Thursday, February 04, 2010

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Robert Walser

Robert Walser, Masquerade

translated by Susan Bernofsky

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990

I adore Robert Walser. Sometimes I think I love him too much. Like, I might have amounted to something, might have succeeded in life, if I hadn't been all the time reading and re-reading Robert Walser. Maybe this book was a really bad influence on me. Maybe you shouldn't read it.

But it is so wonderful. So alive. Despite reading omnivorously and obsessively for years, I haven't found anyone else who writes anything like Robert Walser.

Walser's work is gleefully improvisatory, deliberately sketchy. It disappears as you read it. He is strenuously humble. Haughtily humble. He never stops referring to himself and how minor he is.

There's a special Jane Bowles variety of relief I feel, reading Robert Walser. The relief of having absolutely no idea what sentence is coming next. The feeling that the writer does NOT have a perfect and fixed agenda that I must now march down without missing a scenic vista or semi-colon, as if I were a tourist/prisoner on some kind of militant buttoned-up bus tour.

I think Masquerade is my favorite, among the Robert Walser books now available. (If you can, buy whatever is available. The books go in and out of print.) However, if you're just discovering Walser, I recommend reading Selected Stories first, followed by Masquerade, and then try one of the novels -- Jakob von Gunten or The Tanners.

It's more useful to "taste" Walser, than to try to explain him. Thus, here are a few typical sentences you'll find inside Masquerade:

(p.71) "I came into the world on this or that day, was brought up in this or that place, went properly to school, am something or other, am called so and so, and don't think much."

(p.77) "She then offered the opinion that she was the embodiment of a long string of capricious notions. I said I would love all her notions, would even worship them."

(p.31) "The elegant woman is somewhat hesitant to bite into the caviar marvel; naturally I imagine it's me she's holding and no other, that's why she's not entirely in control of her biting powers. It's so easy and so enjoyable to fool oneself."

(p.154) "Being carefree is never permissible, only seeming to be."

(p.170) "One should, in my opinion, treat sinners with care. To be sure, depravity can not only be exceedingly moving, but even something splendid. I incidentally possess, at the moment, a great deal of social polish, which I point out expressly for the benefit of those incapable of believing it. What a smashing, springblossomishly unfolding tussle I tussle!"

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