Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Robert Walser

Robert Walser
A Schoolboy’s Diary
Translated by Damion Searls
New York Review of Books, 2013

To pretend that I am a sedate and demure fan of Robert Walser, in hopes of thereby seeming reasonable, would be misleading to the point of dishonesty. Robert Walser is my very favorite writer (indeed, a word like master or guide seems more appropriate) and I should admit up front that my opinions are those of a fanatic.

Although Robert Walser remains under-appreciated, there is also a growing group of Walser devotees who seek out everything available. Some of these ardent fans seek, as I do, to create new work informed and inspired by Walser.

Unsurprisingly, I've sought out everything by Walser that is available in translation and I feel strenuously grateful to NYRB for this new series of thematic collections of Walser's short prose. (Berlin Stories translated by Susan Bernofsky is another delightful book in this series, and I hope ardently that there are more to come.)

Still, as years pass, and collections appear, I begin to worry that new collections of short pieces from Walser's vast un-translated work will begin to seem "picked over", just gleanings or scraps. Although it is true, as Walser writes, that "Enthusiasts are happy with little, in fact often extremely miniscule things" (163), I came to this book hoping that truly beautiful and first-rate work is yet to appear.

In this hope, I was not disappointed. Above all, what A Schoolboy's Diary makes clear is that Walser's trove of un-translated work is nowhere near to being picked over. The stories here are as necessary and enchanting as those to be found in any of the 5 collections of short prose currently available. (Fellow Walserians, please correct me if I have miscounted.)

Although I think readers new to Walser would do well to begin with a "general" collection of the short prose such as Selected Stories, translated by Christopher Middleton, or Masquerade, translated by Susan Bernofsky, these thematic collections are a great pleasure and you would not be wrong to start your exploration of Robert Walser right here.

Fanatics tend to disapprove of innovations and new arrivals. I admit that I questioned, as I picked up this book, whether Damion Searls could possibly be as worthy a translator as Middleton and Bernofsky, to whom readers of Walser in English are wholly indebted. ("Some young upstart", I assumed. Totally wrong. Although his appearance is youthful, he has an august list of translation credits a mile long.)

Though I came to this book armed and ready to disapprove, I found myself unable to - these are beautiful and flowing translations, like one of the sparkling lakes or streams that Walser often seems to be ambling alongside.

As usual, I read aloud and copied out passages that enchanted me. How is it possible to resist a writer who announces, "To give you an opportunity to see me would mean introducing you to a person who cuts off half the rim of his felt hat with scissors to give it a wilder, more bohemian appearance. Is that the kind of strange being you really want to have before you?"(51)

At a time when most people seem to consider themselves so terribly important, Walser's sauntering humility has a special resonance. How good it is to be reminded, "Tact and discretion are never anything over than attractive. Modestly stepping aside can never be recommended as a continual practice in strong enough terms." (161) Or simply: "Envy is a form of insanity." (53)

Pieces like "From My Youth" made me feel that I could see and understand Walser more directly than I had before. "Early spring was magnificent. All the houses, trees and streets gleamed as though they had come from some higher state of being. It was half dream, half fever. I was never sick, just always strangely and seriously infected with a longing for extraordinary things." (124)

As someone who seeks to emulate Walser, I endlessly compose short pieces, endlessly send them out, and endlessly receive friendly and baffled rejection notes. Admittedly, I often suspect that my uselessness as a human being is unsurpassed. How imperative therefore to read "The Last Prose Piece", in which Walser warns me against his profession in the strongest possible terms. How wrenching to find that Walser felt as discouraged as I feel as he endlessly wrote and submitted work -- indeed he writes, "The extent of my submissions will probably never be matched." (146) May these reminders of work and suffering banish my squirrely self-pity.

Above all, it is painful to read Walser's repeated desire to simply give up - though of course he cannot and will not, not until he enters the last sanatorium in 1933. "At last I have drawn a firm line under the truly astoundingly great column of figures and am done with pursuing that for which I am not sufficiently intelligent" (149).

What I would give for a time machine, so that I might rush back in time and encourage him. I'd also like to buy him a new hat.

Old and new fans of Robert Walser will revel in this book. As Walser reminds us, "When you are faced with a happiness that is not forbidden, you must seize and enjoy it." (177)

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