2.07.2008

50 Year Old Microfilm: Robert Walser

I recently went on a quest for some old microfilm for the benefit of the Wandering with Robert Walser project. It wasn't merely a favor, since he's my favorite author. I'll cut to the chase.

From the cover story "A Miniaturist in Prose" (possibly written by Michael Hamburger, who passed away last summer, but I couldn't find any byline anywhere) in the Times Literary Supplement July 21, 1961:
When he died [...] in 1956, at the age of seventy-eight, Robert Walser was scarcely known to the general reading public or even to students of German literature. Few historians of twentieth-century German literature so much as mentioned his name. [...] The largely posthumous rediscovery and rehabilitation of Walser is due as much to the influence which he is known to have had on Kafka as to the devotion of [Seelig his friend and editor, and Christopher Middleton, one of his English translators].

Frighteningly true: the mere fact that Kafka supposedly liked Walser's work has done some small wonders. I might never have heard of him except for the bibliography in my copy of Kafka's The Castle or some other volume. Now I can't find the reference, but a note in the bibliography definitely said something about: "The quirky Swiss novelist Robert Walser." I said to myself: Quirky? Swiss? Novelist? Kafka liked? I'll look into him. But when I tried looking into him, my small-time local library had no digital or hard evidence whatsoever that he ever existed. (I eventually found my way to a 26-floor library that had all Walser's work in English that existed at the time.)

You can find it written in every article about Walser that Franz Kafka liked his work but I've never seen a direct quote, which is unsettling. Just read the first page of Walser's Jakob Von Gunten and you'll see the influence, but all the same. Supposedly Kafka admired J.V.G and gave a copy to Max Brod, but neither Kafka nor Brod ever put his opinion in print. Back to the review:

Kafka's style, like Stendhal's and Kleist's, was deliberately and consistently unliterary; Walser's included literary elements of the most ornate and fustian varieties, but for the sake of parody. Yet, like Walser's attitude to the bourgeois world to which he belonged and, did not belong, the parody was utterly lacking in malice.[...]

In Walser's case the aspiration [to be an amateur] could not possibly be mistaken for the revolutionary gestures of modernism; he was not in advance of his time, but independent of it, and as old-fashioned when it suited him as he was daring. Above all he saw public art and literature as part of the facade of the bourgeois world; in so far as art was institutional, and the artist a "figure", they provided Walser with inexhaustible material for studies in the farcical and the grotesque.[...]

It is characteristic of Walser that his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsaitze (1904), should have been presented as a collection of school essays on set topics. This early schoolboy persona is closely related to the later ones of the outwardly dutiful inwardly independent, mischievous and yet humble employee, of the well-mannered vagabond and the artist "on the periphery of bourgeois lives", as Walser aptly described himself; in all these roles-- which were also his in real life-- Walser could remain true to himself, an observer implicated only by compassion, love and an unfailing sense of the absurd.

Stylistically, too, these would-be schoolboy essays anticipate the later works; for the obedient pupil at once observes and guys the formalities of literary composition. In this connexion Walser's Swiss origin is as relevant as Kafka's membership of the German-speaking minority in Prague. Both writers began at once remove from standard German, its platitudes, pomposities and artificialities. Neither could take language for granted, and, by questioning language, each was bound to question a great deal more besides. From his very first works Walser's style and vision were unmistakably his own.

I don't believe we can simply attribute their aloof style to their place in a linguistic-minority community. Kafka's legal background could have had as much to do with his "unliterary" style. I could say the same about Walser's temperament. Their styles are more personal than a simple consequence of alienation or questioning of language. Anyway it seems that the author here stopped short of saying that Walser's background helped enable him to make uniquely ironic use of platitudes. "When dawn is nigh, chin high!"-- from Susan Bernofsky's translation of The Robber. There's a thousand more that I can't remember offhand, but they relate as much to social attitudes as to language.
"In The Walk, for example, there are at least three different styles and counterstyles. Often when this happens it is not easy to tell which is the voice and which the echo, until one has recognized the spirit of play in which Walser goes to work. It is this delicate playfulness which makes him a stylist of the first order, beside whom many of his contemporaries may seem little short of elephantine." -Christopher Middleton

Parody is one of these counterstyles; and it is difficult to distinguish from Walser's own voice because the parody was not a literary accretion but a part of Walser's way of looking. His seriousness could be playful, his humour terrifying; and the two intermingled without perceptible transitions. Lack of ambition--and hence of any design on his reader or even on his subject-matter--was Walser's guiding principle and distinction.

After his early novels Walser took the logical step of becoming a miniaturist in prose, obeying his own precept that "writers should not think themselves great because they make up to whatever is grandiose, but rather try to be significant in little things". It will always be easy enough to disparage Walser's microcosms in favour of the more massive constructions of more ambititious prose writers, if only by hurling the brickbat of "journalism" at his shorter works. Yet his spontaneous and peripatetic art is as close to lyrical poetry as it is to journalism; and, now that so much of his work has been available once more, it will soon be unnecessary to apologize for Walser's refusal to be a "great" or "important" writer. The totality of his work has already outlasted much that seemed great and important in his time.


Good closer right there. Already outlasted so much that seemed important in his time. Slightly menacing.

Now from a tiny review of Walser's first appearance in the English language, Christopher Middleton's translation of The Walk And Other Stories, Times Literary Supplement December 27, 1957:


[...] If the name of this astonishing Swiss novelist and story-teller is virtually unknown in England, one reason is that he suffered a complete mental breakdown in 1929 and published his last book in 1925; another is that his most characteristic works call for a translator of uncommon accomplishment, intelligence and linguistic virtuosity. Yet Walser was one of the acknowledged masters of Kafka; and Mr. Middleton sees both him and Kafka as "forerunners of the spectral 'minimalism' of Samuel Beckett, whose writings surely expose the very core of the modern predicament." Mr. Middleton distinguishes between Kafka's "mature ironic vision of despair" and Walser's "charmed ironic clownishness"; but he points out that the two writers share a "pronounced heretical tendency to burlesque and parody" conventional perspectives, "substituting for them a new body of imaginative forms."[...]

The Walk is the longest in this collection]; it is a tour de force of cunning improvisation that has no parallel in any literature. Its subject is nothing more than a walk taken by the author around the small Swiss town where he is staying, but a walk that is also a voyage around the author's visionary world in which-- to quote Mr. Middleton once more-- "existence is a fragile kingfisher brilliance spiralling incessantly between heaven and hell." A visit to the bank, to the tailor's, to a lady patron for luncheon become events of momentously comic or terrible significance:

When I wanted to stop cutting it up and popping it in, because I distinctly felt that I was full, she said to me in an almost delicate manner and tone of voice, through which gently shuddered a maternal rebuke: "But you are not eating! Wait, I'll cut you another big juicy slice." A sense of dread rippled through me, and I plucked up the courage to object, politely and courteously, that my main purpose in coming here had been to deploy a certain intellectuality, whereupon Frau Aebi, smiling most captivatingly, said that she did not think this to be at all necessary. "I cannot possibly go on eating," I said, in a dull muffled voice. I was almost suffocating, and was already perspiring with terror. Frau Aebi said: "I cannot possibly believe that you want to stop cutting it up and popping it in, and I do not think that you are really full at all. Quite definitely you are not telling the truth when you say that you are just about suffocating. I am compelled to consider that as mere politeness. I decline any form of intellectual chat, as I have already said, with pleasure. Certainly your main purpose in coming to me was to prove and demonstrate that you have a good appetite and are a big eater.

And so on, until the terrified guest springs up from the table and attempts an escape. Frau Aebi, as it happens, is not one of the monstrous denizens of the bourgeois world, but one of its parodists like Walser himself.

And yes, that scene with the Frau continues on and gets better. The review stopped the quote there though.

That tiny posthumous 1957 review of Walser's collection The Walk was only one part of a small three-piece set about lesser-known German classics. The first book in the set was John Calder's translation of Adalbert Von Chamisso's "Peter Schlemihl". I found a 150 year old copy of the book at my library, but most of the pages were unbound by huge rips, though it was still readable. When I brought it to the check-out the chief there said I couldn't take it out because of the condition of the thing. I said that was fantastic because there was no rush and they could send it to the repair division and I could come back in a month. Then they told me there was no repair division and it would probably be thrown away. You heard me right. The second book in the set of reviews was John Calder's translation of "Mozart's Journey to Prague" by Eduard Mörike.

Both books sounded good.

A lot of the TLS material adjacent to the Walser articles pertained to nuclear apocalypse.

My job here is done.

1 Rebuttals:

At 2/07/2008 9:21 PM, Anonymous Sam said...

Absolutely awesome. Thanks so much!

Your tale of "Peter Schlemihl" - not to mention Hamburger's recent passing - reminds me once again of the fragility of all literary enterprise, and the corresponding miracle of that which "outlasts."

 

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