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The Wanderer

SELECTED STORIES, By Robert Walser, Translated from the German, by Christopher Middleton and others, Foreword by Susan Sontag, New York Review Books: 198 pp., $12.95 paper

June 16, 2002|BENJAMIN KUNKEL | Benjamin Kunkel writes for several publications, including the Nation and Dissent.

Acritic once suggested that nothing revealed the melancholy character of Robert Schumann's music better than his direction Im frolichen Ton, in a cheerful tone. An explicit, deliberate joy is an anxious one and this helps to explain why the stories and short novels of Robert Walser, so abundant with declarations of pleasure and happiness, give off such an air of fragility and sadness.

The narrators of Walser's fiction all resemble one another and resemble the Swiss writer himself. They are solitary, cheeky, wide-eyed and, in two senses, rambling: they are given to long digressions and to long walks through the countryside. They like nothing more than to announce their joy in commonplace things. One narrator is happy whenever he has the chance to bow: "I even bow where it is not usual to do so, or when only toadies or imbeciles do, so much in love am I with the procedure." Spaghetti is likewise considered delectable: "How strange it seemed to him," another narrator says of himself, "that he never tired of finding it tasty." Even unhappiness is rescued for pleasure. In "Jakob von Gunten" (1908), Walser's wonderful novel, Jakob says: "Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it's very valuable, very. It shapes one."

It was a strange shape that Walser cut. Poor and alone, unsuccessful, often exhilarated, living in bare rooms in German and Swiss cities, taking his walks, writing and writing, making the occasional joking proposal of marriage and working odd jobs, he seems to have been a kind of truant schoolboy for most of his life. Born in 1878, the seventh of eight children, he left school at 14 and never entirely settled down until he confined himself to a mental institution at 51. "I was never really a child, and therefore something in the nature of childhood will cling to me always, I'm certain," his character Jakob says. (It's hard not to read Walser autobiographically; he described the whole of his work as "a long, plotless, realistic story" that "might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.") Transferred involuntarily to another mental institution in 1933, Walser remained there until he died, out on a walk, on Christmas Day in 1956. His guardian had once visited him in the asylum and asked whether Walser was still writing. "I am not here to write," Walser replied, "but to be mad."

Kafka loved to read Walser aloud to his friends, and the great Austrian novelist Robert Musil, on first encountering Kafka, characterized him as "a peculiar case of the Walser type." Yet Walser is remote from these writers. His work has none of the heaviness or darkness we associate with German-language writing, and none of modernism's inclination to obscurity or monuments. Walser wrote sketches, squibs, bagatelles, improvisations--and a few stories and short novels. If, like many modern writers, he took humble daily life for his subject, it was not with the aim of transfiguring it by outrage or vision. "How nice it is," one story ends, "that spring follows winter, every time!" Part of the mystery of Walser's art is that these cheerful banalities and even tautologies--"Oh, how beautiful beauty is, and how charming is charm!"--seem sharp and bright, fragments of illumination. Sometimes he appears to be a holy fool, and sometimes a writer mocking the very possibility of such a thing.

More of Walser's work is now obtainable in English. Two selections of short pieces have been culled from the 10 collections Walser published during his life and the four volumes of his uncollected prose: New York Review Books has just reissued "Selected Stories"--probably the book to start with--and a fine sampling called "Masquerade and Other Stories" appeared in 1990. Walser also wrote novels--as many as nine, he sometimes claimed. Only four have turned up, including the two that have been translated into English: "Jakob von Gunten" and "The Robber," the latter brought out only two years ago in a resourceful translation by Susan Bernofsky. (Walser's mixture of High German and Swiss German, his chirping colloquialisms and unsteady tone, make him a trial for any translator, and in "Selected Stories," Christopher Middleton has done particularly graceful work.)

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