting tedious: "You look straight ahead. To show by one's ways and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with 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."
You may wonder: is the writer of these words perhaps having us on? On the contrary: this is what he's like, pretty much all the time. I think it was Herman Hesse who said that if you can stomach Robert Walser's prose, you can't help but fall in love with it, and I fell in love with it pretty quickly. He's guileless but not stupid, an admiring observer of the inconsequential. "We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary," he once wrote, "we already see so much." Susan Sontag, in a brief but very worthwhile introduction to a collection of his stories published 30-odd years ago, noticed how easy it was to come up with points of comparison: "a Paul Klee in prose ... a cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett ... the missing link between Kleist and Kafka". In fact, as she points out, it was Kafka who was first compared to Walser, rather than the other way round (this is the humorous Kafka, who has disappeared in the contemporary imagination, to be replaced by the Kafka of bad dreams). [Read More]
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