Robert Walser - “A clairvoyant of the small”, the single most underrated writer of the 20th century: The gait of his language is quieter than a kitten

Robert Walser, Selected Stories, Trans. By Christopher Middleton (New York Review of Books, 2002)

One should never lose the natural ground beneath one’s feet while dreaming, especially about people, for otherwise one soon arrives at the point of making one’s characters utter words like: ‘Go, kill yourself’ - Robert Walser

"How to place the mysterious Swiss writer Robert Walser, a humble genius who possessed one of the most elusive and surprising sensibilities in modern literature? Walser is many things: a Paul Klee in words, maker of droll, whimsical, tender, and heartbreaking verbal artifacts; an inspiration to such very different writers as Kafka and W.G. Sebald; an amalgam, as Susan Sontag suggests in her preface to this volume, of Stevie Smith and Samuel Beckett.
This collection gathers forty-two of Walser's stories. Encompassing everything from journal entries, notes on literature, and biographical sketches to anecdotes, fables, and visions, it is an ideal introduction to this fascinating writer of whom Hermann Hesse famously declared, "If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place."

"Described by Susan Sontag in the introduction to his Selected Stories as "a good-humored, sweet Beckett," Swiss novelist Robert Walser (1878-1956) committed himself to a sanatorium in 1933 and spent the rest of his life there. Admired by Hesse and Kafka, his subjects in these mostly very short pieces (an exception being the melancholic "The Walk") are various and appealing from an essay on trousers to a mock job application and a short "play" involving a stork and a porcupine: "What a kissing that would have been! We shudder at the thought of it." An excellent introduction to a masterful writer." - Publishers Weekly

"We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much." These lines, at the end of the single-page story "A Little Walk" (in which it appears, at first sight, that nothing happens) epitomise the work of the Swiss novelist Robert Walser. Having voluntarily entered a lunatic asylum in the late 1920s, he wrote nothing more for the last 20-odd years of his life. When asked by a friend if he was working on anything in the asylum, he famously replied: "I am not here to write, but to be mad." It is a stunning, and tragic, claim.
Walser was one of those individuals who stand at a slight angle to the world: first impressions suggest words like quirky, or surreal. But, if anything, his art was a beautifully sane challenge to the systematic assault on the subjective and quotidian that was already grinding away when he entered the madhouse. In an age that found it possible to diagnose the inner life as a sticky mass of tics and neuroses, Walser became a polite but stubborn champion of an everyday life in which psyche may play a central role, but pathology is not necessarily a given.
"About strange influences we still know very little," he says in "An Essay on Lion Taming", to explain why "I only glanced fleetingly at the actual person of the tamer, because I was afraid of doing him some harm. For, if I look at someone, I might be taking away his thoughts, his powers." Some may see this as symptomatic of madness of "paranoia" but for me it is the expression of a near-angelic courtesy, a wonderful readiness to make space for, and be careful of, the other.
Walser's work is shot through with such courtesies and with a fear that, in modern life, the space of the other is in constant danger of being violated, just as the self is in constant danger of becoming a set of symptoms.
"Nobody should be afraid of his own bit of weirdness," he says.
Walser's reputation has suffered from our inability to pigeonhole his works, especially the shorter pieces included in Selected Stories and Speaking to the Rose. Yet he saw himself simply as a novelist, explaining that "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." Yet, though he seemed not to have continued this novel in his later years, perhaps the case of Robert Walser is not as clear as the mere facts suggest. Fondly, and perhaps foolishly, I like to think that he did carry it on, after he put down his pen and decided to be mad, but that for reasons of his own, he didn't choose to commit that work to paper. The task of imagining what that unwritten work might be is left to all of us, and that, too, is the legacy of this great novelist, one of the last century's finest." - John Burnside


Robert Walser, The Walk, Trans by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, 2012.

A pseudo-biographical "stroll" through town and countryside rife with philosophic musings, The Walk has been hailed as the masterpiece of Walser's short prose. Walking features heavily in his writing, but nowhere else is it as elegantly considered. Without walking, "I would be dead," Walser explains, "and my profession, which I love passionately, would be destroyed. Because it is on walks that the lore of nature and the lore of the country are revealed, charming and graceful, to the sense and eyes of the observant walker." The Walk was the first piece of Walser's work to appear in English, and the only one translated before his death. However, Walser heavily revised his most famous novella, altering nearly every sentence, rendering the baroque tone of his tale into something more spare. An introduction by translator Susan Bernofsky explains the history of The Walk, and the difference between its two versions.

“Walser’s project is mirrored and echoed by modernity’s general obsession with interiority and exploring new forms of subjectivity. We should understand Walser’s poetics of smallness as being as grandiose as anything that modernity has produced.”— The Quarterly Conversation

The Walk remains the best starting point for experiencing Walser's unique genius.”— The Quarterly Conversation

Robert Walser’s legendary novella Der Spaziergang (The Walk), the first work of his to appear in English and the only one to be translated during his lifetime, is now available in the revised version he published three years after the original edition of 1917. Susan Bernofsky, who has translated numerous works of Walser’s including The Tanners, The Assistant, and the famous Microscripts,(which were long believed to be written in an indecipherable code) has adjusted Christopher Middleton’s original 1955 English rendition by rearranging, adding, or deleting in faithful adherence to Walser’s own, often subtle, revisions. In the preface, Bernofsky speculates that the Swiss author undertook these changes “for the sake of minimizing the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist.” P erhaps it was less a matter of minimizing a divide, however, than of fine-tuning the precision of its ambiguity—for it is this very ambiguity that is so essential to the book’s uncanny atmosphere. As Bernofsky remarks, “The Walk is an episodic comedy with darkness at the edges, its gravity becoming apparent only gradually as one follows the narrator’s perambulations.”
As the story begins, the writer flees his gloomy room and the blank sheet of paper on his desk to embark on a walk through a provincial Swiss town and its rustic environs. Along the way he encounters a professor of “foremost authority” and “incontrovertible power in person” whose mouth is “juridically clamped tight”; a bookseller who offers him, upon request, a “universally admired, thunderously applauded masterpiece” of contemporary literature which he “cold-bloodedly” leaves behind; a bank clerk who informs him that a society of benefactors has credited his account with a considerable sum, an “alleviation of a delicate nature” that he most assuredly needs; a bakery shop sign that induces him to stop in his tracks, indignant at the sight of “such golden inscriptional barbarities, which impress upon our rustic surrounds the seal of greed, moneygrubbing, and a miserable coarsening of the soul”; and a woman he takes to be a former actress and in whom he confides that not long before, he had been “hostile to the world and to myself, and a stranger to both” and from whom he soon thereafter takes his leave with “an exquisite and very scrupulous courtesy […] as if nothing in the least had transpired.”
As he leaves the town by a country road and continues on his way like a “better sort of tramp, a vagabond, a pickpocket, idler, or vagrant,” a shadow suddenly descends on the writer/walker’s account; the giant Tomzack crosses his path, an outcast from whose eyes “there broke a glare of grief from underworlds and overworlds, and indescribable pain spoke from each of his slack and weary movements.” Without so much as looking back, Walser’s narrator strides onwards and soon happens upon a young girl singing; enraptured, he listens to her delicate voice, congratulates her vigorously when she is done, and admonishes her to “diligently preserve it from deformity, mutilation, thoughtless premature exhaustion, and neglect,” for she will be “expected industriously to sing further every day.” He then proceeds to Frau Aebi’s home, who serves him a grotesquely overabundant lunch and, in somewhat surreal manner, continues to press food upon his terrified person even after he’s well past the bursting point, assuring him that “there is no possibility that you will leave this table before you have eaten up and polished off everything that I have cut, and will cut, off for you”; continues on his way to mail a letter to a “leading, influential personality” to whom he writes a diatribe several pages in length which we soon learn amounts to an act of professional suicide: “You do not keep your word, injure without a second thought the virtues and reputations of those who have to deal with you, you rob unsparingly where you pretend to institute beneficence.” He then marches off to his “obstinate, recalcitrant” tailor who is “convinced of the infallibility of his doubtless eminent skill, as well as completely saturated with a sense of his own efficiency.” He is to try on a suit he expects to reveal “entire multitudes of mistakes, defects, and blemishes”: a jacket that makes him look like a hunchback and a “miserable, ridiculous, and terrifyingly idiotic work of trouserly art” that together evince “something despicable, deplorable, petty-minded, something inane, fearful, and homemade.”
Here, at the very latest, Thomas Bernhard’s gleeful tirades spring to mind. The original version of Der Spaziergang makes it evident that Walser’s influence on Bernhard was a decisive moment in the development of the younger author’s own inimitable voice. Walser’s convoluted grammatical configurations and sequences of participles; his merrily cumbersome neologisms, regionalisms, and manic chattiness give rise to an intricately embellished language in which the comic and tragic, ridiculous and heartrending become indistinguishable. But while Walser deftly implemented exaggeration as a means to satirize the social order and his own precarious position within it, and occasionally pared down the verbiage of his style in a humble exploration of the human condition, Bernhard would take hyperbole to its bitterest extreme to expose the hypocrisy endemic to European, and particularly Austrian, postwar society with a ruthlessness that would have been alien to Robert Walser.
Walser’s writing cunningly masquerades irony with self-effacement, and vice-versa; embodied in the figure of the bedraggled walker/poet, an almost baroque politesse spills over into the incongruous, the obsequious, and the disconcerting. Articulated in a language of almost hallucinatory virtuosity, the narrator’s soliloquies reveal a social awkwardness that makes it difficult for him to navigate his environment unharmed; his basic underlying state is fear, and his writing a compulsive flight from that fear. Endless elaborations are delivered with a decorousness W. G. Sebald terms “anarchistic”; they serve to buy time, to delay the inevitable—for while he remains at a safe enough distance from nearly every individual he encounters, disdain and humiliation always seem close at hand, potential threats ready to pounce on him and blot him out. 
Among Walser’s early admirers were Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, and Franz Kafka; indeed, many years later, Martin Walser (who is unrelated to the late Swiss writer) called him “Kafka’s closest twin brother.” In his 1929 essay on Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin asserted that everything the author had to say was essentially overshadowed by the significance of writing itself. “The moment he takes a pen to hand, he is seized by a desperado mood. Everything seems lost to him, a gush of words comes pouring out in which each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten.” This “shame,” this “chaste, artful clumsiness” is transformed into “garlands of language” with thought stumbling through them in the form of a “pickpocket, a scallywag, and a genius, like the heroes […] that come out of the night where it is at its blackest.” Flickering in this blackness, however, are “meager lanterns of hope.”
Yet the hope that shines forth in the moments of self-knowledge, transcendence, and grace Walser describes is anything but meager: on the contrary, it is exultation the writer feels when he perceives the sublime in the tiniest details of everyday life. As the narrator passes through the gentle countryside, he enters a rapturous state in which he attains to an almost holy connection with the present: 
“I felt as if someone were calling me by name, or as if someone were kissing and soothing me […] the soul of the world had opened, and I fantasized that everything wicked, distressing, and painful was on the point of vanishing […]. All notion of the future paled and the past dissolved. In the glowing present I myself glowed. […] The earth became a dream; I myself had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world. […] In the sweet light of love I believed I was able to recognize—or required to feel—that the inward self is the only self which really exists.
Yet the terrifying Tomzack, the destitute giant who has crossed the narrator’s path only a short time before, is surely a mirror image of the author, who must have intimated the fate in store for him. One can’t help wondering what effect Walser, who spent the last 27 years of his life in an asylum, might have had on modern literature (or even European history) if his writing had found a wider public. In a remark that was perhaps less a naïve belief in the power of literature to save humanity from its own catastrophes than a reflection on the unbridgeable distance between Walser’s unique sensibility and the cultural climates that evolved during the rise of Nazi Germany and in the aftermath of the war, Hermann Hesse once claimed that “if poets like Robert Walser could be counted among our foremost intellects, there wouldn’t be any war. If he had 100,000 readers, the world would be a better place.”
In his essay “Le promeneur solitaire,” Sebald describes the difficulty in categorizing Walser: on the one hand he was oppressed by shadows, and on the other radiated amicability; he composed humorous works out of sheer desperation in an elusive prose teeming with fleeting images and ephemeral figures. His was an ongoing “Ich-Buch” in which the self remained missing or hidden behind an array of passers-by; he almost always wrote the same thing, yet never repeated himself. Sebald points out that Walser’s writing tended towards a radical minimalism and abbreviation from the very beginning, while simultaneously exhibiting a contrary propensity for the minutely described detail, the playful arabesque. In returning to a section of Walser’s writing that he has just found to be particularly meaningful, Sebald discovers yet another layer of paradox in the Swiss writer’s work: he has difficulty finding what it was that had so captured his attention; even this, the deepest layer of recognition, turns into a phantom that dissolves before his perplexed eyes.
Throughout Der Spaziergang, walking coincides with the act of writing, of telling a story; it also serves to deflect attention from the essential matter at hand, which becomes clear in the book’s closing pages. And so writing becomes a means of escaping life, its method continuous postponement. Moreover, notwithstanding Walser’s profound delight in nature and lifelong practice of walking great distances, there are numerous indications that most, if not all, of the narrator’s encounters are symbolic of something larger than his clever caricatures of them might initially suggest. The Walk, then, is not the narrative delivered in temporal continuity it purports to be, but an allegory, a series of vignettes strung together to delineate the outside forces prevailing upon the writer’s existence. Rigid academic authority; the grim fact that the literature with the greatest market success is also the literature that is generally most admired; the smothering attentions of a beneficent, but clueless public; the necessity of remaining civil to powerful people one wholly despises are some of the social parameters the writer is forced to navigate within. For Walser, the market’s vicissitudes, public opinion, and the power of critics and academia became the bars of a cage that ultimately prevented him from practicing his profession .
Walser’s “walk” is many things at once: the walk of life as in Dante’s cammin di nostra vita; the fusion of a Romantic’s celebration of nature as the source of all knowledge and inspiration with a Modernist’s playful intertextuality and layering of language; the artistic process in conflict with the conditions of material existence. Palpable throughout the story are echoes of wanderers and outsiders that have always been suspect to settled society: the vagabonds, artisans, circus performers, journeymen, and nomads who were exempt from the duties and moral codes that order, tame, and impose limitations on human coexistence. I cannot help but suspect that Walser remained in the asylum to preserve his state of inner exile; in any case, there is ample evidence that he was anything but psychotic and that his nervous breakdown was in all likelihood caused more by the hopelessness of his professional, financial, and social situation than by inner demons. Walser must have sensed that he’d lost the audience receptive to his work and would not recover it, at least not in his lifetime. If his writing retained its mischief, whimsy, and wonder, it also masked a defiant plea for the legitimacy of his vision and literary achievement. In an effort to have his taxes reduced, Walser’s walker/writer feels called upon to defend his profession and—by implication—justify his very existence:
There accompanies the walker always something remarkable, something fantastic […] by thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, writing, investigating, researching, and walking, I earn my daily bread with as much sweat on my brow as anybody. And although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than dreamy and delicate, I am a solid technician! Might I hope, through the meticulous explanations I have brought forth, to have convinced you completely of the obviously honorable nature of these endeavors?”-
   Robert Walser, The Tanners, Trans. By Susan Bernofsky (New Directions Publishing, 2009)
"The Tanners, Robert Walser’s amazing 1907 novel of twenty chapters, is now presented in English for the very first time, by the award-winning translator Susan Bernofsky. Three brothers and a sister comprise the Tanner family—Simon, Kaspar, Klaus, and Hedwig: their wanderings, meetings, separations, quarrels, romances, employment and lack of employment over the course of a year or two are the threads from which Walser weaves his airy, strange and brightly gorgeous fabric. “Walser’s lightness is lighter than light,” as Tom Whalen said in Bookforum: “buoyant up to and beyond belief, terrifyingly light.”

"Robert Walser's early (1907) novel The Tanners concerns the autodidactic rebel Simon Tanner and his family. A coming-of-age story, it details Simon's intense and illuminating relationships with his brothers Klaus (an academic) and Kaspar (an artist), as well as his sister Hedwig (a school teacher). It's a curious sort of bildungsroman, however: there is little character development and Simon is never successfully integrated into society. Between odd jobs, Simon contemplates nature, engages in homespun (though insightful) philosophy, and is a student of human society (always from the position of a resolutely, almost absurdly cheerful outsider). But Simon is a young man of ability: he is articulate, bold, and engages the interest of powerful people. He talks his way guilelessly into the home of the wealthy and sympathetic Klara, who falls in love with Simon's brother Kaspar. There they live together, Simon and Kaspar, unemployed, violating social norms (thought not sexual mores: The Tanners is a chaste novel). And class relations here are always clear. In fact, Simon works briefly as a servant for an overtly cruel mistress. These relationships are dynamic, however: characters rise and fall from riches as in Smollett, including, ultimately, and most movingly, Klara herself. This is one indicator of modernity: social fluidity as opposed to a vestigial aristocracy; any other markers for modernism in The Tanners are more thematic than formal, as the novel is episodically structured, and its prose, while beautifully rendered (as translated by Susan Bernofsky), poses no real formal challenges. In the final analysis, Simon's cheerful refusal to acknowledge the pain and suffering inherent in human social life is a refusal to assume the emotional and spiritual burdens of life as officially constituted, framing these burdens as normative rather than intrinsic to human experience. Simon is in his way courageous: the unassuming hero of a remarkable and compelling novel." - Gary Lain

"Robert Walser's prose exudes fluorescence, if words on the page can be described as color. His protagonists have such brightly sharpened tastes and manners, and such blindingly astute observational skills that to read their ways of seeing is as enlightening, and at times as painful, as staring into the sun. Reading Walser fortifies me to notice, to study, and to transform into art those moments that I hope never come. But come they will, Simon Tanner notices repeatedly in Walser's first novel, The Tanners, published in Switzerland in 1907 but only recently translated into English. "Long live misfortune!" he toasts. "Misfortune is our lives' cantankerous but nonetheless honest friend."
On the surface, this book, built of twenty chapters marked by seasonal cycles, charts Simon Tanner's family dramas, particularly between siblings Klaus, Kaspar, Emil, Hedwig, and Sebastian. While Kaspar and Sebastian lead abstract, artistic existences, Klaus and Hedwig hold regular jobs and serve as Simon's anchors as he floats through daily life wondering why people seek mundane securities. "A bank is a foolish thing in springtime," Simon declares as he quits yet another menial job in favor of walking outdoors.
The Tanners is not merely the chronicles of a flaneur. Rather, it illustrates the high costs of spontaneous living. Simon feels the sting of poverty and loneliness while offering insightful, connective narrative threads between his childhood and the present, tracing the psychology of a man who chooses "impertinence" over basic human needs. "My mother frightened me because she uttered affectionate words so infrequently," Simon writes in one contemplative passage. Though fond of a woman named Klara Agappaia, he refuses to lend her more importance than his daily stroll. "She holds sway over me, of course, but what's the point in pondering? When I feel my limbs I am happy, and then I'm not thinking of any other person on earth.… I'm quite simply not thinking at all.… How lovely it is to be free."
Simon's decision to live without ties to others not only costs him Klara's love but also becomes a major motif. The Tanners, with its meandering, minimal plot, is really about the tension between what we think and what we do, particularly when that tension produces disappointment.
Heartbreaking as that is, what's remarkable is how Walser presents this antisocial and obsessive realm—with wit and keen self-awareness. Working briefly yet contentedly as a servant for a cold mistress, Simon writes in a letter to his brother: "Oh, I'm going to the dogs here, let me tell you, it already shows. My mind is occupied with folding napkins and polishing knives, and what's queer is that I like it." Simon might loathe his own "idiocy," but he's far from oblivious.
And even while Simon's primary concern seems to be himself, his thoughts can, at times, become exuberant and all-encompassing: "Religion in my experience is a love of life, a heartfelt attachment to the earth, joy in the present moment, trust in beauty, belief in mankind, a feeling of carefree pleasure during revelries with friends, the desire to ponder and a sense of not being responsible for misfortune, smiling when death arrives and showing courage in every sort of undertaking life has to offer." The Tanners is a book that epitomizes Walser's uncanny knack for combining microscopic personal detail with lofty, universal largesse." - Trinie Dalton

"It is the mark of a novel’s necessity when it hangs so strongly together, feels so absolutely essential in every last, smallest chunk, despite the fact that it offers the reader very little of what is generally construed as novelistic. In Search of Lost Time is perhaps the best example of this: it is a novel that is seven times as long as any novel should be, a heavily digressive work packed with belabored extended metaphors and absent all but the slowest plot momentum. Nonetheless, this bulky, misshapen beast continually takes flight before our unbelieving eyes, we have scarcely sat down with Proust than we have grown immersed, not so much for the ever-widening world or the vivid characters as for the singular logic of the prose.
So it is with Robert Walser’s first novel, The Tanners. The book is nothing more than the tale of a ne’er-do-well, idealistic young man who bounces from job to job, home to home, person to person, his life less a tidy arc than an oscillation gently tightening around what might be peace, albeit surely temporary. The book breaks rule after rule of novelistic writing: Walser takes it as his right to introduce major plot points on the flimsiest of pretexts, and he abandons them pages later once his attention has been diverted elsewhere; there is always the sense that Walser has his characters do certain things just for the excuse to muse for pages on end upon the nature and pleasures of, say, ballet, or walking; and his characters are scarcely capable of saying “pass the salt” without erupting into pages-long, quasi-philosophical speeches that espouse their meditations on life.
The novel should collapse under its own weight, it should fail for at least five different reasons. It doesn’t. It glides by like clouds escorted by sunbeams, and it leaves in its wake a series of jaw-dropping scenes, indelible images, sentences and phrases that will stop you cold. Whatever world The Tanners takes place in it is clearly not our own, and yet the book speaks to so much that is plainly human, and it does so in such a soft, solemn voice that reaches right out from the page.
The Tanners comes to us in the midst of a miniature Walser renaissance, the kind of thing that can occasionally happen with literature in translation when there is a happy confluence between savvy marketing, journalistic interest, and popular imagination. Walser’s bona fides were perhaps assured as far back as the 1920s, when Kakfa, Walter Benjamin, Musil, and Hesse all registered their admiration. (Per John Taylor in Context, Kafka was even once called “a special case of the Walser type” by Musil.) More recently, the esteemed Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas has enshrined Walser in his modernist pantheon, and J.M. Coetzee has frequently written admiringly of Walser’s work. The publication of The Tanners means that now all four of Walser’s surviving novels are simultaneously in print in English (with plenty more miscellaneous works to go), and if Walser has not attained the altitude of W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, the two other phenoms in translation to which he bears comparison, his achievement is possibly more remarkable for the fact that his books are not only translated but also rescued form the dustbin of history.
The Tanners is the story of Simon, whom we meet on the novel’s first page as he applies for a job at a bookstore. It is easy to relish the unconscious irony in the naïve Simon’s words as he declares to the store’s owner that, though he has failed to stay in any job longer than a week, and moreover, though he can’t bother with references (in any case they’d all speak poorly of him), he has nonetheless resolved himself to a bookseller’s career and will be the store’s most devout employee, if only given a chance. Such is Walser’s skill at communicating between the lines that there can be no doubt as to what will happen: the kindhearted owner will take the bait, and just a week later Simon will renounce his job with appropriate brio and caprice:
I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own.
Simon’s resignation, which rattles on for two pages, is typical of the long-winded but nonetheless somehow elegant speechifying that all of Walser’s characters adopt as the preferred mode of discourse. As Simon does here, throughout The Tanners Walser’s creations are capable of having entire conversations with themselves yet never quite forgetting that they are ostensibly speaking to someone else. Thus it is that Simon’s simple resignation ranges over such themes as the squandering of one’s youth, the relative superiority of American desks to German ones, and a renunciation of bourgeois materialism. Yet the speech is so circumspect in what it reveals and so generous in what it implies that at the end of it all Simon can say, without a trace of irony, “So be it, I shall hold my tongue.”
After quitting the book trade Simon bounces into another job (he’ll soon grow tired of it) and happens upon a lovely apartment at the edge of a wood that he comes to share with his brother Kaspar, a painter. Eventually they’re joined by their older brother, Klaus, the family’s hardest worker and best material success, and their only sister, Hedwig, a naturally empathetic schoolteacher who understands Simon best of all the siblings, but who lives behind a veil of repression. For a time the family is somewhat happy together, but then they are again dispersed: Kaspar and Simon are dismissed from the apartment (which has been sold out from under them), and Simon again wanders, eventually coming to live in the country with Hedwig.
The Tanners continues in this effortless mode for the whole of its 350 pages, Walser’s prose maintaining a lightness and simplicity such a reader is pulled right though the text, as though bouncing along a cushion of air. The book doesn’t so much follow a path as continually blossom outward, expanding to encompass ever more experiences, thoughts, and points of view without ever quite attaining a sense of forward momentum—fitting, since it is more in the nature of The Tanners to accrete than to order. What holds it all together is Simon’s consciousness, which is privileged throughout and with which we are clearly meant to sympathize. The young romantic’s lust for experience and his capacity to quantify these experiences in beautiful sentiments seems boundless—in truth this is the only propulsive force behind the novel—although it would be absolutely wrong to say that Simon remains a cipher, or even to say that he doesn’t develop as a character. Quite the contrary: what is arguably most pleasing about this exhaustively pleasing novel is Simon’s simple humanity, his ability to convey his love for “the gentlest winter sun,” and Walser’s ability to make us understand the equally gentle soul that makes such a love possible. Though he rarely profits from it, Simon at times seems to have a certain amount of insight into this soul (“The forest has, for the time being, lost its appeal for me, and I don’t wish to be tempted by it”); yet he mostly exists in a tenuous dialog with it, following its dictates when he must, occasionally warring with it, always, we sense, wanting to understand it but never quite managing to.
Simon’s gentle soul is the proverbial gift and the curse, the thing that makes his life art but that also brings him within a breath of starvation in the cold winter night. Indeed, by novel’s end Simon has surely exhausted every job open to him, the only alternative remaining the same one the Walser himself succumbed to: the Kafkaesque-named Copyists Office for the Unemployed. Walser’s description of this office shows The Tanners at its closest approach to Kafka, from the office’s “formerly unemployed” monarch (“for whom the post had been created to give him a suitable occupation for his old days”) to the copyists themselves, always fighting tooth and claw over “the pettiest advantages.” The highest victory the copyist strive for is to be recruited to short-term employment outside of the office, where they can leave their hateful surroundings and receive a pittance more in payment. Walser’s description of the men’s competition for these coveted spots makes them at once pitiful, vicious, and barely human:
And so there was always a certain competition for such positions and an ogling of the one selected. Many believed they were always unjustly overlooked, while others, on the other hand, thought it advantageous to court and flatter the administrator and his under-official to attain what they so yearned for. It was approximately like a pack of trained dogs leaping up to snatch at a sausage that was constantly being jerked out of reach on a string, each dog firmly convinced that the others had no business going after the sausage, though without, of course, being able to substantiate that belief.Eventually Simon flees the Copyists Office just as he does all other jobs and structured environments, and for a time it looks as though The Tanners will end with his untimely demise. Not quite—Simon escapes by the luckiest of breaks, allowing Walser to end The Tanners enigmatically, yet satisfyingly. After Simon throws himself out of the Copyists Office, he meets up with one final alternative, an alternative that, in retrospect, is the one thing that Simon has been in search of for the entire novel. Has Simon found peace and an end to his wanderings? Of course not—this is no more in Simon’s nature than long-term employment—but he has found a novel new doorway to pass through, and with it a way to replenish himself and begin his oscillations anew in the future. It is hard to imagine that Simon could ask for anything more.
A bird’s-eye description of The Tanners‘ general shape and textures can convey something of the romantic, multifaceted spirit that governs this novel, but the book’s subtly bizarre logic is best seen up close. It is a logic most often synonymous with Simon’s personality, as it almost always comes to us either filtered through his mind or in response to something he has said or done. (Thus, although The Tanners has been called polyphonic because of the multiple philosophies that it continually introduces, I would argue that it does not fit Bakhtin’s definition.) For instance, when Walser does something as innocuous as describe the moon that rises above The Tanners‘ Germany, it is quite clearly the moon as Simon sees it:
Often it seemed to him that a large fiery-red ball went whistling up into the air from the dark bushes beside him, from the sleeping earth, and when he looked, it was the moon dancing up into the sky, floating ponderously against its backdrop, the universe. How his eye then clung to the pale weightless shape of this loveliest of heavenly bodies. That this far-distant world appeared to be tucked away just behind the bushes seemed so strange to him, close enough to be fingered and grasped. Everything appeared to him near at hand. What was the concept of distance in the face of such withdrawal and drawing near. The infinite suddenly appeared to him infinitely close.
These musings on the moon are typical of Simon’s youthful manner: though they are never presented as anything more than the straightforward, unpretentious thoughts of a young romantic, they clearly carry with them a second skin (a skin, one imagines, that Simon is scarcely aware of), and they are capable of the oddest, most entrancing leaps of logic. Thus when Simon sees the moon, a mere optical illusion leads him to experience a sort of vertigo in which he feels the entire universe pull into him, even the farthest objects suddenly becoming “infinitely close.” It all begins with a more or less believable, if irregular, vision of moon (a “fiery-red ball”) moving as the moon never does (“whistling up into the air”), but then Simon suddenly leaps to the fanciful idea that the moon has come out the bushes and might be clutched like any conventional object. From here we are suddenly propelled into the twisted, paradoxical land of infinities, a difficult enough concept that is hopelessly complicated by performing the perplexing feat of drawing “infinitely close,” whatever precisely that means.
The thing about The Tanners is that such odd pronouncements can be found on almost every page: “I was born to be a gift,” Simon declares; later he tells an artist “I’d like to be a little bit of nature and be loved by you the way you love every bit of nature”; and at another point he muses “One must get to know all things, and one makes a thing’s acquaintance only by touching it courageously.” An argument can be made for appreciating such fine sentences for their own sake, for simply luxuriating in the innovative sentiments and structures they present a reader with, but this is not what Walser is after in The Tanners. Simon’s remarks are never merely aphorisms or just bits of apt description—they always rebound back like a boomerang to zero in on Simon’s character and his circumstances, communicating the genuine thoughts of this young man who knows much more than he realizes.
In the end, Simon provides a very human link that makes comprehensible these ideas that can scarcely be called common. Kafka is said to have been a great admirer of Walser, and though the airy, dreamlike pleasantness of the latter’s fiction can scarcely be a greater contrast to Kafka’s steadily tightening nightmares, the two authors share an ability to create a highly skewed world that still feels very close to our own, even though it clearly is not ours. I would say that this is something each achieves via the humanity of his protagonist. In the case of The Tanners, Walser’s impressionistic view of our common human reality is always rooted in Simon’s spirit of romanticism, and his intent to embrace the world in the present moment. The importance of the latter point to Walser’s vision cannot be stressed enough, for few books outside of tracts on Buddhist thought are as filled with paeans to present-living as is The Tanners. The pleasures of nostalgia—though hardly ignored or even necessarily looked down upon in The Tanners—are always secondary to the pleasures of life as experience. Under Walser’s pen, nostalgia becomes a sort of rest home for those who lack the strength of character to live as Simon does: strictly in the moment, without fear of the future nor a softness for the past. Joined by a few kindred souls, Simon is always at a forward march into the future, and if this future may be extremely ill-defined and haphazardly encountered, that only adds to the beauty of this way of life. Always it is the spirit of forward momentum that counts, the lightness of being, a jouissance that comes when living itself attains the status of art.
Thus, in The Tanners it is never the world itself that troubles humans or causes them misery but rather the fact that they succumb to undue seriousness. Simon’s brother Kaspar, an artist who believes that a life of spontaneity and present-mindedness is the only happy one possible, relates this moral in a story about a fellow painter named Erwin who “allows himself to be made a fool of by any one thing, tormented and tricked for so long.” In a story within The Tanners that excerpting can only vulgarize, Kaspar tells of how Erwin, fed up with his “godawful” paintings, grows more and more serious about art, even as he grows more and more puzzled by Kaspar’s own “lighthearted” approach. As Erwin becomes entrenched in rigor, his art becomes ever more stultified. Then one day he and Kaspar decide to set off on a long walk together. Though Kaspar finds walking “an easily grasped pleasure,” Erwin finds that he “could barely move forward: In truth, his strength had been sapped by the excess of his artistic longings.” Erwin reaches a catharsis in the midst of the journey when he cries out at the beauty of a vista (one of many instances where Walser celebrates the rehabilitative power of nature), but he quickly returns to his old self: at journey’s end the two men stay in the house of Kaspar’s sister, Hedwig, and Erwin, taken with her, is barely able to utter a word. He soon leaves defeated and alone, utterly pitied and disdained by Kaspar.
Against these individuals who live life with such unbearable weightiness of purpose Walser contrasts the happy few with a romantic sensibility, of course led by the irascible Simon. Walser’s accomplishment in The Tanners is to honestly convey the utter whimsicality that guides Simon’s life—and all the practical problems that it entails—while still making Simon into a sympathetic, even admirable being. This is not a simple task: frequently in literature romantics become the sacrificial lambs offered up to the full brutality of a ruthless world; even when they are fortunate enough to survive unscathed they tend to be condescended to, forced to exist as a foil or a counterexample, a cipher that retains mysterious, and largely ill-defined, knowledge. Simon is none of these. By the end of The Tanners his way of life has become intimately embodied, and even if we choose not to partake in his lifestyle it is difficult not to respect Simon and to grant him a certain nobility. Walser achieves this in part by his willingness to see the life of a romantic in a holistic way: though the spirit of romanticism is celebrated in The Tanners, the life of a flaneur is never pandered to. Simon certainly knows the deprivations and insults—petty and grand—of a world that has no use for him, yet his idealism is never sullied by bitterness or irony. His singleminded dedication to a life that even he knows is untenable is what at once makes him worthy of our sympathy and our attention. Walser’s sober, knowing portrait of the romantic life is probably the only that could have been justly written when The Tanners was originally published in 1907, and yet the book is all the more powerful, the image of forthright Simon all the more compelling, for the acknowledgement of romanticism’s inherent incompatibility with the modern world.
In the final consideration, it might be that Simon’s nobility is conferred by the fact that on some level he comprehends his lifestyle as a duty that he must live up to (the only duty he lives up to, it should be added). This complicated relationship is captured in an exchange between Simon and his serious, industrious, and utterly well-meaning older brother, Klaus. At one point Klaus, who has always watched over the wayward Simon with the best of intentions, decides to sit down for a heart-to-heart talk. Klaus becomes “delighted” when he realizes Simon is not so dumb as he assumed; he sees “how comprehending Simon was regarding various things he’d at first assumed his brother, given his circumstances, would simply make fun of and laugh.” Klaus goes on: “I didn’t think you half so serious as you are proving to be!”
Simon’s response bespeaks the great depths that lie beneath his seemingly simple persona: “I don’t make a habit of displaying my reverence for a great many things. I tend to keep matters like this to myself, for I believe: What’s the point of wearing a serious expression if one’s been earmarked by fate—I mean, if a person has perhaps been chosen—to play the fool.”
It would seem that Simon here acknowledges a great seriousness within him, a seriousness he is at such pains to hide that even his brother did not know it was there. Paradoxically, Simon brings this seriousness to his decidedly lighthearted lifestyle: as he says, it is the life he has been chosen to live, and so he will do his best to live up to it. It is this paradoxical sense of duty to whimsy that makes The Tanners possible, for it makes us understand why our protagonist might be so obsessed with examining a life devoted to living without consequence—and also why a novelist would choose to write a novel that attempts to parse on the page something as ineffable as the romantic spirit." - Scott Esposito

"In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:
You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:
No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.
He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it." - Monica Carter

"First off... this book is funny. Funny in that offhanded, early 20th century funny. But funny in a timeless way. Funny as only the down and out and slightly insane can write funny. Walser wanders in and out of story & thought. In and out of letters to and from bothers. In and out of jobs and towns. His protagonist, Simon, is off-the-cuff and unremarkable (though charming and fascinating) except in his own eyes." - Nick Buzanski
"Although the Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser was cited as a favorite author by Franz Kafka and Robert Musil, his stellar fan base never translated into actual fame, at least during his lifetime. He died inglorious and relatively unknown, dead in the snow of a heart attack, after having resided in a mental institution for most of the last 27 years of his life. The man whom W. G. Sebald, in his introduction to The Tanners, calls “a clairvoyant of the small” not only observed and beautifully reported the easy-to-miss minutiae of his surroundings in four surviving novels and hundreds of shorter pieces, but actually wrote, in pencil, in a hand so tiny that editors have found some of it indecipherable.
The Tanners—an early semiautobiographical novel, but the last to be translated into English—is the story of the utterly unambitious Simon Tanner and his siblings Kaspar, Klaus and Hedwig (there is one more brother, consigned to a mental institution, but he’s mentioned only in passing). Much to his upright brother Klaus’s chagrin, Simon is content to neither contribute to nor detract from society, perfectly happy to be a whimsical nonentity. At first glance, Simon seems unremarkable (if eccentric), floating through life and flouting bourgeois conventions. But watch him, and you’ll see that his statements are hilarious, subversive and sometimes deeply strange. “If one wishes to have an employee,” Simon reprimands his bewildered boss, “I believe one should know how to accommodate him.”
Walser’s writing lacks much of the outright cynicism and existential despair that characterizes the work of his better-known contemporaries. The sensibility is that of a writer who understands misery but chooses to dance a jig around it, hinting at the melancholy rather than diving in headfirst. Simon is the perfect vehicle for Walser’s playful, faux-obsequious language—through him, the many tangents and clownish hyperbole that make Walser so special seem natural. While none of his characters will ever be a leader—not Simon nor the servant protagonist of his 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten nor, obviously, the titular “hero” of The Assistant—in his treatment of them, Walser has shown himself to be every bit the master." —Drew Toal
"Reading through the book one gets the impression that Walser suffered from some sort of literary anti-ADD. For him pen and paper must have swelled, as though viewed through a magnifying glass, until he could clearly see the missing bits of speech and chronicle he had yet to include. He then slotted all those bits into place so that each description, each dialogue, spans over pages and pages with hardly a pause for paragraphs breaks, or even the other sides of his characters’ meandering conversations. When Walser’s characters congregate in dining-rooms or stroll through fields, they don’t converse—they orate. In a 2000 review of The Robber and Jakob von Gunten, J.M. Coetzee remarks that “Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist.”
Yet somehow, despite his daunting blocks of unbroken text and long-winded oratory, Walser’s work remains readable and delicate. His humor is complex and his descriptions are laid out beautifully, with a painter’s eye. Simon’s indecision becomes irksome at times, but as his sister proclaims to him in a moment exaggerated vexation, “your behavior liberates our behavior from every sort of restraint.” And I find myself agreeing with her." - Tim Bagdanov

"I’m still standing at the door of life, knocking and knocking, though admittedly none too forcefully, and breathlessly listening to see whether someone will decide to open the bolt and let me in. A bolt like this is rather heavy, and people don’t like to come to the door if they have the feeling it’s just a beggar standing outside knocking. I’m good at nothing but listening and waiting, though in these capacities I’ve achieved perfection…
I’ve been reading Robert Walser’s The Tanners for more than a month. It’s a novel best consumed in small doses, full of wonderful writing and a touch of madness. In a way, it strikes me as the novel that I imagine to be most like Walser himself: contradictory, plotless, modest, and occasionally magical. It deals with dichotomies: freedom and dependence, city and country, money and the lack of money.
The Tanners is the story of the Tanner siblings: Klaus, Hedwig, Emil, Kaspar, and Simon, who is the main character. Simon is a man of little ambition, drifting through life, jobs, borrowed places of residences, friendships. lovers. His real talent is the gift of gab and its offshoot – the gift of self-delusion. As he alternates between berating himself for his total lack of ambition and cherishing his utter independence, Simon spends an inordinate amount of time convincing himself – at least momentarily – of the goodness of his intentions, whatever they may be at the moment. People either flee him in disgust or adopt him.
It’s curious that The Tanners, written in 1907, was never translated into English before this year, for the book would have been a Bible to the hippies and the Beats of my generation. “Misfortune is educational,” Simon declaims, echoing a sentiment many of us shared as we muddled through the awful 60s. Simon’s philosophy of life was one I could have called my own forty years ago: “I currently enjoy the respect of only a single person, namely myself. But this is the one whose respect is worth the world to me; I am free and can always, when necessity commands, sell my freedom for a certain length of time so as to be free again after.” What Simon rarely sees is the effect his dependence has on others; and, of course, no one can ever become dependent on Simon." -
Read also:
"On the road to madness" by John Goldbach

"Review: The Tanners, Robert Walser" by Tom Cunliffe

"Robert Walser: The Tanners" by Trevor

Robert Walser, Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932, Trans. by Christopher Middleton (University of Nebraska Press, 2005)"The Swiss writer of whom Hermann Hesse famously declared, “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” Robert Walser (1878–1956) is only now finding an audience among English-speaking readers commensurate with his merits—if not with his self-image. After a wandering, precarious life during which he produced poems, essays, stories, and novels, Walser entered an insane asylum, saying, “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” Many of the unpublished works he left were in fact written in an idiosyncratically abbreviated script that was for years dismissed as an impenetrable private cipher. Fourteen texts from these so-called pencil manuscripts are included in this volume—rich evidence that Walser’s microscripts, rather than the work of incipient madness, were in actuality the product of desperate genius building a last reserve, and as such, a treasure in modern literature. With a brisk preface and a chronology of Walser’s life and work, this collection of fifty translations of short prose pieces covers the middle to later years of the writer’s oeuvre. It provides unparalleled insight into Walser’s creative process, along with a unique opportunity to experience the unfolding of his rare and eccentric gift."

Read also:
"Sovereign Insignificance: Review of Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932 by Robert Walser" by Tom Whalen

Robert Walser, The Microscripts, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions Publishing, 2010 )
"Robert Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper (many of them written during his hospitalization in the Waldau sanatorium) covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card. Selected from the six-volume German transcriptions from the original microscripts, these 25 short pieces are gathered in this gorgeously illustrated co-publication with the Christine Burgin Gallery. Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment. Sometimes Walser used the pages of small tear-off calendars (but only after cutting them lengthwise and filling up each half with text). Schnapps, rotten husbands, small town life, the radio, pigs (and how none of us can deny being one), jealousy, Van Gogh and marriage proposals are some of Walser’s subjects. These texts take strength from Walser’s motto: “To be small and to stay small.” 65 full-color." illustrations
Robert Walser, The Assistant, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions Publishing, 2007)
"The Assistant is his breathtaking 1908 novel, translated by award-winning translator Susan Bernofsky. Joseph, hired to become an inventor's new assistant, arrives one rainy Monday morning at Technical Engineer Karl Tobler's splendid hilltop villa: he is at once pleased and terribly worried, a state soon followed by even stickier psychological complexities. He enjoys the beautiful view over Lake Zurich, in the company of the proud wife, Frau Tobler, and the delicious savory meals. But does he deserve any of these pleasures? The Assistant chronicles Joseph's inner life of cascading emotions as he attempts, both frantically and light-heartedly, to help the Tobler household, even as it slides toward financial ruin. Tobler demands of Joseph, "Do you have your wits about you?!" And Joseph's wits are in fact all around him, trembling like leaves in the breeze—he is full of exuberance and despair, all the raptures and panics of a person "drowning in obedience."

"Robert Walser is admired today mostly for his short prose pieces, which originally appeared as entertaining feuilleton in Swiss and German newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century. It is said that Kafka would search the paper for Walser’s stories and read them aloud to friends. But Walser also wrote novels. Only four have survived, and until now just two, Jakob von Gunten and The Robber, have been available in English. So it is with considerable delight that Walser’s small but passionate readership will greet the arrival in English of The Assistant (Der Gehülfe).
Written in 1907 and based closely on Walser’s own experiences, The Assistant tells the story of a young man’s six-month stint as assistant to a fledgling inventor. Joseph Marti, 24 years of age, has spent an unhappy time living hand-to-mouth in the capital (unnamed, but presumably Zurich). When the employment bureau suggests a position in the technical offices of Carl Tobler, Joseph accepts.
Previously a factory worker, Tobler has used an inheritance to set himself up as an entrepreneurial inventor. Tobler is a mercurial, generous boss and welcomes Joseph into his little family circle; Joseph revels in his new position and in the comforts of the Tobler family home, located less than an hour outside of the capital.
But all is not well with the Tobler enterprise. Joseph isn’t being paid. Nor, soon enough, are the inventor’s suppliers, nor his gardener, nor his wife’s dressmaker, nor the power company, nor the town merchants. As beautiful summer turns to fall and then winter, Joseph’s responsibilities shift exclusively to responding to duns and fending off unwelcome visitors. The novel tracks Tobler’s decline from self-respecting citizen to desperate debtor and the impact of that decline on all the members of the Tobler household.
The Assistant is nearly twice as long as Jakob or Robber and in fact bears a surprising resemblance to the larger, fashionable tomes written by Walser’s more successful contemporaries such as Mann or Hamsun. (Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which also deals with the decline of a family business, appeared just seven years before The Assistant, and is probably a work Walser knew well.) The Assistant displays a distinctly Mannian eye for human weakness; take, for example, the case of Joseph’s predecessor, Wirsich, who was sacked for drunkenness. One afternoon after Joseph is installed at the villa, Wirsich returns, accompanied by his mother, to meet with Tobler and determine whether he might be reinstated. The awkwardness of the meeting, Wirsich’s attempts to save face, and the sadness of Wirsich and his mother as they depart for home are affectingly rendered. A few months later, Joseph encounters a reformed Wirsich, who proudly announces that he has found a new position. Together they repair together to an inn to celebrate with a glass of beer. A month later, Joseph learns that Wirsich has lost this new job, too.
Also worthy of Mann is Tobler’s daughter Silvi, an awkward creature who has never earned the love of her family. To Joseph’s horror, Silvi is routinely beaten and confined by the housekeeper, Pauline, while the family looks on unconcerned. “Wherever there are children,” Walser writes, “there will always be injustice.”
But while Walser’s second novel is more conventional than his later books, it also bears his unique stamp. The Assistant is enlivened with Walser’s characteristically florid descriptions of the natural and urban landscape:
What days these were, wet and stormy, and yet there was still something magical about them. All at once the living room became so melancholy and cozy. The damp and cold out of doors made the rooms more hospitable. They had already begun lighting the heating stoves. The yellow and red leaves burned and gleamed feverishly through the foggy gray of the landscape. The red of the cherry tree’s leaves had something incandescent and aching and raw about it, but at the same time it was beautiful and brought peace and cheer to those who saw it. Often the entire countryside of meadows and trees appeared to be wrapped in veils and damp cloths, above and below and in the distance and close at hand everything was gray and wet. You strode through all of this as if through a gloomy dream. And yet even this weather and this particular sort of world expressed a secret gaiety. You could smell the trees you were walking beneath, and hear ripe fruit dropping in the meadows and on the path. Everything seemed to have become doubly and triply quiet. All the sounds seemed to be sleeping, or afraid to ring out. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the slow exhalations of foghorns could be heard across the lake, exchanging warning signals off in the distance and announcing the presence of boats. They sounded like the plaintive cries of helpless animals.Walser’s playfulness is also present, albeit in shadow. Tobler’s inventions, for example, range from the practical (a chair for invalids) to the preposterous (a vending machine that dispenses bullets). Tobler’s own favorite is called the “Advertising Clock,” a timepiece affixed with eagle wings on which paid advertisements can be displayed.1 The doomed contraption becomes a symbol of Tobler’s ill-fated venture, and, in Joseph’s mind, almost a living thing:
The Advertising Clock is sprawled on the ground in defeat, wailing for a bit of solvent capital. Go to it and give it your support so that it may gradually, one limb at a time, rise up again and successfully imprint itself on people’s opinions and judgments once and for all—a task that is worthy, if you will, of your mental abilities, and useful to boot.Here also, although less evident than in his mature fictions, is the familiar self-undercutting narrator:
But why had Tobler moved here in the first place? What was it that had inspired him to choose this region as his domicile? The following somewhat unclear account seeks to address these questions.In theme as well, the book reflects Walser’s lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between masters and workers. It would reemerge the following year in Jakob, his best-known and arguably most perfect novel, and again nearly twenty years later in his essay “Masters and Workers” (1926). As Walser knew, the master’s position depended paradoxically on the consent of the worker, for what is a master without a subordinate? What appears as social fact is in reality a delicate equilibrium only maintained by avoiding injury to the pride of either the ruler or the ruled. Pride also fuels Tobler’s ill-fated efforts, but it is a fragile quantity that wife and worker must labor to preserve. No doubt Walser enjoyed the irony in the fact that Joseph, working without a salary, serves as Tobler’s de facto benefactor.
Walser’s other great theme in The Assistant is love. The word appears in some form more than one hundred times in the book. Joseph has been disappointed in romantic love—we catch brief glimpses of an old friend Klara who Joseph still seems to be in love with—and falls into an unconsummated relationship with Tobler’s wife, whose loneliness matches his own. But equally important is the love Joseph feels as part of the Tobler household. One of a family of eight children, Walser was particularly interested in the ways a family is bound together. Perhaps we’ll know more about this dimension of Walser’s art when his first novel, The Tanner Siblings, appears from New Directions some time over the next few years." - Sam Jones
Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, Trans. by Christopher Middleton (New York Review of Books Classics Series, 1999)"The Swiss writer Robert Walser is one of the quiet geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Largely self-taught and altogether indifferent to worldly success, Walser wrote a range of short stories, essays, as well as four novels, of which Jakob von Gunten is widely recognized as the finest. The book is a young man's inquisitive and irreverent account of life in what turns out to be the most uncanny of schools. It is the work of an outsider artist, a writer of uncompromising originality and disconcerting humor, whose beautiful sentences have the simplicity and strangeness of a painting by Henri Rousseau".

"The moral core of Walser's art is the refusal of power; of domination.... Walser's virtues are those of the most mature, most civilized art. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer." - Susan Sontag
"Robert Walser is a bewitched genius.... Terse and solid, Walser's prose is touched always with pain and laughter, peppered with irony and question marks, filled with loving lists of mundane objects, punctuated by startling fits of chaos.... Transfixed by his uncanny way of seeing, we behold, as he puts it, 'a spasm of the soul." - Newsweek
"Jakov von Gunten is not like any novel I have read before and not, despite all the comparisons, like any novel of Kafka's. It is more like a series of first person reflections, with only the repeating cast of characters and the narrator to hold the novel together. Kafka's novels all have a certain narrative drive, and here there is very little, although the story of the slow dissolution of the school is strangely moving. Bernard van Dieren once wrote that every original mind is a cosmos in itself: Walser gains nothing from being continually advertised as Kafka-lite. He is his own writer. By any standard, he is not as great a writer as Kafka, but his outlook is much more genial - less insular and more human - despite the fact that Walser and not Kafka was the one who ended up in the insane asylum. This book is his long masterpiece. The episodic rambling quality of the novel betrays Walser's roots in the short story, but the material never feels scattershot or forced together.Something Jakob says gets at what Walser might be trying to do - he's writing about the hair of the students in the school: "And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord."A strange thought for someone writing in a diary! But maybe the diary form is the closest that any writer can come to approximating the feeling of life, and letting the reader make his or her own observations. Walser does seem to have a certain distrust of the intellect, but he is not a naive, untutored talent; what he sees, though, is the limitations of intellect, which is perhaps his closest relationship with Kafka - "One is always wrong when one takes up with big words," he writes, and produces a masterpiece using all small ones." - Christopher Middleton
"One learns very little here, observes young Jakob von Gunten after his first day at the Benjamenta Institute, where he has enrolled himself as a student. The teachers lie around like dead men. There is only one textbook, What is the Aim of Benjamenta’s Boys’ School?, and only one lesson, “How Should a Boy Behave?” All the teaching is done by Fräulein Lisa Benjamenta, sister of the principal. Herr Benjamenta himself sits in his office and counts his money, like an ogre in a fairy tale. In fact, the school is a bit of a swindle.
Nevertheless, having run away to the big city (unnamed, but clearly Berlin) from what he calls “a very, very small metropolis,” Jakob has no intention of giving up. He does not mind wearing the Benjamenta uniform; he gets on with his fellow students; and besides, riding the elevators downtown gives him a thrill, makes him feel thoroughly a child of his times.
Jakob von Gunten purports to be the diary Jakob keeps during his stay at the Institute. It consists mainly of his reflections on the education he receives there—an education in humility—and on the strange brother and sister who offer it. The humility taught by the Benjamentas is not of the religious variety. Their graduates aspire to be serving men or butlers, not saints. But Jakob is a special case, a pupil for whom the lessons in humility have a deep personal resonance. “How fortunate I am,” he writes, “not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.”
The Benjamentas are a mysterious and, at first sight, forbidding pair. Jakob sets himself the task of penetrating their mystery. He treats them not with respect but with the cheeky self-assurance of a child who is used to having any mischief on his part excused as cute, mixing effrontery with patently insincere self-abasement, giggling at his own insincerity, confident that candor will disarm all criticism, but not really caring if it does not. The word he would like to apply to himself, that he would like the world to apply to him, is impish. An imp is a mischievous sprite; an imp is also a lesser devil.
Soon Jakob has begun to gain ascendancy over the Benjamentas. Fräulein Benjamenta hints that she is fond of him; he pretends not to understand. She reveals that what she feels is perhaps more than fondness, is perhaps love; Jakob replies with a long, evasive speech full of respectful sentiments. Thwarted, Fräulein Benjamenta pines away and dies.
Herr Benjamenta, initially hostile to Jakob, is maneuvered to the point of pleading with the boy to be his friend, to abandon his plans and come wandering the world with him. Primly, Jakob refuses: “But how shall I eat, Principal?… It’s your duty to find me a decent job. All I want is a job.” Yet on the last page of his diary he announces he is changing his mind: he will throw away his pen and go off into the wilderness with Herr Benjamenta (to which one can only respond: God save Herr Benjamenta!).
As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Confessions. But—as Walser’s first French translator, Marthe Robert, pointed out—there is in Jakob, too, something of the hero of the traditional German folk tale, of the lad who braves the castle of the giant and triumphs against all odds. Franz Kafka, early in his career, admired Walser’s work (Max Brod records with what delight Kafka would read Walser’s humorous sketches aloud). Barnabas and Jeremias, Surveyor K.’s demonically obstructive “assistants” in The Castle, have Jakob as their prototype.
In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox. Here is Jakob in reflective mood:
We wear uniforms. Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us. We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace, but we also look nice in our uniforms, and that sets us apart from the deep disgrace of those people who walk around in their very own clothes but in torn and dirty ones. To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on. But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being.What is the mystery of Jakob? Walter Benjamin wrote a piece on Walser that is all the more striking for being based on a very incomplete acquaintance with his writings. Walser’s people, suggested Benjamin, are like fairy-tale characters once the tale has come to an end, characters who now have to live in the real world. There is something “laceratingly, inhumanly, and unfailingly superficial” about them, as if, having been rescued from madness (or from a spell), they must tread carefully for fear of falling back into it.
Jakob is such an odd being, and the air he breathes in the Benjamenta Institute is so rare, so near to the allegorical, that it is hard to think of him as representative of any element of society. Yet in Jakob’s cynicism about civilization and about values in general, his contempt for the life of the mind, his simplistic beliefs about how the world really works (it is run by big business to exploit the little man), his elevation of obedience to the highest of virtues, his readiness to bide his time, awaiting the call of destiny, his claim to be descended from noble, warlike ancestors (when the etymology he himself hints at for von Gunten—von unten, “from below”—suggests otherwise), as well as his pleasure in the all-male ambience of the boarding school and his delight in malicious pranks—all of these features, taken together, point prophetically toward the petit-bourgeois type that, in times of greater social confusion, would find Hitler’s Brownshirts so attractive.
Walser was not an overtly political writer. Nevertheless, his emotional involvement with the class from which he came, the class of shopkeepers and clerks and schoolteachers, ran deep. Berlin offered him a clear chance to escape his social origins, to defect, as his brother had done, to the déclassé cosmopolitan intelligentsia. He refused that offer, choosing instead to return to the embrace of provincial Switzerland. Yet he never lost sight of—indeed, was not allowed to lose sight of—the illiberal, conformist tendencies of his class, its intolerance of people like himself, dreamers and vagabonds." - J. M. CoetzeeRobert Walser, The Robber, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky (University of Nebraska Press, 2000)"The Robber, Robert Walser’s last novel, tells the story of a dreamer on a journey of self-discovery. It is a hybrid of love story, tragedy, and farce, with a protagonist who sweet-talks teaspoons, flirts with important politicians, plays maidservant to young boys, and uses a passerby’s mouth as an ashtray. Walser’s novel spoofs the stiff-upper-lipped European petit bourgeois and its nervous reactions to whatever threatens the stability of its worldview."

"Those familiar with the work of Robert Walser, who led a life of obscurity, but whose admirers included Kafka, Hesse, Musil and Walter Benjamin, won't need to be prompted to procure his 1925 novel, The Robber...In the eupohoric, endlessly proliferating style typical of his work of the early 1920's, this "story of a dreamer on a voyage of self-discovery" is in marked contrast to the angst and mystery of his earlier novel, Jakob von Gunten." — John Ashbery

Read also:
"Still Small Voice: The fiction of Robert Walser" by Benjamin Kunkel

"Reading Robert Walser" by John Taylor

"The Genius of Robert Walser" by J. M. Coetzee

"Walser's Wake, 1956 – 1966" by Dieter Bachmann

Thoughts On A Sentence By Robert Walser By Jay Ponteri


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