Benjamin Kunkel on the life and work of the Swiss writer
In “Jakob von Gunten,” the 1909 novel by the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser, the hero adopts the motto “To be small and to stay small.” The words apply just as well to Walser himself, whose life and work played out as a relentless diminuendo. The up-and-coming young novelist of the period before the First World War, capable of producing three novels in as many years, turned to shorter forms, and saw his audience and his income dwindle gradually through the war years and the nineteen-twenties. Once a fixture of smart Berlin society, Walser exchanged the world of salons for a series of tiny furnished rooms and, finally, in 1929, a mental institution. Even his handwriting diminished; he was able to squeeze a last novel—a short one, but still—onto just twenty-four sides of octavo-size paper. For years, some scholars believed that the script in which Walser composed this novel, “The Robber,” and many other later works was an uncrackable private code, and not until 1972, fifteen years after his death, did transcriptions from the so-called Bleistiftgebiet, or “pencil area,” begin to appear. The publication, starting in the eighties, of six volumes of painstakingly transcribed texts brought to light some of Walser’s most beautiful and haunting writing, and reinforced his posthumous reputation in German. The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.
In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically. Three of Walser’s four surviving novels are now available in English, along with several collections of stories quarried by various translators—most notably Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—from the ten volumes of short prose that Walser published during his lifetime, and the deep trove of deciphered microscripts. The most recently translated novel, “The Assistant” (New Directions; translated by Bernofsky; $16.95), abounds in declarations like “How tasty the coffee was again today.” No irony there—and you can read a lot of Walser without finding a single mention of food, drink, weather, clothing, architecture, or cigars that is not entirely appreciative. Joseph, the assistant, also enjoys swimming on his days off: “What swimming person, provided he is not about to drown, can help being in excellent spirits?” The proviso about drowning introduces a dark flutter of ambiguity, but, generally speaking, Walser’s narrators claim to be in excellent spirits even when they are drowning: “Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it’s very valuable, very.” Sometimes Walser seems a sort of saint of cosmic compliance. At other times, in his good-natured acceptance of all things, he appears to be mocking the very possibility of such an attitude: “I only know that all the poor people work in the factory, perhaps as a punishment for being so poor.” Indeed, the Walser tone, hovering between beatific quietism and a burlesque of conventionality, is detectable in the immortal reply he gave a man who visited him at an asylum and asked about his writing: “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” [Read More]
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