March 21, 2012
About a year into this blog – which recently passed its fifth birthday, but like all in middle age, doesn’t like to draw attention to the fact – I wrote about Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. It attracted a surprisingly high number of page views and comments, though perhaps not so surprising when you consider that Walser is one of those badly kept secrets of literature, admired by Kafka then and Coetzee now. (And Hesse too: “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.”) It was the response to my blog post more than any appreciation I had for The Assistant that made me get this selection of his short prose shortly afterwards. And now, four years later, I have finally read it. (I’ve just had a shudder-inducing thought about what this means for the five hundred or so unread books I have at home. Let’s move on.)
I bow to no one – and it’s a crowded field – in my admiration for NYRB Classics, but even by that imprint’s exalted standards, Walser’s Selected Stories must be a high point. Ditto by their exalted design standards: look at that cover, the delicate green and purple like colorizing effects on a black-and-white film. And the composition, or cropping, of the photograph itself: the subject – the author – to one side, as though standing proudly (or tentatively?) by his title; or, not quite in the middle of the road; or, just about to go for a walk.
Walser loved to walk, or it might be more accurate to say he walked a lot, like Mr Sommer in Patrick Süskind’s story. He died walking, in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, a short distance from the sanatorium (“for people who were mentally not altogether at their best”, as he described such a place in one story) where he spent the last 23 years of his life, having given up writing. “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” (If I squeezed in the word ‘microscripts’, then the preceding sentences would contain all the keywords you’ll see in any potted biography of Walser.)
His contradictions are retained in the title of this volume, which more accurately would be called Selected – what? – Things. But who can blame NYRB? Just as novels are more saleable than stories, so too must stories be more saleable than things. (Robert Walser’s Things. I’d buy it.) The author referred to them as sketches: “For me the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.” That description accounts for the vertiginous feeling the new reader has on encountering what is apparently the author himself talking casually as he assembles the narrative of each sketch. He ponders to himself, reflects, wavers and settles. “I think he must have walked across a tiny bridge…” “As I believe I have been able to stress…” “Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.” The ‘I’ in the sketches is always there, just out of sight and then appearing briefly with a disarming charm:
I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation on them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my entire face.
It has a similar effect on the reader. The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected. Unlike many writers, he lays his uncertainties before the reader. (Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”) This is sympathetic to the kind of character – or the aspects of himself – Walser presents in several of the pieces here. One narrator describes himself as “a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force”, without ambition. “The passion to go far in the world is unknown to me.” Another, Helbling, is “a small, pale, timid, weak, elegant, silly little fellow, full of unworldly feelings, and would not be able to endure the rigor of life if things ever went against me.” He is “not of coarse enough cut for this life.” These characters are observers, patients rather than agents, and it’s no surprise to have Walser himself as narrator take a similar line. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” When he writes about Cézanne, he imbues him too with similar unworldly qualities.
This is not to say that the writing is either fey or insubstantial. The longest piece here, ‘The Walk’, has sharp satire and a Pythonesque absurdity as the narrator enters a bookshop and asks to be provided with the most popular and critically acclaimed volume, which the bookseller does.
I considered the book, and asked: “Could you swear that this is the most widely distributed book of the year?”
“Without a doubt!”
“Could you insist that this is the book which one has to have read?”
“Is this book also definitely good?”
“What an utterly superfluous and inadmissible question.”
The story, as its title indicates, is a long walk, full of similar encounters. “On a lovely and far-wandering walk a thousand useful and usable thoughts occur to me.” But for Walser’s walkers, not too much action is desired. When, in ‘The Street (1)’, a man finds himself pulled along in a crowd, he finds that “in the midst of the unrelenting forward thrust I felt the urge to stand still. The muchness and the motion were too much and too fast.” This pace distresses him: in ‘A Contribution’ he refers to “the civilized world, which one might also call the impatient or rushing world.” Susan Sontag in her introduction calls Walser a “heartbreaking” writer, and we can see why: for his charm and innocence, his seeming struggle to fit, his determination to make the best of it regardless.
Walser and his various alter egos are unsure of their place, not just in the world, but in literature. “I have written books,” he writes in ‘The Walk’, “which the public unfortunately does not like, and the consequences of this oppress my heart.” Indeed, as Coetzee reports in his excellent essay on Walser (published in Inner Workings), what little income he was able to earn from his writing dwindled almost to nothing after the first world war, when the public appetite for Walser’s writing, “easily dismissed as whimsical and belletristic,” declined. His mental health became more precarious, and he attempted suicide. “I couldn’t even make a proper noose.” There is a desperation chiming with this under the surface of Walser’s stories, but it’s certainly tempting to accentuate a more cheerful reading of his books. And the portion of the public that fortunately does like his writing still persists, and shows no sign of disappearing. My own reaction to these odd, quixotic little pieces, satisfying and disarming, is in keeping with Walser’s more optimistic aspirations expressed elsewhere in ‘The Walk’: ”I hope that this sentence pleases all and sundry, inspires satisfaction, and meets with warm applause.”
February 27, 2008
I was wondering recently about the difficulty publishers have in getting their books noticed. This must be a particular problem for those who are reissuing old titles. Certainly there are people like me for whom the badge of (say) Penguin Modern Classics or Pushkin Press is recommendation enough; but how do these books get wider attention when they’re rarely reviewed, don’t trouble the 3-for-2 tables, and aren’t written by thrusting young lovelies (or not ones that are still alive anyway)? Penguin have pushed the boat out a little with Robert Walser’s The Assistant (1908), newly issued in the Modern Classics range. The cover is one of the most stylish yet of their new look:
But watch out, because when you see it in real life it will be swagged with a vivid removable sleeve, like so:
Well, it’s a start. But, a modern masterpiece, you say? The obvious response is that if it really is a masterpiece, then someone might have seen fit to treat us to a translation some time in the hundred years since it was written.
I hadn’t heard of Walser until I read Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert a few months ago. He earns a couple of pages (and a photo) there, Thirlwell considering him the progenitor of a particular type of plotless, flâneur-based story, an influence on Kafka, an underrated modernist and “one of the first people to develop the story as a place for linguistic delicacy and experiment.” However that assessment came from Walser’s later stories of the 1920s, and doesn’t seem strongly applicable to The Assistant. In fact Walser wrote three novels in quick succession – the last and best-known being Jakob von Gunten (1909) – and his career as a novelist was over at the age of 31. He would live another 47 years, but first restricted himself to short stories, then to no writing at all.
This is worth expanding on. Walser had mental illness all around in his family, and the About the Author blurb in this book is a mini-novel in itself:
After a suicide attempt in 1929, Walser’s depression was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and in 1933 he entered an asylum in Herisau, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he occupied his time with chores like gluing paper and sorting beans. He remained in full possession of his faculties but, after 1932, he did not write. ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,’ he told a visitor. Robert Walser died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1956. He had been walking in the snow not far from the asylum where he had been living for 23 years.
After that, The Assistant has a lot to live up to. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel, largely free of the modernist effects we might expect. Its protagonist, Joseph Marti, is a young man who goes to work for, and live with, the inventor Carl Tobler and his family. Tobler’s inventions are simultaneously banal and bizarre: the Advertising Clock – a railway station type clock with wings out the sides to carry ads – or the Marksman’s Vending Machine – a six foot tall vending machine which dispenses small packs of bullets. As one might imagine, the business is not destined to blossom, and the progress of the story lies mostly in the tragicomic despair of Tobler to come to terms with his complete lack of the qualities needed in either an inventor or a businessman.
Marti meanwhile has his own trials, mainly in dealing with the predecessor to his job whom he usurped: Wirsich, a young man who had been sacked and reinstated many times by the Toblers, mainly because he was “an extremely precise individual, but only in a state of sobriety.” Marti also wonders how he can bring himself to ask Tobler to pay him his wages at some point… There is some interesting analsyis of power and the master-servant relationship:
People do, by the way, tend to cherish those upon whom they have been able to impose their power and influence. Wealth and bourgeois prosperity like to dispense humiliations, or no, that’s going too far, but they do have a fondness for gazing down on the humiliated, a sentiment in which we must acknowledge the presence of a certain benevolence, and of a certain brutality as well.
The spiralling difficulties of the Toblers are sometimes touching and often dramatic, particularly when Herr or Frau Tobler put pen to paper and write to one of their many creditors: or would-be creditors (“Dear Mother! I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake – already being killed in advance…”).
Adam Thirlwell believes “Walser was fascinated by the decrepitude of language … the writing frames clichés – which are trying to cope with impossible or unmentionable realities.” Walser claims to have written The Assistant in six weeks, which doesn’t seem implausible. It meanders in a fluid and leisurely way to its conclusion, and must be of importance as a precursor to his later, apparently more radical work, as much as for itself. So bring on the stories, Penguin: red sleeve optional.