Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Robert Walser

The Tanners, Robert Walser
New Directions, 2009. Translated by Susan Bernofsky.
With a perfect introduction to Walser by W. G. Sebald.

The Tanners is the last novel Robert Walser published before entering the madhouse -- and we waited a century for this translation. This is the last of Walser's novels to be translated, which leads one to think it must be the bottom of the barrel somehow, like the last of Hemingway. But no, not at all! It's as lovely as anything Walser wrote. I can't believe my good fortune, finding this now, after re-reading the NYRB Walser Selected Stories so many times it may qualify as a personal tic.

The Tanners is the story of five siblings and focuses on Simon, who explains, "I am the youngest and the one who occasions the fewest hopes." Like every Walser protagonist, he wanders around dreaming, walking, losing jobs, renting rooms, and praising women without actually getting involved with them. He moves from misfortune to misfortune, and praises them all.

The translation, by Susan Bernofsky, reads so beautifully. Can she be enticed to do more? How about a fresh selection of stories? Can we take up a collection?

This book is full of all the strange things only Walser can do -- the peculiar storm light of mania, the special cheerfulness of extremely depressed people, the vast detached love of which they are capable. Magic is spun from the most pedestrian adjectives. So much that is dreamy, disappointing, unfathomable -- it's so nearly weightless and at the same time succeeds in catching so many extraordinary moments and feelings.

There's something so exhilarating about Walser's protagonist, an eternal zero, who never succeeds at anything -- but also never seems to fail in any way that matters. (I love the way people fail in this novel. Money is lost, wives are abandoned, people freeze to death in the forest -- but no one ever seems to mind.) It's exhilarating to read about someone who isn't interested in success, power, importance, travel or sexual conquest -- I feel myself in the presence of a man who has stumbled upon real life.

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