Friday, July 13, 2012

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Robert Walser

The Walk
Robert Walser
Translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 2012

A small explanation is necessary – fellow Walser fanatics, please correct me if I have misunderstood.  In 1955, the young poet Christopher Middleton translated Robert Walser’s small masterpiece “The Walk”, published in 1917.  What Middleton didn’t realize was that Walser had published, in 1920, a revised version of the story.  This book is the translation of that 1920 revised version.  Rather than completely re-translating it, Bernofsky chose to keep Middleton’s translation, which she greatly esteems, and alter it only to show Walser’s 1920 revisions.

In the revised version, every character and event is the same – but nearly every sentence has been slightly altered.  There are fewer flourishes and asides, or, as Bernofsky puts it, “he chose to tone down the first version’s chattiness at certain key points”.  Walser fanatics, never fear – there’s plenty of chattiness remaining!

Reading this version was a surprising experience for me.  I’ve read this story more than any other – I felt lucky to meet it again afresh and slightly changed.  When I compared one sentence to another, I nearly always preferred the 1917 version.  After all, I am a  Robert Walser fanatic – I adore all the flourishes and foolishness, all the rich world-loving meandering that makes “The Walk” a treasure.

However, overall, I have to admit that I have never enjoyed “The Walk” more than in this version.  Bernofsky describes “The Walk” as “an episodic comedy with darkness at its edges” – and that has never been more clear than it is in this version.  Here the narrator seems to walk a little faster, a little more nervously.  The darkness at the edges. . . is much closer.  Therefore, perhaps it can be said that this edition is, overall, more successful.  Whichever version you prefer, it is a pleasure to have this chance to witness the bloom of Robert Walser’s capering radiant mind. 

If you’ve never read Robert Walser, this is a wonderful place to start.  Walser fanatics will require both translations!     

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