Friday, November 26, 2010

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Robert Walser

Robert Walser, Speaking to the Rose: Writings 1912-1932
University of Nebraska, 2005

Readers new to Robert Walser should start with 'Selected Stories' or 'Masquerade' but by Walser's devotees -- and it appears that, even in English, our numbers are finally growing -- this book will be joyfully devoured.

'Speaking to the Rose' contains dozens of uncollected Walser stories, some hermetic, others as deceptively plain as children's stories. All are lovely -- and unsettling.

In his brief introduction, Christopher Middleton writes, "As author and individual, Walser articulates a large and general cast of mind, such as strictly 'personal' writings seldom do. He can be considered a voice of the unvanquished downtrodden (in early work, of the employee) of people never quite small enough to slip through power's mesh, of the powerless who do not squirm but resist."

There are stories here that seem to me absolutely essential Walser. These include "The Story of the Prodigal Son" ("One of the two sons was distinctly easygoing, whereas the other's conduct was egregiously sound.") or "The Cave Man" ("Card games and bowling were virtually unknown to him." "It is no exaggeration to say that he read little.")

Everywhere there are sentences to copy out and swoon over.

"Frequently life seemed to me like a cramped little house on the edge of everything, because it was so insignificant; yet I loved it and tried to be warm with everyone." (27)

"She had a cage full of lions and tigers and tubs full of snakes. What had he got? Countless sins on his conscience. But at least he wasn't dull. That decided it." (32)

"The monotony to which the lions are doomed serves the tamer just as an active and capable assistant might." (43) (This piece alone, "An Essay on Lion Taming", will make the reader glad to have the book.)

"Fool that I am, I supposed the countess to be so tall that her feather hat, which she might have borrowed from the thirteenth century, touched the edge of heaven, I mean its infinitely inviting breath, which is indefinable for us and will probably remain so." (45)

There are also clues toward the mystery of Robert Walser. The piece "My Endeavors seems as strangely straight-forward as anything he ever wrote. "With books as with people I consider complete understanding to be somewhat uninteresting, rather than productive." And: "I crossed over in the past from book-composition to prose-piece writing because epic connections had begun, as it were, to get on my nerves. My hand became a sort of refusenik."

Speaking to the Rose includes 14 translations from 'The Pencil Region' the hundreds of pieces Walser wrote in a minuscule code. (Anyone fascinated by these will want to treat themselves to Bernofsky's newly translated "Microscripts", which includes images of the actual manuscripts, written on scraps, book covers and envelopes.)

These are sly and marvellous stories -- I hope that Bernofsky or Middleton will not make us wait too long before they hand over another volume. I'd camp out on their doorstep if I thought it'd help. ("I'll leave when you've translated another story! Short is fine! It's cold out here!")

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