Robert Walser, The Robber
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
University of Nebraska Press, 2000
Robert Walser’s last novel, The Robber, was found after his death, written on 24 sheets of paper, in a script so minute and indecipherable that it was thought for some time to be a code, or else a symptom of the schizophrenia with which Walser had been misdiagnosed.
Although Walser died in 1956, having spent the last 26 years of his life in mental asylums --where he was reported to be “perfectly lucid and ready to converse on a wide variety of literary and political topics” -- this novel was not published in German until 1986.
This book, in my opinion, will only appeal to a small number of people, but those people will love it enormously and at once. These are simply the people who, like myself, cannot help but adore a novel which begins, “Edith loves him. More on this later.”
The novel is described as a game of “a narrative hide-and-seek”, by its translator, Susan Bernofsky, whose agile and delightful translations have fuelled a resurgence of enthusiasm for Robert Walser among English-speaking people. (I “follow” half a dozen writers, and try to read everything they write, but Susan Bernofsky is of only two translators whom I follow – she chooses phenomenally interesting writers and translates impeccably and with zest.)
Although Walser suffered from mental illness, and refers to it explicitly in this book, to dismiss The Robber as the ravings of a schizophrenic is both insulting and false, as will be evident to anyone who undertakes reading it. As W.G. Sebald wrote, “The Robber is Walser’s most rational and daring work, a self-portrait and self-examination of absolute integrity. . . . I can imagine how, while writing The Robber, it must have occurred to him on more than one occasion that the looming threat of impending darkness enabled him at times to arrive at an acuity of observation and precision of formulation which is unattainable from a state of perfect health.”
However, if you are happen to be new to Robert Walser, this is not the place the start. (Feel free to disobey me: I\d be very curious to hear about your experience ) Most newcomers to Walser begin with the short fictions, or the novella, The Walk, but personally I suggest starting with his quirky, appealing, and accessible first novel, The Tanners.
Like any of Robert Walser’s quirky devotees, I love to read sentences aloud and copy them out. Naturally I adored the following: “There are, to be sure, persons who wish to extract from books guiding principles for their lives. For this sort of most estimable individual I am therefore, to my gigantic regret, not writing. Is that a pity. Oh yes.” (5)
It was to my substantial embarrassment then, as I continued to read and to copy out passages I found delightful, that I discovered that I have no choice but to confess that I do turn to Mr. Walser for “guiding principles” on how to see and live and write. (It is no accident that I am a conspicuously under-achieving and unprofitable variety of person.)
I wonder how many other eccentrics now do the same, how many misfits are now attempting to obey Walser’s counsel that just as “little children must endure diseases undeserved, and so we ought to let ourselves go a bit more indulgently, be calmer, learn to embrace our circumstances and make peace with ourselves as best we can.” (21)
The novel, despite the compression with which it was generated, is thankfully not one unbroken mass, but is comprised of sections from four to ten pages long, which one learns to navigate in time.
One of the most delightful discusses the plight of a teacher and addresses the subject of envy: “The fame of this professor of yours pleases me. I consider it of the utmost importance for us, the living, to learn to set aside our obsolete anxiety which makes the advantages of other appear to hinder us in our own development, which is by no means the case.” (29)
Surely we would do well to keep in mind valuable pieces of advice such as the following:
“The making of reproaches can become a mania worth laughing at, and a chastised person is invariably in better spiritual shape than his chastiser, who in fact is never more than a poor wretch, whereas the one found guilty is apparently, and also in actual fact, in a position to be bursting with health.” (97)
Or how about this one, which I have personally verified at a number of parties:
“When a person begins to speak of serious matters, eight listeners out of ten will share the conviction that he is beginning to, one might say, plummet downhill, as though everyone in high spirits were automatically at the pinnacle of human cleverness, which can’t be entirely true.” (97)
Under-achieving misfits such as myself cannot help but be comforted by the news that, “Yes, there still exist persons who are continuing to grow and haven’t managed to come to terms with their inner and outer lives with terror-inspiring speed or in a trice or a twinkling, as if human beings were merely breakfast rolls that can be produced in five minutes and then sold to be put to use.” (48)
The rare person who undertakes this book will find it studded with delights like these and full of the odd humble swagger of Robert Walser. What a marvelous book. If I am ever given the option to choose a miracle, I will ask that a lost Walser manuscript be discovered, and delivered to Susan Bernofsky.
If you are still considering to undertake this very odd book, heed the following:
“I now address an appeal to the healthy: don’t persist in reading nothing but healthy books, acquaint yourself also with so-called pathological literature, from which you may derive considerable edification. Healthy people should always, so to speak, take certain risks.” (59)