Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Robert Walser, misplaced

Reviewing The Robber upon the release of its English translation, J. M. Coetzee wrote, "Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature." Instead the book remained in microscript for forty-six years, until Jochen Greven and Martin Jürgens transcribed and published the first edition.

What would have happened if The Robber had been published in 1926?

There's a chance that the book we have today would not have existed. Walser domesticated his manuscripts for public consumption from early in his writing career; Susan Bernofsky writes in her introduction, "[Walser] must have been aware, at least after the first few pages, that he would never be able to publish [The Robber]. This would explain why he never prepared a clean copy of the manuscript for submission to publishers."

But what would a sanitized version of The Robber look like? Would it even have been possible? There are lost Walser novels, the extinction of which makes one wonder. Returning to The Assistant it is possible to glimpse a Robber-esque foundation of inquisitive philosophy behind the ordinary plot. The collection, Speaking to the Rose is presented in chronological order, making it possible for readers to follow the development of Walser's increasingly-eccentric style from the early 1900's through to the 1930's. There is a change and yet there isn't. The collection opens with A Note on Van Gogh'sˆL'Arlésienne, in which Walser positions the reader and narrator together before the unpictured painting and sets off on a miniature, ecstatic journey.

In front of this picture one has all kinds of thoughts, and to someone absorbed in it many questions occur, questions at once so simple and so strange and so disconcerting that they seem to be unanswerable. In the picture, many questions find their finest, most subtle, most delicate significance--which is that they cannot be answered. When, for instance, a lover asks his lady, "Can I still have hopes?" and she doesn't answer, then this absence of an answer sometime signifies a heavenly Yes. That is how it is with everything that puzzles us, everything great, and here is a picture full of puzzles, full of greatness, full of deep and beautiful questions, and likewise full of deep, majestic, and beautiful answers.

Although this is the earliest piece, from 1912, it is made of the same idiosyncrasy as The Robber.  Each clause follows on from the last with an internal logic whose rules change without reason. First the questions appear unanswerable; then they are unanswerable; by the end there are answers everywhere. There is nearly always a little scene or anecdote playing out--here the pair of lovers--in the middle of a larger description or idea. There is also a casual note concerning some significant or poignant facet of humanity: "That is how it is with everything..."

These devices are typical Walser but they are not a formula that can be applied by just anyone with success. Bernofsky states, in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, "If you wind up imitating—rather than just being inspired by—him, it’s pretty easy to start writing pastiches of his work. And pastiches of Walser tend not to be so good. His work is a balancing act, and it’s only because of his constantly startling imagination that he avoids toppling over into cliché and bad taste."

It is interesting to think about how the influence of this style may have played out had The Robber been published sooner, and had Walser remained influential beyond the mid-1920s. With the current Walsermania surrounding the latest set of translations it appears he is finally making his mark on the English-writing world, and we can expect to see many imitations of Walser in the future. Then perhaps we will see what a sanitized Robber looks like.

1 comment:

  1. Report on Walser journey coming, perhaps? :-)

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