Thursday, December 15, 2016

Books for These Dark Times: ROBERT WALSER

Robert Walser, 
Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories
translated from the German by Tom Whalen
New York Review Books, 2016

As an passionate devotee of Robert Walser, nothing is bigger or more welcome news than a new collection of stories.  As far as I can tell, I’ve read everything by Robert Walser available in English umpteen times and I am delighted to report that this new book is a very worthy addition to the canon.  At first I was put off by the extreme brevity of the pieces -- only the first is 5 pages, the rest are 1 or 2 -- but I soon found it effortless and delightful to fall into the rhythm of these stories and the highly agreeable trance they evoke as they evaporate, one after another.  

To read Walser is to discover that the word “flimsy” can be extremely high praise.  How can it be that he returns to the same subject matter again and again and yet nearly every sentence contains a small surprise?  What is this peculiar awkwardness that comes across as perfect charm?  For all my rereading I can’t explain it to you, yet I revel in it again and again.

The joy of Walser is the pleasure of sentences like, “Every sensible person sincerely praises a bowl of soup.”  He writes most often about the niceness of nice things, the loveliness of the lovely, the lightness of the light -- and yet it is nearly always apparent that he could collapse at any time, that he is only just barely and temporarily staving off despair.  His mind is capable of the most astonishing leaps.  It’s hardly surprising that a mind like his turned out to be a very awkward tool with which to navigate the world.  These pieces follow him right until he was admitted to the asylum in Herisau, after which he was silent until his death 23 years later. 

The pieces I found most revelatory, as well as most fun, were from 1921, a series: “Latest News” as well “News” 2,3 and 4.  Each piece consists of about 6 to a dozen paragraphs which dart jauntily from one subject to the next, without caring much about connectivity or development, succeeding by force of charm and forward motion, announcing what’s up and what’s on his agile, edgy, dancing mind.  

For example, one piece begins by discussing how he’s dressing, then lists current lectures including “one about the value of psychiatry to the human community”, proceeds to his clerical duties, and then announces, “The nice thing is I have a clear conscience.  Indeed, to my knowledge I’ve never lacked one.  I regret to say that a short while ago a healthy magnificent tooth fell out, which fortunately however is no great misfortune.  Of course now I have to walk around with a gap in my mouth, but I still do this gladly, especially in the evenings at the close of a workday and on Saturday afternoons.”  For me, a paragraph like that is the essence of pure irresistibility.  

Another ‘News’ piece begins: “Without question I’m filled with self-confidence.  Perhaps sometimes I might even be a little bit conceited.  I may only live on the outskirts, but at least my room has a parquet floor.  Well, I’m told Hesse leads a more genteel life.  Often I walk past his former residence.”

How can I respond, except to bow in the gratitude, in this, the presence of pure delight?         

(Please note: if there are other Walserians who seek, as I do, to create work inspired by the work of Walser, I would love to share writing and enthusiasm -- or to be useful to you in any way.  Please feel free to contact me.)  

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