Tribute to Robert Walser


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Vincent van Gogh, L'Arlesienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux, 1888-89

"The Van Gogh Picture"

In observing this picture with the intention of writing a review, Walser realizes that art criticism is impossible. Not only is it impossible to say anything about the work-it is impossible even to begin to "see" it. Only when the peasant woman in the painting miraculously comes to life and speaks to him is he able to make any headway. Learning more about her everyday life, he discovers the artist's reasons for choosing her as his subject, and only then does he begin to understand the painting-art appreciation from the inside out.


Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin: Introduction 

"The Van Gogh Picture"

At an exhibition of paintings several years ago, I saw an, as it were, ravishing and priceless picture: Van Gogh's Arlesienne, the portrait of a peasant woman who is decidedly not pretty, as she is already rather old, sitting quietly in a chair and gazing pensively before her. She wears the sort of skirt one sees all the time, and has the sort of hands one encounters everywhere without paying them any attention, as they appear to be far from lovely. Nor can a modest ribbon in her hair count for much. The face of this woman is hard. Her features speak of a great many incursive experiences.
    I willingly admit that at first I intended to devote only a moment's consideration to this picture-which to be sure struck me as a powerful work-since I wished to move on as quickly as possible to look at other items, but a strange something held me back, as if I'd been seized by the arm. Asking myself if there was anything at all of beauty to look upon here, I soon became convinced that one must pity the artist who had squandered such great industry on so low and charmless a subject. I asked myself: was this a picture I'd wish to own? But I didn't dare respond to this peculiar question with either a yes or no. I further submitted for my own contemplation the apparently simple and, it seemed to me, certainly not unjustified question of whether a suitable place even exists in our society for pictures like this Arlesienne. No one can possibly have commissioned such works; the artist would appear to have given himself the assignment and then painted something that perhaps no one ever wished to see depicted. Who could want to hang such an ordinary picture on his wall?
    "Magnificent women," I said to myself, "were painted by Titian, Rubens and Lucas Cranach," and because I spoke these words, I am filled with pain, as it were, for our artist, who assuredly experienced a life more replete with suffering than joy, as well as for this age of ours, which is so difficult and dismal in many respects.
    "To be sure," I continued, "the world is clearly often beautiful, and blithe hopes must ever blossom. But certain states of affairs are downright oppressive-no one would deny it."
    Although something doleful or disturbing surrounded Van Gogh's picture, and all the harshest life circumstances seemed to emerge from beside or behind it-not quite sharply, but still recognizably enough-I nonetheless took pleasure in it, since the painting is a sort of masterpiece. The colors and brushwork possess the most extraordinary vitality, and formally the picture is outstanding. It contains, among other things, a wonderful patch of red that is delightfully in flux. Yet the work as a whole reflects more inner than outward beauty. Are not also certain books unlikely to become popular because they are not easily accessible, in other words because it is difficult to assign them a value? Sometimes things of beauty are inadequately perceived.
    The effect the Van Gogh had on me was like that of a solemn tale. The woman suddenly began speaking about her life. Once she was a child and went to school. How beautiful it is to see one's parents every day, and to be initiated by teachers into all sorts of knowledge. How gay and bright the schoolroom and her interactions with her playmates. How sweet, how happy is youth!
    These hard features were once soft, and these cold, almost malicious eyes were friendly and innocent. She was just as much and just as little as you. Just as rich in prospects and just as poor. A human being, like all of us, and her feet carried her through many a sunlit street as well as streets veiled in nocturnal darkness. She no doubt often went to church, or to dances. How often her hands must have opened a window, or pressed shut a door. These are the sorts of acts you and I perform daily, are they not, and in this circumstance resides a certain pettiness, but also grandeur. Can she not have had a lover, and known joy, and many sorrows? She listened to the ringing of bells, and with her eyes perceived the beauty of branches in blossom. Months and years passed for her, summer passed, winter. Is this not terribly simple. Her life was filled with toil. One day a painter said to her- himself just a poor working man-that he would like to paint her. She sits for him, calmly allowing him to paint her portrait. To him, she is not an indifferent model-for him, nothing and no one is indifferent. He paints her just as she is, plain and true. Without much intention, however, something great and noble enters into the simple picture, a solemnity of the soul it is impossible to overlook.
    After I carefully impressed the picture upon my memory, I went home and wrote an essay about it for the magazine Kunst und Kiinstler. The content of this essay has now escaped me, for which reason the desire came over me to renew it, which has now been done.

*
    
Karl Walser, Portrait of a Lady, 1902
Portrait of a Lady

A young lady, a girl of perhaps twenty, is sitting in a chair and reading a book. Or she has just been diligently reading, and now she is reflecting on what she has read. This often happens, that someone who is reading must pause, because all sorts of ideas having to do with the book keenly engage him. The reader is dreaming; perhaps she is comparing the subject matter of the book to her own experiences hitherto; she is thinking about the hero of the book, while she fancies herself almost its heroine. But now to the picture, to the way it is painted. The picture is strange, and the painting in it is delicate and subtle, because the painter, in a mood of beautiful audacity, has crossed the boundaries of the usual and has thrust his way through a biased reality out to freedom. In painting the portrait of the young lady, he is also painting her amiable secret reveries, her thoughts and daydreams, her lovely, happy imagination, since, directly above the reader's head, or brain, in a softer, more delicate distance, as though it were the construction of a fantasy, he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. The shepherd is wearing a dark blue jacket, and around this contented loafer graze the lambs and the sheep, while overhead in the summer morning air, swallows fly across the cloudless sky. Looming up from the opulent, rounded tops of the leafy trees, one can glimpse the wispy tips of a few firs. The green of the meadow is rich and warm, and speaks a romantic and adventurous language, and the whole cloudless picture inspires observant, quiet contemplation. The shepherd off in the distance on his painted green meadow is undoubtedly happy. Will the girl who is reading the book also be happy? She certainly would deserve to be.
Every creature and every living thing in the world should be happy. No one should be unhappy.
Translated by Lydia Davis

This painting portrays something like a moral dilapidation.
    But are not loosenings of moral strictures at times elegant?
    This category includes women who are, to begin with, beautiful, and secondarily straying, etc., from the proper path.
    A variety of straying would seem to be the subject of the picture I am observing here, which appears to have been painted with exceptional delicacy, caution, precision, intelligence and melodiousness.
                                                                from "A Discussion of a Picture"

Looking at Pictures presents a little-known facet of the work of the eccentric Swiss genius Robert Walser (1878-1956): his writings on art.
Translated by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton.
[Lời giới thiệu bìa sau]

Note: Loạt bài "Nhìn Tranh" này, Tin Văn giới thiệu, tưởng niệm Walser, và còn là 1 cách ăn theo, tiễn DC, vì do mù tịt về hội họa, bèn mượn hoa tiến Phật, thay vì viết nhảm, làm thơ nhảm tưởng niệm DC!


Borges lèm bèm về art, nghệ thuật, trong Trò Chuyện, Conversations. Bài này đọc, tiễn DC, cũng đặng.

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Art Should Free Itself from Time

OSVALDO FERRARI. Today we will talk about beauty. But before we do so, we will transcribe your views about the place of art and literature in our times as discussed in an earlier conversation.
JORGE LUIS BORGES. Art and literature ... should try and free themselves from time. Often, I have been told that art depends on politics or on history. I think that's untrue. It escapes, in some way, from the organized causality of history. Whether art happens or doesn't, either depend on the artist.
FERRARI. Another matter not usually talked or thought about, apart from the spiritual life, is beauty. It's odd that, these days, artists or writers do not talk about what is supposedly always their inspiration or objective, that is, beauty.
BORGES. Perhaps the word has been worn out but not the concept- because what purpose does art have other than beauty? Perhaps the word 'beauty' is not beautiful though the fact is, of course.
FERRARI. Certainly, but in your writing, your poems, your stories ...
BORGES. I try to avoid what's called 'ugly art'- sounds horrible, doesn't it? But there have been so many literary movements with horrible names. In Mexico, for example, there was a literary movement frighteningly called Stridentism. It finally shut up, which was the best thing it could do. To aspire to be strident-how awkward, isn't it!
My friend Manuel Maples Arce led that movement against the great poet Ramon Lopez Velarde. I remember his first book-without any hint of beauty, it was called 'Inner Scaffolding'. That's very awkward isn't it? (Laughs) To possess inner scaffolding? I remember one line of a poem, if it was a poem at all: 'A man with tuberculosis has committed suicide in all the newspapers'. It's the only line I recall. Perhaps my forgetfulness is kind-if that was the best line in the book, on shouldn't expect much from the rest of it. I saw him many years later in Japan. I think he was the Mexican ambassador there and that had made him forget not only literature but his literature. But he has remained in the histories of literature, which collects everything, as the founder of the Stridentist movement (both laugh). Wanting to be strident-one of the most awkward of literary desires.
FERRARI. As we are talking about beauty, I would like to consult you about something that has caught my attention. Plato said that of all the archetypal and supernatural entities, the only visible one on earth the only manifest one, is beauty.
BORGES. Yes, made manifest through other things.
FERRARI. Caught by our senses.
BORGES. I'm not sure about that.
FERRARI. That's what Plato said.
BORGES. Well, of course, I suppose that the beauty of a poem has to appeal to our ears and the beauty of a sculpture has to pass through touch and sight. But these are mediums and nothing more. I don't know if we see beauty or if beauty reaches us through forms which could be verbal or sensual or, as in the case of music, auditory. Walter Pater said that all the arts aspire to the condition of music. I think that is because form and content fuse in music. That is, one can tell the plot of a story, perhaps even give it away, or that of a novel, but one cannot tell the story of a melody, however straightforward it may be. Stevenson said, though I think he was mistaken, that a literary character is nothing but a string of words. Well, it is true, but at the same time it's necessary that we perceive it as more than a string of  words. We must believe in it.
FERRARI. It must, in some way, be real.
BORGES. Yes. Because if we sense that a character is only a string of words, then that character has not been well created. For example, reading a novel, we must believe that its characters live beyond what the author tells us about them. If we think about any character in a novel or a play, we have to think that this character, in the moment that we see him, sleeps, dreams and carries out diverse functions. Because if we don't, then he would be completely unreal.
FERRARI. Yes. There's a sentence by Dostoyevsky that caught my eye as much as one by Plato. About beauty, he said, 'In beauty, God and the devil fight and the battlefield is man's heart.'
BORGES. That's very similar to one by Ibsen, 'That life is a battle with the devil in the grottoes and caverns of the brain and that poetry is the fact of celebrating the final judgment about oneself.' It's quite similar, isn't it?
FERRARI. It is. Plato attributes beauty to a destiny, a mission. And among us, Murena has said that he considers beauty capable of transmitting an other-worldly truth.
BORGES. If it's not transmitted, if we do not receive it as a revelation beyond what's given by our senses, then it's useless. I believe that feeling is common. I have noticed that people are constantly capable of uttering poetic phrases they do not appreciate. For example, my mother commented on the death of a very young cousin to our cook from Cordoba. And the cook said, quite unaware that it was literary, 'But Senora, in order to die, you only need to be alive.' You only need to be alive! She was unaware that she had uttered a memorable sentence. I used it later in a story: 'You only need to be alive'-you do not require any other conditions to die, that's the sole one. I think people are always uttering memorable phrases without realizing it. Perhaps the artist's role is to gather such phrases and retain them. George Bernard Shaw says that all his clever expressions are the ones he had casually overheard. But that could be another clever feature of Shaw's modesty.
FERRARI. A writer would be, in that case, a great coordinator of other people's wit.
BORGES. Yes, let's say, everyone's secretary-a secretary for so many masters that perhaps what matters is to be a secretary and not the inventor of the sayings.
FERRARI. An individual memory of a collective.
BORGES. Yes, exactly that.

Nghệ thuật và văn chương tự nó nên cố mà thoát ra khỏi thời gian. Tôi thường nghe nói, nghệ thuật tuỳ thuộc chính trị và lịch sử. Đếch phải. Nó chạy trốn, một cách nào đó, cái liên hệ nhân quả được tổ chức của lịch sử.

Có 1 câu của Dos, thú lắm, Trong cái đẹp, Chúa và Quỉ uýnh lộn, và chiến trường là trái tim của con người

Ui chao, THNM, Gấu lại nghĩ Dos nói về cuộc chiến Mít, chán thế!




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Magazine Littéraire, Avril 2003, có 1 cuộc trò chuyện đặc biệt với, Peter Utz, tay viết tiểu sử Robert Walser, về những bản viết bí mật, les écrits secrets, của nhà văn chết bên lề đường, tức là về cuốn này:

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    When critics write about art, it is often with the intention of helping others to appreciate a work. They describe a painting, discuss its context, and evaluate its importance.
    Yet Walser's way of seeing is eminently his own. Something special happens when he is contemplating art. "A camera," the photographer Dorothea Lange once said, "is a tool for learning how to see without a camera." We can say something similar about Walser's writings on art. In these stories and essays, art is a tool for learning how to see without art. Here are a few examples:

Introduction
Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin

Robert Walser grew up alongside an artist who exerted a powerful influence on him in his early years: his brother Karl, one year his senior, who became the most celebrated stage set designer in Berlin in the nineteen-oughts. Karl collaborated with theater director Max Reinhardt, painted frescoes in the villa of the publisher Samuel Fischer, and counted among his friends some of the most culturally influential figures of the time. When Robert followed Karl from Switzerland to Berlin in 1905, he met many of the artists in his brother's circle. Karl had joined the renegade artists group Berliner Secession (so named because the artists were "seceding" from the classicism of the previous generation of painters), and Robert eventually landed the job of secretary to the Secession. In this position, he wrote some highly inappropriate business letters; one, addressed to Walter Rathenau in 1907, requested that Rathenau keep his promise to buy a painting by E. R. Weiss because the proceeds from the sale had "already been spent (drunk)." The secretary was soon dismissed. But it hardly mattered, because he had just completed his first novel, The Tanners, which was published that same year by Bruno Cassirer, cousin of Paul Cassirer, the Secession's manager. Bruno went on to publish two more of Robert's novels, The Assistant (1908) and Jakab van Gunten (1909), as well as a collection of poems (1908) with etchings by Karl.
    As a young writer producing a great deal of short prose for publication in journals and newspapers, Robert Walser frequently devoted his attention to works of visual art, whether by his brother and his contemporaries or by Id masters. Ekphrasis was a mode of writing he came to love; he pursued it all his life. The pieces in this collection n include some of his earliest prose ("A Painter," 1902) as well as work from the final years of his career ("Watteau" and "The Kiss," both 1930). Some of them are fluid meditations on art that sometimes touch only tangentially on the paintings that are their ostensible subjects. Others are meticulous descriptions of works down to their most minute details, with the narrator often zeroing in on elements of a picture that would not ordinarily be the focus of the gaze of either a connoisseur or critic.

    When critics write about art, it is often with the intention of helping others to appreciate a work. They describe a painting, discuss its context, and evaluate its importance.
    Yet Walser's way of seeing is eminently his own. Something special happens when he is contemplating art. "A camera," the photographer Dorothea Lange once said, "is a tool for learning how to see without a camera." We can say something similar about Walser's writings on art. In these stories and essays, art is a tool for learning how to see without art. Here are a few examples:

*
    
Karl Walser, Portrait of a Lady, 1902
Portrait of a Lady

A young lady, a girl of perhaps twenty, is sitting in a chair and reading a book. Or she has just been diligently reading, and now she is reflecting on what she has read. This often happens, that someone who is reading must pause, because all sorts of ideas having to do with the book keenly engage him. The reader is dreaming; perhaps she is comparing the subject matter of the book to her own experiences hitherto; she is thinking about the hero of the book, while she fancies herself almost its heroine. But now to the picture, to the way it is painted. The picture is strange, and the painting in it is delicate and subtle, because the painter, in a mood of beautiful audacity, has crossed the boundaries of the usual and has thrust his way through a biased reality out to freedom. In painting the portrait of the young lady, he is also painting her amiable secret reveries, her thoughts and daydreams, her lovely, happy imagination, since, directly above the reader's head, or brain, in a softer, more delicate distance, as though it were the construction of a fantasy, he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. The shepherd is wearing a dark blue jacket, and around this contented loafer graze the lambs and the sheep, while overhead in the summer morning air, swallows fly across the cloudless sky. Looming up from the opulent, rounded tops of the leafy trees, one can glimpse the wispy tips of a few firs. The green of the meadow is rich and warm, and speaks a romantic and adventurous language, and the whole cloudless picture inspires observant, quiet contemplation. The shepherd off in the distance on his painted green meadow is undoubtedly happy. Will the girl who is reading the book also be happy? She certainly would deserve to be.
Every creature and every living thing in the world should be happy. No one should be unhappy.
Translated by Lydia Davis

This painting portrays something like a moral dilapidation.
    But are not loosenings of moral strictures at times elegant?
    This category includes women who are, to begin with, beautiful, and secondarily straying, etc., from the proper path.
    A variety of straying would seem to be the subject of the picture I am observing here, which appears to have been painted with exceptional delicacy, caution, precision, intelligence and melodiousness.
                                                                from "A Discussion of a Picture"

Looking at Pictures presents a little-known facet of the work of the eccentric Swiss genius Robert Walser (1878-1956): his writings on art.
Translated by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton.
[Lời giới thiệu bìa sau]


Sách & Báo


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Introduction

Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin


Robert Walser grew up alongside an artist who exerted a powerful influence on him in his early years: his brother Karl, one year his senior, who became the most celebrated stage set designer in Berlin in the nineteen-oughts. Karl collaborated with theater director Max Reinhardt, painted frescoes in the villa of the publisher Samuel Fischer, and counted among his friends some of the most culturally influential figures of the time. When Robert followed Karl from Switzerland to Berlin in 1905, he met many of the artists in his brother's circle. Karl had joined the renegade artists group Berliner Secession (so named because the artists were "seceding" from the classicism of the previous generation of painters), and Robert eventually landed the job of secretary to the Secession. In this position, he wrote some highly inappropriate business letters; one, addressed to Walter Rathenau in 1907, requested that Rathenau keep his promise to buy a painting by E. R. Weiss because the proceeds from the sale had "already been spent (drunk)." The secretary was soon dismissed. But it hardly mattered, because he had just completed his first novel, The Tanners, which was published that same year by Bruno Cassirer, cousin of Paul Cassirer, the Secession's manager. Bruno went on to publish two more of Robert's novels, The Assistant (1908) and Jakab van Gunten (1909), as well as a collection of poems (1908) with etchings by Karl.
    As a young writer producing a great deal of short prose for publication in journals and newspapers, Robert Walser frequently devoted his attention to works of visual art, whether by his brother and his contemporaries or by Id masters. Ekphrasis was a mode of writing he came to love; he pursued it all his life. The pieces in this collection n include some of his earliest prose ("A Painter," 1902) as well as work from the final years of his career ("Watteau" and "The Kiss," both 1930). Some of them are fluid meditations on art that sometimes touch only tangentially on the paintings that are their ostensible subjects. Others are meticulous descriptions of works down to their most minute details, with the narrator often zeroing in on elements of a picture that would not ordinarily be the focus of the gaze of either a connoisseur or critic.

    When critics write about art, it is often with the intention of helping others to appreciate a work. They describe a painting, discuss its context, and evaluate its importance.
    Yet Walser's way of seeing is eminently his own. Something special happens when he is contemplating art. "A camera," the photographer Dorothea Lange once said, "is a tool for learning how to see without a camera." We can say something similar about Walser's writings on art. In these stories and essays, art is a tool for learning how to see without art. Here are a few examples:

"Apollo and Diana":
Walser makes a mockery of the whole enterprise of art appreciation and of his role as an art critic. The art in question is a reproduction of a Lucas Cranach painting that hangs in Walser's apartment. Walser helps his landlady learn to appreciate the painting or at least stop removing it from the wall when she cleans. In return, she mends his pants.

"The Van Gogh Picture":
In observing this picture with the intention of writing a review, Walser realizes that art criticism is impossible. Not only is it impossible to say anything about the work-it is impossible even to begin to "see" it. Only when the peasant woman in the painting miraculously comes to life and speaks to him is he able to make any headway. Learning more about her everyday life, he discovers the artist's reasons for choosing her as his subject, and only then does he begin to understand the painting-art appreciation from the inside out.

"Portrait of a Lady":
A portrait of a lady reading. What is important is just beyond what you can see: the contents of her book, the mood of a shepherd with his flock in the distance. The painting can only suggest where to look, but looking at the painting will get you nowhere. Happiness lies elsewhere.

"Hodler's Beech Forest":
A painting seen in reproduction, the original remembered. The painting is the least of it. What matters is the cold air depicted, the frozen forest floor, the view into the distance, a memory revived of the experience of just such a place. As Walser explains, "You can't put on airs with this little beech forest ... "

"An Exhibition of Belgian Art":
A review in which everything but the exhibition is discussed. Only a cursory list of names and subject matter:
"Now a vernal landscape, now a snowy one ... " The rest of the review is devoted to digressions about Walser's dreams, former girlfriends, his own experiences, the history of Switzerland-but almost nothing about the show at hand. There is, however, a wonderful array of emotions and visual imagery explored. What more can one want from an exhibition? The implication here is that the value of art might lie in its ability to inspire viewers to rare and beautiful thoughts of their own, but that any shared experience is ultimately unimportant. As he concludes,
"Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice to by others."

"Olympia":
Art appreciation may begin by looking, but isn't staring inappropriate and rude?

"A Painter":
In more than one story, Walser imagines himself as a visual artist. "A Painter" -a manifesto of creativity and art appreciation at its most profound-is the most fully realized of these stories. Walser uses this series of diary entries to elaborate on how and why he makes art and what this means to him or to any artist. For Walser, the beauty of the observed world is almost too much to bear.
Yet the contemplation of art teaches him that we "must tremble before the sweetness of these sweet things, feeling endless joy at being able to make use of them, apply them: walking this tightrope of feelings is essential when it comes to great art. Great art," Walser writes, "resides in great goings-astray."

What more could possibly be learned from looking at pictures?


THE POET

I DREAM of morning and dream of evening; light and night; moon and sun and stars. The rosy light of day and the pale light of night. The hours and the minutes; the weeks and the whole wonderful year. Many times I looked up at the moon as though at the secret friend of my soul. The stars were my dear comrades. When the sun shined its gold down into the pale cold misty world, how happy it made me down here. Nature was my garden, my passion, my dearest beloved. Everything I saw was mine: the woods and the fields, the trees and the paths. When I looked into the sky I was like a prince. But the most beautiful of all was evening. Evenings were fairy tales for me, and night with its heavenly darkness was for me like a magic castle full of sweet, impenetrable secrets. Often the soulful sounds of a lyre played by some poor man or another pierced the night. Then 1 could listen, listen. Then all was good, right, and lovely, and the world was full of inexpressible grandeur and merriment. But I was merry even without music. I felt ensnared by the hours. I talked with them as though with loving creatures, and imagined that they talked back to me too; I looked at them as though they had faces, and had the feeling that they were silently observing me too, as though with a strange kind of friendly eye. I oftentimes felt as though drowned in the sea, so silently, noiselessly, soundlessly did my life unfold. I cultivated familiar dealings with everything no one notices. About whatever no one bothers to think about I thought for days on end. But it was a sweet thinking, only rarely did sadness visit me. Now and then it leapt up to me in my secluded room like a rollicking invisible dancer and made me laugh. I did no harm to anyone, and no one did any harm to me either. I was so nicely, wonderfully apart.

1914

Robert Walser: A schoolboy‘s diary 



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THE POET

I DREAM of morning and dream of evening; light and night; moon and sun and stars. The rosy light of day and the pale light of night. The hours and the minutes; the weeks and the whole wonderful year. Many times I looked up at the moon as though at the secret friend of my soul. The stars were my dear comrades. When the sun shined its gold down into the pale cold misty world, how happy it made me down here. Nature was my garden, my passion, my dearest beloved. Everything I saw was mine: the woods and the fields, the trees and the paths. When I looked into the sky I was like a prince. But the most beautiful of all was evening. Evenings were fairy tales for me, and night with its heavenly darkness was for me like a magic castle full of sweet, impenetrable secrets. Often the soulful sounds of a lyre played by some poor man or another pierced the night. Then 1 could listen, listen. Then all was good, right, and lovely, and the world was full of inexpressible grandeur and merriment. But I was merry even without music. I felt ensnared by the hours. I talked with them as though with loving creatures, and imagined that they talked back to me too; I looked at them as though they had faces, and had the feeling that they were silently observing me too, as though with a strange kind of friendly eye. I oftentimes felt as though drowned in the sea, so silently, noiselessly, soundlessly did my life unfold. I cultivated familiar dealings with everything no one notices. About whatever no one bothers to think about I thought for days on end. But it was a sweet thinking, only rarely did sadness visit me. Now and then it leapt up to me in my secluded room like a rollicking invisible dancer and made me laugh. I did no harm to anyone, and no one did any harm to me either. I was so nicely, wonderfully apart.

1914

Robert Walser: A schoolboy‘s diary


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Đành phải bệ về. Truyện dài.
Walser bắt đầu khi, ở cái chỗ, where, chuyện thần tiên chấm dứt. Walter Benjamin viết. Tin Văn sẽ giới thiệu bài viết của ông, và của W.S. Sebald: Kẻ lang thang cô đơn, Le Promeneur solitaire, A Remembrance of Robert Walser. Mấy bài intro của dịch giả cũng rất thú.

Walser by Sebald
A Place in the Country by WG Sebald – review

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/21/place-country-wg-sebald-review

Growing up in Germany, Sebald inevitably regarded literature as political, as these notes on his literary precursors demonstrate
 Celebrated … since his death in 2001, WG Sebald’s name has been invoked to characterise an entire way of writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty
Leo Robson
WG Sebald has now been dead for twice as long as he was known to be around, to the extent that he was ever exactly around in the half-decade which started in 1996 with the publication, by Harvill, of Michael Hulse's fluent translation of The Emigrants and ended with an aneurysm on the Norwich ring road, just months after he had published – with a new translator, Anthea Bell – his longest work of "prose fiction", Austerlitz.
During those years, Sebald ceased to be what he had been for 30 years, a specialist in European literature, and became, with possible exceptions (Kundera, Saramago, Goytisolo, Miłosz, Mulisch, Grass), the most celebrated of European writers, as well as the rare subject of both an encomium from Susan Sontag and a parody by Craig Brown ("Above me, a seagull swooped, its wings stretched fully out, as though an unseen torturer were pulling them to breaking point").
 In the years since his death, the Sontag position has won out, and efforts to co-ordinate a wave of dissent – or to win even partial acceptance for the view, expressed by Alan Bennett, Michael Hofmann and Adam Thirlwell, that his work is pompous or banal – have faltered. Just as Phantom of the Opera is being performed somewhere in the world at any given moment, so the name of WG Sebald, or its spin-off adjective "Sebaldian", is being invoked to characterise the new school of sullen flanerie, to substantiate non-fiction's claims to creativity, or to help dispatch the kind of novel Sebald himself summarised as "relationship problems in Kensington in the late-1990s" to the dustbin of literary history.
But a writer's afterlife is determined less by what is said in his favour than by what is attached to his name, and Sebald has been lucky in his executors – or lucky that he left a backlog of published but not yet translated material. Even the scrappy-looking collection of "extended marginal notes and glosses" on his literary precursors (and a contemporary painter, Jan Peter Tripp) that has now emerged as A Place in the Country appeared, in 1998, under Sebald's own auspices. Translated, with a heavier touch than that of Hulse or Bell, by Sebald's former colleague Jo Catling, the book is itself a contribution to the study of posthumous reputation.
In the course of discussing a writer, Sebald often acknowledges an intermediary, a Brod or Boswell type who played a role in keeping the flame or spreading the word. In the essay on Johann Peter Hebel, a lyric poet and author of almanac stories, this figure is Walter Benjamin, whom Sebald credits with initiating the attack on the "primitive Heideggerrian thesis of Hebel's rootedness in the native soil of the Heimat". In the essay on Robert Walser, it is Walser's friend Carl Seelig who preserved the Swiss writer's Nachlass (literary remains), and without whom, Sebald argues, his rehabilitation "could never have taken place".
A short preface Sebald wrote for the German edition explains that when he travelled to Manchester in 1966, he packed books by Walser, Hebel and Keller which, 30 years on, would still find a place in his luggage. But A Place in the Country, though idiosyncratic, turns out to be less introvert than Sebald's fictions, less insistent on a "Sebald" figure who serves as the origin of its impressions and arguments. As it turns out, Sebald is less involved with what the writers mean to him than with what they might be shown to symbolise or represent. The result, written in his customary and not always helpful long paragraphs, and illustrated with plates, photographs and photocopies, is a passionate and provoking attempt to sketch an alternative tradition of Alpine literature starting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau – described as "the inventor of modern autobiography" and "inventor of the bourgeois cult of romantic sensibility" – and culminating, perhaps, in Sebald's own variant of Romantic autobiography.
The opening chapter, on Hebel, is the most forceful, a piece of historical criticism conducted entirely from the armchair (not a seagull in sight). Sebald makes it clear why Heidegger and Nazi writers such as the Austrian poet Josef Weinheber thought they had found a kindred spirit in a writer who used a local dialect (Alemannic) to tell stories about the pleasures and comforts of rural life. But he argues that they had to commit a lot of wilful narrow reading to make the interpretation stick. Hebel's Yiddish word order is incompatible with conventional German grammar; even at the time – the turn of the 19th century – the recourse to dialect would have been seen as more a "distancing effect" than "a badge of tribal affiliation".
As this essay demonstrates, Sebald is incapable of hiving off the literary and linguistic from the political, or the literary-critical off from the sociological and ethnographic. The method developed in his second prose fiction, The Rings of Saturn, in which history is traced through its public manifestations, is adapted here for the purposes of critical discussion. Sebald looks at the ways in which German historical dynamics make themselves felt in writers' work. While it is a thrill to watch close reading being performed by someone with so strong a taste for looking up from the page – the Cambridge School meets the Frankfurt School – for Sebald it was a product of constriction. Growing up in Germany in the 1950s, he found it difficult to treat literature as simply a source of aesthetic delight, in the way that English and American critics have been able to. Instead, in reading the literature of the two centuries leading up to the second world war, he treated every sentence as a shot fired in the battle between cosmopolitanism and moderate regionalism on the one hand, "narrow-minded provincialism" and militaristic nationalism on the other.
Sebald shows the ways in which writers are forced to take positions and sides – the chapter on Rousseau follows him in his years as an exile – but of all the predicaments in which a writer may find himself, the perennial state of just being a writer emerges as the toughest, or at least the most widespread; the "awful tenacity", the sense that a calling has become a compulsion, afflicts even those who, like Robert Walser, are "connected to the world in the most fleeting of ways".
Sebald's work is driven by associative thinking – coincidences, connections – but his chief aim was to evoke and capture, and his images, rich in mystery, or resonant with pathos, are what linger. A corpse released by a glacier. An office spilling with paper. A pair of writers undone by their calling: Walser, in an asylum, "scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen, sorting scraps of tinfoil, reading a novel by Friedrick Gerstacker or Jules Verne, and sometimes … just standing stiffly in the corner", and the German Romantic Lutheran poet Eduard Mörike, who, after accepting that he was unable to give up writing in the way he could his clerical duties, took nervous notes on pieces of paper, then tore them into tiny pieces, which he dropped into the pockets of his dressing-gown.

Note: Bài này, trên net, khác bài intro, trong sách. Đầy đủ hơn

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Robert Walser, Berlin, cc 1907











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Vưỡn giọng nhỏ? Sebald giải thích, "clairvoyant of the small".

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THE LETTER

Khi đến nơi hò hẹn thường lệ, thấy chàng say mê nhìn một bà cụ già đang lúi húi bầy hàng bên lề đường, dưới mái hiên căn nhà bên cạnh tiệm cà phê bình dân. Những gói thuốc lá từ từ choán đầy khung kính, những gói kẹo buộc thành túm treo lòng thòng trên sợi dây, một cây nhang dài cắm bên thùng kính, buổi trưa đi học về thấy còn khoảng một nửa, một cái mẹt trên lăn lóc vài trái ổi, cóc, mận... Chàng đang làm quen buổi sáng sớm vừa bắt đầu cùng với tiếng chén đĩa trong quán cà phê vọng ra, tiếng người nói lao xao, vài tiếng ho thúng thắng.... Chàng ngẩng đầu lên nhìn tôi vẫn còn đứng bên này đường, và tôi biết chàng sẽ mỉm cười, một phần nụ cười dành cho tôi, phần còn lại là của buổi sáng sớm.
Tôi nhìn thấy nụ cười của chàng từ khi còn ở nhà, còn ở trong phòng riêng, nụ cười như quanh quẩn đâu đó, như ở phía tủ, ở phía bàn học, ở sau, ở dưới, hoặc ở trong chồng sách vở trên bàn học, nơi tôi cất giấu những bức thư chàng viết cho tôi, những lần tình cờ cha tôi bước vô phòng, tôi vẫn bị luống cuống, mỗi lần tự dưng nhớ tới những dòng chữ đã làm tôi xúc động, sau cơn xúc động, tôi vẫn thường tự nhủ nên đốt bỏ....

Tứ khúc BHD & Saigon

WITH A letter in my pocket that the mailman had brought me and that I had not had the courage to open, I walked with slow, deliberate footsteps up the mountain into the forest. The day was like a charming prince dressed in blue. Everywhere, it chirped and blossomed and bloomed and was green and fragrant. The world looked as though it could only have been created for tenderness, friendship, and love. The blue sky was like a kindly eye, the gentle wind a loving caress. The woods were thicker and darker and soon brighter again, and the green was so fresh and new, so sweet. Then I stopped on the clean, yellowish path, pulled out the letter, broke the seal, and read the following:
    "She who feels compelled to tell you that your letter surprised her more than it pleased her does not desire you to write to her again; she is amazed that you found the courage to permit yourself such familiarity even once, and she hopes that with this act of bold, foolhardy recklessness the matter will be permitted to rest once and for all. Has she ever once given you any sign that could possibly have been interpreted to mean that she wished to learn what you felt for her? Uninteresting as they appear to her, the secrets of your heart leave her utterly cold; she possesses not the slightest understanding for the outpourings of a love that means nothing to her, and thus she begs you to let yourself be guided by the knowledge of how good a reason you have to keep an appropriate distance from the sender of this letter. In relationships that are destined to remain on a solely respectable level, every warmth, you will surely agree, must remain categorically forbidden."
    I slowly refolded the letter containing such sad and demoralizing tidings, and while doing so I cried out: "How good and friendly and sweet you are, Nature! Your earth, your meadows and forests, how beautiful they are! And, God in Heaven, how hard your people are."
    I was shaken, and never before had the woods seemed as beautiful to me as they seemed at that moment.

1918

Robert Walser: A Schoolboy’s Diary



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Quà Noel. Tính đi Mẽo chơi, thăm bạn, vé mắc quá, Noel mà, Gấu Cái lắc đầu, no money. Đành cầm tí tiền còm đi "sáchping".
Cuốn “microscripts” khủng lắm. Đây là 1 cách viết do Walser phịa ra. Phương pháp “vi-viết”, micro-script method
Walter Benjamin không biết tới cách viết này, khi viết về Walser.
Mới ra lò, 2012.
Từ từ, TV khoe hàng tiếp!

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WG Sebald

The Observer

A Place in the Country by WG Sebald – review

Sebald's posthumous essays affirm his ability to make his own obsessions ours too

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/27/wg-sebald-place-country-review

WG Sebald's quietly potent legacy
Out of tune with the hustling digital world, his singular, deeply personal books continue to inspire and intrigue
http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/may/13/wg-sebald-legacy


Note: Trên net có mấy bài về Sebald, link ở đây, rảnh - những khi bớt nhớ ai đó - dịch hầu quí vị độc giả TV,  như GCC, mê Sebald, người có tài biến nỗi ám ảnh của ông, thành, của chúng ta


EBRUARY 6, 2014

Le Promeneur Solitaire: W. G. Sebald on Robert Walser

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A Place in the Country


The Genius of Robert Walser
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/nov/02/the-genius-of-robert-walser/
J.M. Coetzee
November 2, 2000 Issue

Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness. In a late poem Walser wrote:

I would wish it on no one to be me.
Only I am capable of bearing myself.
To know so much, to have seen so much, and
To say nothing, just about nothing.

Walser, nhà văn nhớn?
Nếu có người nào đó, gọi ông ta là nhà văn nhớn, 1 cách ngần ngại, thì đó là vì cái từ “nhớn” rất ư là xa lạ với Walser, như Canetti viết.
Như trong 1 bài thơ muộn của mình, Walser viết:

Tớ đếch muốn thằng chó nào như tớ, hoặc nhớ đến tớ, hoặc lèm bèm về tớ, hoặc mong muốn là tớ
Nhất là khi thằng khốn đó ngồi bên ly cà phê!
Một mình tớ, chỉ độc nhất tớ, chịu khốn khổ vì tớ là đủ rồi
Biết thật nhiều, nhòm đủ thứ, và
Đếch nói gì, về bất cứ cái gì

[Dịch hơi bị THNM. Nhưng quái làm sao, lại nhớ tới lời chúc SN/GCC của K!]

Walser được hiểu như là 1 cái link thiếu, giữa Kleist và Kafka. “Tuy nhiên,” Susan Sontag viết, “Vào lúc Walser viết, thì đúng là Kafka [như được hậu thế hiểu], qua lăng kính của Walser. Musil, 1 đấng ái mộ khác giữa những người đương thời của Walser, lần đầu đọc Kafka, phán, ông này thuổng Walser [một trường hợp đặc dị của Walser]."
Walser được ái mộ sớm sủa bởi những đấng cự phách như là Musil, Hesse, Zweig. Benjamin, và Kafka;  đúng ra, Walser, trong đời của mình, được biết nhiều hơn, so với Kafka, hay Benjamin.

W. G. Sebald, in his essay “Le Promeneur Solitaire,” offers the following biographical information concerning the Swiss writer Robert Walser: “Nowhere was he able to settle, never did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions. He had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so…. He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written.” Sebald goes on to ask, “How is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows … who created humorous sketches from pure despair, who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself, whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke.”


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Bài viết của Coetzee về Walser, sau đưa vô “Inner Workings, essays 2000-2005”, Gấu đọc rồi, mà chẳng nhớ gì, ấy thế lại còn lầm ông với Kazin, tay này cũng bảnh lắm. Từ từ làm thịt cả hai, hà hà!

Trong cuốn “Moral Agents”, 8 nhà văn Mẽo tạo nên cái gọi là văn hóa Mẽo, Edward Mendelson gọi Lionel Trilling là nhà hiền giả (sage), Alfred Kazin, kẻ bên lề (outsider), W.H, Auden, người hàng xóm (neighbor)…

Bài của Coetzee về Walser, GCC mới đọc lại, không có tính essay nhiều, chỉ kể rông rài về đời Walser, nhưng mở ra bằng cái cảnh Walser trốn ra khỏi nhà thương, nằm chết trên hè đường, thật thê lương:

On Christmas Day, 1956, the police of the town of Herisau in eastern Switzerland were called out: children had stumbled upon the body of a man, frozen to death, in a snowy field. Arriving at the scene, the police took photographs and had the body removed.
The dead man was easily identified: Robert Walser, aged seventy-eight, missing from a local mental hospital. In his earlier years Walser had won something of a reputation, in Switzerland and even in Germany, as a writer. Some of his books were still in print; there had even been a biography of him published. During a quarter of a century in mental institutions, however, his own writing had dried up. Long country walks—like the one on which he had died—had been his main recreation.
The police photographs showed an old man in overcoat and boots lying sprawled in the snow, his eyes open, his jaw slack. These photographs have been widely (and shamelessly) reproduced in the critical literature on Walser that has burgeoned since the 1960s
Walser’s so-called madness, his lonely death, and the posthumously discovered cache of his secret writings were the pillars on which a legend of Walser as a scandalously neglected genius was erected. Even the sudden interest in Walser became part of the scandal. “I ask myself,” wrote the novelist Elias Canetti in 1973, “whether, among those who build their leisurely, secure, dead regular academic life on that of a writer who had lived in misery and despair, there is one who is ashamed of himself.”


Page-Turner



Robert Walser on Everything and Nothing

W. G. Sebald, in his essay “Le Promeneur Solitaire,” offers the following biographical information concerning the Swiss writer Robert Walser: “Nowhere was he able to settle, never did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions. He had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so…. He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written.” Sebald goes on to ask, “How is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows … who created humorous sketches from pure despair, who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself, whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke.”
It is one of those perverse ironies of history that this most delicate, self-effacing, and marginal of writers (his books were critically well received and admired by Kafka and Walter Benjamin, among others, but they did not sell), who as a young man enrolled in a school for servants and as an old one dropped dead on Christmas Day during one of his long, solitary walks in a snowy field near the mental hospital he had for more than twenty years been confined to, attracts more readers with every passing year. His completely original voice and sensibility—a blend of sharp and always surprising observation, free-floating digression, ambiguous irony, impishness, tenderness, curiosity, and detachment, all overhung with constant, circling doubt—remain stubbornly resistant to all but ersatz imitation.

As an antidote to the crassness of mainstream culture, Walser is, in fact, the perfect writer for our times, and since the nineteen-eighties he’s experienced a slow resuscitation. Most recently, New Directions and New York Review Books have alternated bringing out volumes of Walser’s work every couple of years, and readings, academic conferences, and celebrations have proliferated.
“Berlin Stories,” the most recent offering from NYRB, contains mostly new translations of early stories—selected and organized by Jochen Greven, Walser’s German editor, and elegantly translated by Susan Bernovsky—all of them set in the German capital, where Walser lived for seven years before returning permanently to Switzerland, in 1913, “a ridiculed and unsuccessful author” (his own assessment). Greven has broken up the stories into four “symphonic” parts—“The City Streets,” “The Theatre,” “Berlin Life,” “Looking Back”—but this feels arbitrary and counterintuitive even, for these meditative “prose pieces” (part story, part essay) are really the random, associative musings of the flâneur meandering through the city or pondering the puzzles of life in a dismal furnished room on the outskirts of town. A great part of their appeal resides in the ephemeral quality that Sebald speaks of.

walser.JPG
Walser made a couple of forays to Berlin but didn’t feel ready to make a more sustained leap until 1905, at the age of twenty-seven, after the publication of his first book, “Fritz Kochers Aufsätze,” which Benjamin Kunkel describes in his 2007 essay on Walser for the magazine as “a collection of essays on everything and nothing.”
The description applies to the present volume as well, as it does to a great deal of Walser’s work; again, therein lies the appeal. These stories, more than revealing the texture of Berlin life at the turn of the century, allow us a window into Walser’s states of mind and into the mechanics of his thought process (he wrote quickly and claimed he never corrected a single line of his writing). Whether he is observing an Abyssinian lion in the zoo, or complaining about pompous, self-important people, or thinking about a park, or observing a play, or assessing the character of the city street, it is always the quality of mind that holds us rapt.
Among the most compelling in the collection are a small cluster of stories at the end that are devoted to women (with whom Walser is said never to have been intimate; nor was he with men, apparently): “Frau Bähni,” “Horse and Woman,” “Frau Scheer,” “The Millionairess,” and above all the masterly “Frau Wilke” (translated here by Christopher Middleton), which shows a frank and unironic tenderness. It is about the relationship between a poor young poet and an older woman who lets him a furnished room and shortly afterward falls ill. The woman is completely alone, with nothing to eat, and no one to care for her. The narrator comes to realize that he is her only link to humankind. Very little happens. Then she dies:
One afternoon soon after her death, I entered her empty room, into which the good evening sun was shining, gladdening it with rose-bright, gay and soft colors. There I saw on the bed the things which the poor lady had till recently worn, her dress, her hat, her sunshade, and her umbrella, and, on the floor, her small delicate boots. The strange sight of them made me unspeakably sad, and my peculiar state of mind made it seem to me almost that I had died myself…. For a long time I looked at Frau Wilke’s possessions, which now had lost their mistress and lost all purpose, and at the golden room, glorified by the smile of the evening sun….
Yet, after standing there dumbly for a time, I was gratified and grew calm. Life took me by the shoulder and its wonderful gaze rested on mine. The world was as living as ever and beautiful as at the most beautiful time. I quietly left the room and went out into the street.
Photograph by Ullstein Bild/The Granger Collection.

‘A Place in the Country,’ by W. G. Sebald

Six loosely linked essays from the author “whose only homeland was on the page.”
Tác phẩm mới xb của W.G. Sebald: "Một Chỗ Trong Một Xứ Sở": Sáu tiểu luận nối kết lỏng lẻo, của một tác giả mà “quê hương chỉ có ở trên trang giấy”
He wrote in German, but was a “German writer” in the same way that Alfred Döblin, Hermann Broch and Stefan Zweig were “Jewish writers”: tragically and by accident.
Ông viết bằng tiếng Đức, nhưng là một “nhà văn Đức”, theo kiểu của những nhà văn Alfred Döblin, Hermann Broch and Stefan Zweig là “nhà văn Do Thái”: bi thảm và do tai nạn.
The book’s finest essay concerns its earliest figure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its opening resembles a Sebald novel, with the author hiking up the Schattenrain in September 1965, and glimpsing Île St. Pierre, which, Sebald notes, Rousseau had visited in September 1765, after having been forced out of Paris with the banning of his books “Émile” and “The Social Contract,” and exiled from Geneva in a campaign masterminded by a resentful Voltaire. Sebald combines an account of his sojourn with Rousseau’s, and of the philosopher’s subsequent travails — getting tossed out of Switzerland, and even his own grave: In 1794, Rousseau, dead for 16 years, is exhumed by revolutionists and entombed in the Panthéon, in a procession “led by a captain of the United States Navy bearing the banner of the stars and stripes and followed by two standard-bearers carrying the tricolore and the colors of the Republic of Geneva.”
Bài tiểu luận bảnh nhất thì lèm bèm về một khuôn mặt sớm sủa nhất của cuốn sách, J.J. Rousseau. Cú mở ra thì giống như của một cuốn tiểu thuyết của Sebald, với hình ảnh tác giả leo lên Schattenrain, September 1965, nhìn xuống hòn đảo Île St. Pierre. Như Sebald cho biết, Rousseau đã từng thăm viếng nơi này, sau khi bị tống ra khỏi Paris, cùng với việc sách của ông - “Émile” và “The Social Contract” - bị biếm, và sau đó là lưu vong, trong 1 chiến dịch “bỉ ổi”, cầm đầu bởi 1 Voltaire “bực bội”.

Sebald trộn cuộc viếng thăm của ông, với của Rousseau, và với 1 số tác phẩm của vị triết gia Tẩy này, bị truy bức bật ra khỏi Thụy Sĩ, và, bật ra khỏi ngôi mộ của chính mình: Vào năm 1794, Rousseau, chết đã được 16 năm, được các “biệt kích văn nghệ” mang danh những nhà “cách mạng”, đào ra khỏi mộ, mang cái xác vô Điện Chư Thần, trong 1 nghi lễ, dẫn đầu bởi 1 vị Đại Uý Hải Quân Mẽo [Mẽo nhe - dám xẩy ra, trong tương lai, biệt kích VC mang xác nhà thơ Mít chôn ở Mẽo, thí dụ, về Xứ Mít, như lần đưa vô Văn Miếu, mấy năm trước đây], mang băng rôn Cờ Sao Sọc, tiếp theo sau, là cờ tam tài của Tẩy, và cờ CH Geneva!



W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wer­tach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island. He wrote in German, but was a “German writer” in the same way that Alfred Döblin, Hermann Broch and Stefan Zweig were “Jewish writers”: tragically and by accident. As for what he called himself, he hated the name Winfried Georg, and responded only to “Max.” Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.
Sebald’s self-definition was the shadow subject of everything he wrote, but especially of his nonfiction, which, like his fiction, is measured, solemn, sardonic — with just a whisper of bibliography. “On the Natural History of Destruction” addresses the lack of German response to Allied aerial bombing. “Campo Santo” is composed of a travelogue to Corsica, and Sebald’s more scholarly work on peers like Peter Handke (written before Handke came out in defense of Slobodan Milosevic) and Günter Grass (written before Grass came out as having been a member of the Waffen SS). “A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last. It’s fitting that his English posterity ends at the beginning — with literary history, and with influence.
That history turns on the moment when Germany was reinventing nationalism — rather when “Germany” was still just a loose collocation of unaffiliated kingdoms, with disparate dialects and tendencies toward internecine violence. The standardization of language, of culture, was a patriotic imperative. With the confederation of Germany in 1815, German painters and composers were in demand, along with a national poet, a position allotted to Goethe. It was precisely this Romantic fervor that the Nazis sought to resurrect, and pervert: Schiller’s plays were staged more than 10,000 times under Hitler; Goethe’s favorite oak was a site of Nazi pilgrimage, despite it being within the perimeter of Buchenwald. Sebald’s Germany was West Germany — ravaged, its literature reconstituting itself through faux-revolutionary alliance and the academic avant-garde, both methods of denial. Meanwhile, in the East, it was socialist realism as usual, or prison.
None of this was satisfactory to Sebald: not the art — which seemed both dull and unstable — and certainly not the politics. Instead, he sought his muses in an alternate past, and at language’s furthest fringes: Adalbert Stifter (1805-68) from Oberplan, Bohemia, who extolled the apathy of nature; Gottfried Keller (1819-90) from Zurich, a chronicler of the modernizing provinces; Kafka, from Prague; Robert Walser, from Biel. The only thing these writers had in common, other than that they were writing from outside the centers of literary power, was Sebald — for whom “minor” was an epithet of praise, and “marginal” a verdict on one’s soul.
Long-form describers of hamlets and trees, and short-form introverted mystics — to Sebald they represented the hearthside regionalism the Nazis homogenized, and the urban urgency they obliterated. All four of his novels bear the marks of these influences, in images and even lines lifted verbatim: parts of Stifter’s story “Der Condor” appear in “The Rings of Saturn,” and of Walser’s short story “Kleist in Thun” in “Vertigo,” unacknowledged. But then Sebald also borrowed from the living, especially from the biographies of émigrés: the poet and translator Michael Hamburger has a cameo in “The Rings of Saturn.”
None of this was plagiarism, or even allusion. This was Sebald proposing a self whose only homeland was the page: Existence beyond the bindings was too compromising. This principle corresponds to the photographs Sebald included in his novels, black-and-white portraits he’d purchased from antique markets; in “Austerlitz,” that boy in the cape holding the plumed tricorn is not Jacques Austerlitz — it can’t be: Jacques Austerlitz is fictional — and yet it is more Jacques Austerlitz than the boy it actually depicts, who remains unknown to the reader (and who remained unknown even to Sebald, who, according to James Wood, paid 30 pence for the photo).
“A Place in the Country” extends Sebald’s canon deeper into the past, and into the Alemannic (which the translator Jo Catling defines as the region comprising southwest Germany, northwest Switzerland and Alsace). An essay on the Swiss polymath Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) focuses on the almanac as a literary form, whose regulation by the seasons and lunar phases was intended to instill equivalent moral structure in its readers: “Nowhere do I find the idea of a world in perfect equilibrium more vividly expressed than in what Hebel writes about the cultivation of fruit trees, of the flowering of the wheat, of a bird’s nest, or of the different kinds of rain,” Sebald writes. An essay on the Swabian German poet Eduard Mörike (1804-75) considers the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the supposedly staid Biedermeier period, whose emphasis on domesticity and industry fostered a literature preoccupied with “fear of bankruptcy, ruin, disgrace and déclassement.” Mörike finds himself unable to write, unable to escape his family, and he is plagued by fainting spells and impotence; to Sebald these are “responses to the increasing consolidation of power in Germany,” and “the spiritual effects of a society increasingly determined by a work ethic and the spirit of competition.” The bourgeois theme continues in the essay on Keller, whose work, in Sebald’s interpretation, rebelled against capitalism through its concern for the antique; to care for old clocks and wax curios was a political gesture. The hypnotic essay on Walser shows the bourgeois in decline. Here we have the scion of a formerly secure family trying to become a successful writer, and failing by becoming a genius, though unrecognized and deranged. He languishes for the rest of his life in a Swiss asylum. The essay is framed by snapshots of two elderly men: Walser and Sebald’s own grandfather, or so it seems, both of whom died in 1956. Their doubling must be understood not as supernatural, but as the trauma of a shared “Trauerlaufbahn,” a “career in mourning,” a word Sebald thought he had coined, until he came across it in Walser’s novel “The Robber.”
The book’s finest essay concerns its earliest figure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its opening resembles a Sebald novel, with the author hiking up the Schattenrain in September 1965, and glimpsing Île St. Pierre, which, Sebald notes, Rousseau had visited in September 1765, after having been forced out of Paris with the banning of his books “Émile” and “The Social Contract,” and exiled from Geneva in a campaign masterminded by a resentful Voltaire. Sebald combines an account of his sojourn with Rousseau’s, and of the philosopher’s subsequent travails — getting tossed out of Switzerland, and even his own grave: In 1794, Rousseau, dead for 16 years, is exhumed by revolutionists and entombed in the Panthéon, in a procession “led by a captain of the United States Navy bearing the banner of the stars and stripes and followed by two standard-bearers carrying the tricolore and the colors of the Republic of Geneva.”
W. G. “Max” Sebald is still buried near Norfolk. His books, which he made out of classics, remain classics for now.
A PLACE IN THE COUNTRY
By W. G. Sebald
Translated by Jo Catling
208 pp. Random House. $26.

Sunday Book Review
Points of Departure
‘A Place in the Country,’ by W. G. Sebald
By JOSHUA COHENMARCH 21, 2014
W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wer¬tach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island. He wrote in German, but was a “German writer” in the same way that Alfred Döblin, Hermann Broch and Stefan Zweig were “Jewish writers”: tragically and by accident. As for what he called himself, he hated the name Winfried Georg, and responded only to “Max.” Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.
Sebald’s self-definition was the shadow subject of everything he wrote, but especially of his nonfiction, which, like his fiction, is measured, solemn, sardonic — with just a whisper of bibliography. “On the Natural History of Destruction” addresses the lack of German response to Allied aerial bombing. “Campo Santo” is composed of a travelogue to Corsica, and Sebald’s more scholarly work on peers like Peter Handke (written before Handke came out in defense of Slobodan Milosevic) and Günter Grass (written before Grass came out as having been a member of the Waffen SS). “A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last. It’s fitting that his English posterity ends at the beginning — with literary history, and with influence.
That history turns on the moment when Germany was reinventing nationalism — rather when “Germany” was still just a loose collocation of unaffiliated kingdoms, with disparate dialects and tendencies toward internecine violence. The standardization of language, of culture, was a patriotic imperative. With the confederation of Germany in 1815, German painters and composers were in demand, along with a national poet, a position allotted to Goethe. It was precisely this Romantic fervor that the Nazis sought to resurrect, and pervert: Schiller’s plays were staged more than 10,000 times under Hitler; Goethe’s favorite oak was a site of Nazi pilgrimage, despite it being within the perimeter of Buchenwald. Sebald’s Germany was West Germany — ravaged, its literature reconstituting itself through faux-revolutionary alliance and the academic avant-garde, both methods of denial. Meanwhile, in the East, it was socialist realism as usual, or prison.
None of this was satisfactory to Sebald: not the art — which seemed both dull and unstable — and certainly not the politics. Instead, he sought his muses in an alternate past, and at language’s furthest fringes: Adalbert Stifter (1805-68) from Oberplan, Bohemia, who extolled the apathy of nature; Gottfried Keller (1819-90) from Zurich, a chronicler of the modernizing provinces; Kafka, from Prague; Robert Walser, from Biel. The only thing these writers had in common, other than that they were writing from outside the centers of literary power, was Sebald — for whom “minor” was an epithet of praise, and “marginal” a verdict on one’s soul.
s, and short-form introverted mystics — to Sebald they represented the hearthside regionalism the Nazis homogenized, and the urban urgency they obliterated. All four of his novels bear the marks of these influences, in images and even lines lifted verbatim: parts of Stifter’s story “Der Condor” appear in “The Rings of Saturn,” and of Walser’s short story “Kleist in Thun” in “Vertigo,” unacknowledged. But then Sebald also borrowed from the living, especially from the biographies of émigrés: the poet and translator Michael Hamburger has a cameo in “The Rings of Saturn.”
None of this was plagiarism, or even allusion. This was Sebald proposing a self whose only homeland was the page: Existence beyond the bindings was too compromising. This principle corresponds to the photographs Sebald included in his novels, black-and-white portraits he’d purchased from antique markets; in “Austerlitz,” that boy in the cape holding the plumed tricorn is not Jacques Austerlitz — it can’t be: Jacques Austerlitz is fictional — and yet it is more Jacques Austerlitz than the boy it actually depicts, who remains unknown to the reader (and who remained unknown even to Sebald, who, according to James Wood, paid 30 pence for the photo).
“A Place in the Country” extends Sebald’s canon deeper into the past, and into the Alemannic (which the translator Jo Catling defines as the region comprising southwest Germany, northwest Switzerland and Alsace). An essay on the Swiss polymath Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) focuses on the almanac as a literary form, whose regulation by the seasons and lunar phases was intended to instill equivalent moral structure in its readers: “Nowhere do I find the idea of a world in perfect equilibrium more vividly expressed than in what Hebel writes about the cultivation of fruit trees, of the flowering of the wheat, of a bird’s nest, or of the different kinds of rain,” Sebald writes. An essay on the Swabian German poet Eduard Mörike (1804-75) considers the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the supposedly staid Biedermeier period, whose emphasis on domesticity and industry fostered a literature preoccupied with “fear of bankruptcy, ruin, disgrace and déclassement.” Mörike finds himself unable to write, unable to escape his family, and he is plagued by fainting spells and impotence; to Sebald these are “responses to the increasing consolidation of power in Germany,” and “the spiritual effects of a society increasingly determined by a work ethic and the spirit of competition.” The bourgeois theme continues in the essay on Keller, whose work, in Sebald’s interpretation, rebelled against capitalism through its concern for the antique; to care for old clocks and wax curios was a political gesture. The hypnotic essay on Walser shows the bourgeois in decline. Here we have the scion of a formerly secure family trying to become a successful writer, and failing by becoming a genius, though unrecognized and deranged. He languishes for the rest of his life in a Swiss asylum. The essay is framed by snapshots of two elderly men: Walser and Sebald’s own grandfather, or so it seems, both of whom died in 1956. Their doubling must be understood not as supernatural, but as the trauma of a shared “Trauerlaufbahn,” a “career in mourning,” a word Sebald thought he had coined, until he came across it in Walser’s novel “The Robber.”
The book’s finest essay concerns its earliest figure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its opening resembles a Sebald novel, with the author hiking up the Schattenrain in September 1965, and glimpsing Île St. Pierre, which, Sebald notes, Rousseau had visited in September 1765, after having been forced out of Paris with the banning of his books “Émile” and “The Social Contract,” and exiled from Geneva in a campaign masterminded by a resentful Voltaire. Sebald combines an account of his sojourn with Rousseau’s, and of the philosopher’s subsequent travails — getting tossed out of Switzerland, and even his own grave: In 1794, Rousseau, dead for 16 years, is exhumed by revolutionists and entombed in the Panthéon, in a procession “led by a captain of the United States Navy bearing the banner of the stars and stripes and followed by two standard-bearers carrying the tricolore and the colors of the Republic of Geneva.”
W. G. “Max” Sebald is still buried in Norfolk. His books, which he made out of classics, remain classics for now.
A PLACE IN THE COUNTRY
By W. G. Sebald
Translated by Jo Catling
208 pp. Random House. $26.
Correction: April 13, 2014
Because of an editing error, a review on March 23 about “A Place in the Country,” a collection of non-fiction writings by W. G. Sebald , referred incorrectly to Sebald’s burial place. It is in the English county of Norfolk, not “near” it.
Joshua Cohen’s next novel, “Book of Numbers,” will be published in 2015.


EBRUARY 6, 2014
Le Promeneur Solitaire: W. G. Sebald on Robert Walser
http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/le-promeneur-solitaire-w-g-sebald-on-robert-walser

BY THE NEW YORKER
SHARETWEET

This essay is adapted from a chapter of “A Place in the Country,” a collection of essays by W. G. Sebald (1944-2001), translated from the German by Jo Catling, which comes out next week from Random House. In these linked essays, Sebald takes up the troubled lives of five writers and one painter with the delicacy, intensity, and tone of sombre mystery for which he was known.

The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether. Later, after his return to Switzerland in the spring of 1913, but in truth from the very beginning, he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways. Nowhere was he able to settle, never did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions. He had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so. Even among the tools a writer needs to carry out his craft were almost none he could call his own. He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written. What he read was for the most part borrowed. Even the paper he used for writing was secondhand. And just as throughout his life he was almost entirely devoid of material possessions, so, too, was he remote from other people. He became more and more distant from even the siblings originally closest to him—the painter Karl and the beautiful schoolteacher Lisa—until in the end, as Martin Walser said of him, he was the most unattached of all solitary poets.

For him, evidently, coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility. The chambermaids in the Hotel zum Blauen Kreuz, whom he used to watch through a peephole he had had bored in the wall of his attic lodgings; the serving girls in Berne; Fräulein Resy Breitbach in the Rhineland, with whom he maintained a lengthy correspondence—all of them were, like the ladies he reveres so longingly in his literary fantasias, beings from a distant star.

At a time when large families were still the norm—Walser’s father, Adolf, came from a family of fifteen—strangely enough, none of the eight siblings in the next generation of Walsers brought a child into the world; and of all this last generation of Walsers, dying out together, as it were, none was perhaps less suited to fulfill the prerequisites for successful procreation than Robert, who, as one may say in his case with some fittingness, retained his virginal innocence all his life. His death—the death of one who, inevitably rendered even more anonymous after the long years in an institution, was in the end connected to almost nothing and nobody—might easily have passed as unnoticed as, for a long time, had his life. That Walser is not today among the forgotten writers we owe primarily to the fact that Carl Seelig took up his cause. Without Seelig’s accounts of the walks he took with Walser, without his preliminary work on the biography, without the selections from the work he published and the lengths he went to in securing the Nachlaß—the writer’s millions of illegible ciphers—Walser’s rehabilitation could never have taken place, and his memory would in all probability have faded into oblivion.

Nonetheless, the fame which has accrued around Walser since his posthumous redemption cannot be compared with that of, say, Benjamin or Kafka. Now, as then, Walser remains a singular, enigmatic figure. He refused by and large to reveal himself to his readers. It is odd, too, how sparsely furnished with detail is what we know of the story of his life. We know that his childhood was overshadowed by his mother’s melancholia and by the decline of his father’s business year after year; that he wanted to train as an actor; that he did not last long in any of his positions as a clerk; and that he spent the years from 1905 to 1913 in Berlin. But what he may have been doing there apart from writing—which at the time came easily to him—about that we have no idea at all.

External events, such as the outbreak of the First World War, appear to affect him hardly at all. The only certain thing is that he writes incessantly, with an ever increasing degree of effort; even when the demand for his pieces slows down, he writes on, day after day, right up to the pain threshold and often, so I imagine, a fair way beyond it. When he can no longer go on we see him in the Waldau clinic, doing a bit of work in the garden or playing a game of billiards against himself, and finally we see him in the asylum in Herisau, scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen, sorting scraps of tinfoil, reading a novel by Friedrich Gerstäcker or Jules Verne, and sometimes, as Robert Mächler relates, just standing stiffly in a corner. So far apart are the scenes of Walser’s life which have come down to us that one cannot really speak of a story or of a biography at all, but rather, or so it seems to me, of a legend.

How is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows and who, none the less, illumined every page with the most genial light, an author who created humorous sketches from pure despair, who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself, to whom his own thoughts, honed on the tiniest details, became incomprehensible, who had his feet firmly on the ground yet was always getting lost in the clouds, whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which it spoke. Was it a lady named Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fräulein Elsa or Fräulein Edith, a steward, a servant, or Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, a conflagration in the theater or an ovation, the Battle of Sempach, a slap in the face or the return of the Prodigal, a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocketwatch or a pebble? Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air. The very passage which a moment before seemed so significant can suddenly appear quite unremarkable.

Despite such difficulties, however, which seem designed to foil the plans of anyone intent on categorization, much has been written about Robert Walser. Most of it, admittedly, is of a rather impressionistic or marginal nature, or can be regarded as an act of hommage on the part of his admirers. Nor are the remarks which follow any exception, for since my first encounter with Walser I, too, have only ever been able to read him in an unsystematic fashion.

Beginning now here and now there, for years I have been roaming around, now in the novels, now in the realms of the Bleistiftgebiet [Pencil Regions], and whenever I resume my intermittent reading of Walser’s writings, so, too, I always look again at the photographs we have of him, seven very different faces, stations in a life which hint at the silent catastrophe that has taken place between each. The pictures I am most familiar with are those from his time in Herisau, showing Walser on one of his long walks, for there is something in the way that the poet, long since retired from the service of the pen, stands there in the landscape that reminds me instinctively of my grandfather, Josef Egelhofer, with whom as a child I often used to go for walks for hours at a time during those very same years, in a region which is in many ways similar to that of Appenzell. When I look at these pictures of him on his walks, the cloth of Walser’s three-piece suit, the soft collar, the tiepin, the liver spots on the back of his hands, his neat salt-and-pepper moustache and the quiet expression in his eyes—each time, I think I see my grandfather before me. Yet it was not only in their appearance that my grandfather and Walser resembled each other, but also in their general bearing, something about the way each had of holding his hat in his hand, and the way that, even in the finest weather, they would always carry an umbrella or a raincoat. For a long time I even imagined that my grandfather shared with Walser the habit of leaving the top button of his waistcoat undone. Whether or not that was actually the case, it is a fact that both died in the same year, 1956—Walser, as is well known, on a walk he took on the twenty-fifth of December, and my grandfather on the fourteenth of April, the night before Walser’s last birthday, when it snowed once more even though spring was already under way. Perhaps that is the reason why now, when I think back to my grandfather’s death—to which I have never been able to reconcile myself—in my mind’s eye I always see him lying on the horn sledge on which Walser’s body, after he had been found in the snow and photographed, was taken back to the asylum.

W-G-sebald.jpg
What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps and coincidences? Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension? Carl Seelig relates that once, on a walk with Robert Walser, he had mentioned Paul Klee—they were just on the outskirts of the hamlet of Balgach—and scarcely had he uttered the name than he caught sight, as they entered the village, of a sign in an empty shop window bearing the words Paul Klee—Carver of Wooden Candlesticks. Seelig does not attempt to offer an explanation for the strange coincidence. He merely registers it, perhaps because it is precisely the most extraordinary things which are the most easily forgotten. And so I, too, will just set down without comment what happened to me recently while reading the novel Der Räuber [The Robber], the only one of Walser’s longer works with which I was at the time still unfamiliar.

Quite near the beginning of the book the narrator states that the Robber crossed Lake Constance by moonlight. Exactly thus—by moonlight—is how, in one of my own stories, Aunt Fini imagines the young Ambros crossing the selfsame lake, although, as she makes a point of saying, this can scarcely have been the case in reality. Barely two pages farther on, the same story relates how, later, Ambros, while working as a room service waiter at the Savoy in London, made the acquaintance of a lady from Shanghai, about whom, however, Aunt Fini knows only that she had a taste for brown kid gloves and that, as Ambros once noted, she marked the beginning of his Trauerlaufbahn [career in mourning]. It is a similarly mysterious woman clad all in brown, and referred to by the narrator as the Henri Rousseau woman, whom the Robber meets, two pages on from the moonlit scene on Lake Constance, in a pale November wood—and nor is that all: a little later in the text, I know not from what depths, there appears the word Trauerlaufbahn, a term which I believed, when I wrote it down at the end of the Savoy episode, to be an invention entirely my own. I have always tried, in my own works, to mark my respect for those writers with whom I felt an affinity, to raise my hat to them, so to speak, by borrowing an attractive image or a few expressions, but it is one thing to set a marker in memory of a departed colleague, and quite another when one has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side.

Who and what Robert Walser really was is a question to which, despite my strangely close relationship with him, I am unable to give any reliable answer. The seven photographic portraits of him, as I have said, show very different people: a youth filled with a quiet sensuality; a young man hiding his anxieties as he prepares to make his way in bourgeois society; the heroic-looking writer of brooding aspect in Berlin; a thirty-seven-year-old with pale, watery-clear eyes; the Robber, smoking and dangerous-looking; a broken man; and finally the asylum inmate, completely destroyed and at the same time saved. What is striking about these portraits is not only how much they differ from each other, but also the palpable incongruity inherent in each—a feature which, I conjecture, stems at least in part from the contradiction between Walser’s native Swiss reserve and utter lack of conceit, and the anarchic, bohemian, and dandyesque tendencies he displayed at the beginning of his career, and which he later hid, as far as possible, behind a façade of solid respectability. He himself relates how one Sunday he walked from Thun to Berne wearing a “louche pale-yellow summer suit and dancing pumps” and on his head a “deliberately dissolute, daring, ridiculous hat.” Sporting a cane, in Munich he promenades through the Englischer Garten to visit Wedekind, who shows a lively interest in his loud check suit—quite a compliment, considering the extravagant fashions in vogue among the Schwabinger bohème at the time.

He describes the walking outfit he wore on the long trek to Würzburg as having a “certain southern Italian appearance. It was a sort or species of suit in which I could have been seen to advantage in Naples. In reasonable, moderate Germany, however, it seemed to arouse more suspicion than confidence, more repulsion than attraction. How daring and fantastical I was at twenty-three!” A fondness for conspicuous costume and the dangers of indigence often go hand in hand.

Walser must at the time have hoped, through writing, to be able to escape the shadows which lay over his life from the beginning, and whose lengthening he anticipates at an early age, transforming them on the page from something very dense to something almost weightless. His ideal was to overcome the force of gravity. This is why he had no time for the grandiose tones in which the “dilettantes of the extreme left,” as he calls them, were in those days proclaiming the revolution in art. He is no Expressionist visionary prophesying the end of the world, but rather a clairvoyant of the small. From his earliest attempts on, his natural inclination is for the most radical minimization and brevity, in other words the possibility of setting down a story in one fell swoop, without any deviation or hesitation.


The playful—and sometimes obsessive—working in with a fine brush of the most abstruse details is one of the most striking characteristics of Walser’s idiom. The word-eddies and turbulence created in the middle of a sentence by exaggerated participial constructions, or conglomerations of verbs such as haben helfen dürfen zu verhindern [have been able to help to prevent]; neologisms, such as for example das Manschettelige [cuffishness] or das Angstmeierliche [chicken-heartedness], which scuttle away under our gaze like millipedes; the “night-bird shyness, a flying-over-the-seas-in-the-dark, a soft inner whimpering” which, in a bold flight of metaphor, the narrator of The Robber claims hovers above one of Dürer’s female figures; deliberate curiosities such as the sofa “squeaching” [“gyxelnd”] under the charming weight of a seductive lady; the regionalisms, redolent of things long fallen into disuse; the almost manic loquaciousness—these are all elements in the painstaking process of elaboration Walser indulges in, out of a fear of reaching the end too quickly if—as is his inclination—he were to set down nothing but a beautifully curved line with no distracting branches or blossoms.

Indeed, the detour is, for Walser, a matter of survival. “These detours I’m making serve the end of filling time, for I really must pull of a book of considerable length, otherwise I’ll be even more deeply despised than I am now.” On the other hand, however, it is precisely these linguistic montages—emerging as they do from the detours and digressions of narrative and, especially, of form—which are most at odds with the demands of high culture. Their associations with nonsense poetry and the word salad symptomatic of schizophasia were never likely to increase the market value of their author.

As the fantastical elements in Walser’s prose works increase, so, too, their realistic content dwindles—or, rather, reality rushes past unstoppably as in a dream, or in the cinema. Things are always quickly dissolving and being replaced by the next in Walser. His scenes last only for the blink of an eye, and even the human figures in his work enjoy only the briefest of lives. Hundreds of them inhabit the Bleistiftgebiet alone—dancers and singers, tragedians and comedians, barmaids and private tutors, principals and procurers, Nubians and Muscovites, hired hands and millionaires, Aunts Roka and Moka and a whole host of other walk-on parts. As they make their entrance they have a marvelous presence, but as soon as one tries to look at them more closely they have already vanished. It always seems to me as if, like actors in the earliest films, they are surrounded by a trembling, shimmering aura which makes their contours unrecognizable. They flit through Walser’s fragmentary stories and embryonic novels as people in dreams flit through our heads at night, never stopping to register, departing the moment they have arrived, never to be seen again.

Walter Benjamin is the only one among the commentators who attempts to pin down the anonymous, evanescent quality of Walser’s characters. They come, he says, “from insanity and nowhere else. They are figures who have left madness behind them, and this is why they are marked by such a consistently heartrending, inhuman superficiality. If we were to attempt to sum up in a single phrase the delightful yet also uncanny element in them, we would have to say: they have all been healed.” Nabokov surely had something similar in mind when he said of the fickle souls who roam Nikolai Gogol’s books that here we have to do with a tribe of harmless madmen, who will not be prevented by anything in the world from plowing their own eccentric furrow. The comparison with Gogol is by no means far-fetched, for if Walser had any literary relative or predecessor, then it was Gogol. Both of them gradually lost the ability to keep their eye on the center of the plot, losing themselves instead in the almost compulsive contemplation of strangely unreal creations appearing on the periphery of their vision, and about whose previous and future fate we never learn even the slightest thing.


Homelessness is another thing Walser and Gogol have in common—the awful provisionality of their respective existences, the prismatic mood swings, the sense of panic, the wonderfully capricious humor steeped at the same time in blackest heartache, the endless scraps of paper, and, of course, the invention of a whole populace of lost souls, a ceaseless masquerade for the purpose of autobiographical mystification. Just as at the end of the spectral story The Overcoat there is scarcely anything left of the scribe Akakiy Akakievich because, as Nabokov points out, he no longer quite knows if he is in the middle of the street or in the middle of a sentence, so, too, in the end it becomes almost impossible to make out Gogol and Walser among the legions of their characters, not to mention against the dark horizon of their looming illness. It is through writing that they achieved this depersonalization, through writing that they cut themselves of from the past. Their ideal state is that of pure amnesia.

Benjamin noted that the point of every one of Walser’s sentences is to make the reader forget the previous one, and indeed after The Tanners—which is still a family memoir—the stream of memory slows to a trickle and peters out in a sea of oblivion. For this reason it is particularly memorable, and touching, when once in a while, in some context or another, Walser raises his eyes from the page, looks back into the past, and imparts to his reader—for example—that one evening years ago he was caught in a snowstorm on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin and how the vividness of the memory has stayed with him ever since. Nor are Walser’s emotions any less erratic than these remembered images. For the most part they are carefully concealed, or, if they do emerge, are soon turned into something faintly ridiculous, or at least made light of. In the prose sketch devoted to Brentano, Walser asks: “Can a person whose feelings are so many and so lovely be at the same time so unfeeling?” The answer might have been that in life, as in fairy tales, there are those who, out of fear and poverty, cannot afford emotions, and who therefore, like Walser in one of his most poignant prose pieces, have to try out their seemingly atrophied ability to love on inanimate substances and objects unheeded by anyone else—such as ash, a needle, a pencil, or a matchstick. Yet the way in which Walser then breathes life into them, in an act of complete assimilation and empathy, reveals how in the end emotions are perhaps most deeply felt when applied to the most insignificant things.

“Indeed,” Walser writes about ash, “if one goes into this apparently uninteresting subject in any depth there is quite a lot to be said about it which is not at all uninteresting; if, for example, one blows on ash it displays not the least reluctance to fly of instantly in all directions. Ash is submissiveness, worthlessness, irrelevance itself, and best of all, it is itself pervaded by the belief that it is fit for nothing. Is it possible to be more helpless, more impotent, and more wretched than ash? Not very easily. Could anything be more compliant and more tolerant? Hardly. Ash has no notion of character and is further from any kind of wood than dejection is from exhilaration. Where there is ash there is actually nothing at all. Tread on ash, and you will barely notice that you have stepped on anything.“ The intense pathos of this passage—there is nothing which comes near it in the whole of twentieth-century German literature, not even in Kafka—lies in the fact that here, in this apparently casual treatise on ash, needle, pencil, and matchstick, the author is in truth writing about his own martyrdom, for these four objects are not randomly strung together but are the writer’s own instruments of torture, or at any rate those which he needs in order to stage his own personal auto-da-fé—and what remains once the fire has died down.

Indeed, by the middle of his life writing had become a wearisome business for Walser. Year by year the unremitting composition of his literary pieces becomes harder and harder for him. It is a kind of penance he is serving up there in his attic room in the Hotel zum Blauen Kreuz, where, by his own account, he spends ten to thirteen hours at a stretch at his desk every day, in winter wearing his army greatcoat and the slippers he has fashioned himself from leftover scraps of material. He talks in terms of a writer’s prison, a dungeon, or an attic cell, and of the danger of losing one’s reason under the relentless strain of composition. There are several reasons—apart from the chains which, in the main, double-bind writers to their métier—why, despite these insights, Walser did not give up writing earlier: chief among them perhaps the fear of déclassement and, in the most extreme case in which he almost found himself, of being reduced to handouts, fears which haunted him all the more since his father’s financial ruin had rendered his childhood and youth deeply insecure. It is not so much poverty itself Walser fears, however, as the ignominy of going down in the world.


And then there is the fact that writers, in common with all those to whom a higher office is entrusted as it were by the grace of God, cannot simply retire when the mood takes them; even today they are expected to keep writing until the pen drops from their hand. Not only that: people believe they are entitled to expect that, as Walser writes to Otto Pick, “every year they will bring to the light of day some new one hundred percent proof item.” To bring such pieces of “one hundred percent proof”—in the sense of a sensational major new work—to the cultural marketplace was something which Walser, at least since his return to Switzerland, was no longer in a fit state to do—if indeed he ever had been. At least part of him perceived himself, in his time in Biel or Berne, as a hired hand and as nothing more than a degraded literary haberdasher. The courage, however, with which he defended this last embattled position and came to terms with “the disappointments, reprimands in the press, the boos and hisses, the silencing even unto the grave” was almost unprecedented. That in the end he was still forced to capitulate was due not only to the exhaustion of his own inner resources, but also to the catastrophic changes—even more rapid in the second half of the 1920s—in the cultural and intellectual climate.

There can be no doubt that had Walser persevered for a few more years he would, by the spring of 1933 at the latest, have found the last possible opportunities for publication in the German Reich closed off to him. To that extent, he was quite correct in the remarks he made to Carl Seelig that his world had been destroyed by the Nazis. In his 1908 critical review of Der Gehülfe [The Assistant], Josef Hofmiller contrasts the alleged insubstantiality of the novel with the more solid earthiness of the autochthonous Swiss writers Johannes Jegerlehner, Josef Reinhart, Alfred Huggen-berger, Otto von Greyerz, and Ernst Zahn—whose ideological slant may, I make so bold as to claim, be readily discerned from the ingrained rootedness of their names. Of one such Heimat poet, a certain Hans von Mühlenstein, Walser writes in the mid-twenties to Resy Breitbach that he—like Walser himself originally from Biel—after a brief marriage to an imposing lady from Munich has now settled in Graubünden, where he is an active member of the association for the dissemination of the new spirit of the age and has married a country woman “who orders him first thing in the morning to bring in a cartload of greens from the field before breakfast. He wears a blue linen smock, with coarse trousers of a rustic stuff, and is exceedingly contented.” The contempt for nationalistic and Heimat poets which this passage reveals is a clear indication that Walser knew exactly what ill hour had struck and why there was no longer any call for his works, either in Germany or at home in Switzerland.

Against this background, Walser’s legendary “pencil system” takes on the aspect of preparation for a life underground. In the “microscripts” can be seen—as an ingenious method of continuing to write—the coded messages of one forced into illegitimacy, and documents of a genuine “inner emigration.” Certainly Walser was primarily concerned with overcoming his inhibitions about writing by means of the less definitive “pencil method”; and it is equally certain that unconsciously, as Werner Morlang notes, he was seeking to hide, behind the indecipherable characters, “from both public and internalized instances of evaluation,” to duck down below the level of language and to obliterate himself. But his system of pencil notes on scraps of paper is also a work of fortifications and defenses, unique in the history of literature, by means of which the smallest and most innocent things might be saved from destruction in the “great times” then looming on the horizon.

At any rate I am unable to reassure myself with the view that the intricate texts of the Bleistiftgebiet reflect, in either their appearance or their content, the history of Robert Walser’s progressive mental deterioration. I recognize, of course, that their peculiar preoccupation with form, the extreme compulsion to rhyme, say, or the way that their length is determined by the exact dimensions of the space available on a scrap of paper, exhibit certain characteristics of pathological writing: an encephalogram, as it were, of someone compelled—as it says in The Robber—to be thinking constantly of something somehow very far distant; but they do not appear to me to be evidence of a psychotic state. On the contrary, Der Räuber is Walser’s most rational and most daring work, a self-portrait and self-examination of absolute integrity, in which both the compiler of the medical history and his subject occupy the position of the author.


Accordingly, the narrator—who is at once friend, attorney, warden, guardian, and guardian angel of the vulnerable, almost broken hero—sets out his case from a certain ironic distance, even perhaps, as he notes on one occasion, with the complacency of a critic. On the other hand he repeatedly rises to the occasion with impassioned pleas on behalf of his client, such as in the following appeal to the public: “Don’t persist in reading nothing but healthy books, acquaint yourselves also with so-called pathological literature, from which you may derive considerable edification. Healthy people should always, so to speak, take certain risks. For what other reason, blast and confound it, is a person healthy? Simply in order to stop living one day at the height of one’s health? A damned bleak fate.… I know now more than ever that intellectual circles are filled with philistinism. I mean moral and aesthetic chicken-heartedness. Timidity, though, is unhealthy. One day, while out for a swim, the Robber very nearly met a watery end.… One year later, that dairy school student drowned in the very same river. So the Robber knows from experience what it’s like to have water nymphs hauling one down by the legs.’ The passion with which the advocate Walser takes up the cause on his client’s behalf draws its energy from the threat of annihilation.

If ever a book was written from the outermost brink, it is this one. Faced with the imminent end, Walser works imperturbably on, often even with a kind of wry amusement, and—apart from a few eccentricities which he permits himself for the fun of it—with an unerringly steady hand. “Never before, in all my years at my desk, have I sat down to write so boldly, so intrepidly,” the narrator tells us at the beginning. In fact, the unforced way in which he manages the not inconsiderable structural difficulties and the constant switches of mood between the deepest distraction and a lightheartedness which can only be properly described by the word allegría, testifies to a supreme degree of both aesthetic and moral assurance. It is true, too, that in this posthumous novel—already written, so to speak, from the other side—Walser accrues insights into his own particular state of mind and the nature of mental disturbance as such, the likes of which, so far as I can see, are to be found nowhere else in literature.

With incomparable sangfroid he sets down an account of the probable origins of his suffering in an upbringing which consisted almost exclusively of small acts of neglect; of how, as a man of fifty, he still feels the child or little boy inside him; of the girl he would like to have been; the satisfaction he derives from wearing an apron; the fetishistic tendencies of the spoon caresser; of paranoia, the feeling of being surrounded and hemmed in; the sense, reminiscent of Josef K. in The Trial, that being observed made him interesting; and of the dangers of idiocy arising, as he actually writes, from sexual atrophy. With seismographic precision he registers the slightest tremors at the edges of his consciousness, records rejections and ripples in his thoughts and emotions of which the science of psychiatry even today scarcely allows itself to dream.

Walser is not interested in the obscurantism either of the medicine men or of the other curators of the soul. What matters to him, as to any other writer in full possession of his faculties, is the greatest possible degree of lucidity, and I can imagine how, while writing Der Räuber, it must have occurred to him on more than one occasion that the looming threat of impending darkness enabled him at times to arrive at an acuity of observation and precision of formulation which is unattainable from a state of perfect health.

The Robber, whose whole disposition was that of a liberal freethinker and republican, also became soul-sick on account of the looming clouds darkening the political horizon. The exact diagnosis of his illness is of little relevance. It is enough for us to understand that, in the end, Walser simply could not go on, and, like Hölderlin, had to resort to keeping people at arm’s length with a sort of anarchic politeness, becoming refractory and abusive, making scenes in public and believing that the bourgeois city of Berne, of all places, was a city of ghostly gesticulators, executing rapid hand movements directly in front of his face expressly in order to discombobulate him and to dismiss him out of hand as one who simply does not count.

During his years in Berne, Walser was almost completely isolated. The contempt was, as he feared, universal. Among the few who still concerned themselves with him was the schoolteacher (and poet) Emil Schibli, with whom he stayed for a few days in 1927. In a description of his meeting with Walser published in the Seeländer Volksstimme, Schibli claims to have recognized, in this lonely poet in the guise of a tramp and suffering from profound isolation, a king in hiding “whom posterity will call, if not one of the great, then one of rare purity.” While Walser was no stranger to the evangelical desire to possess nothing and to give away everything one owns—as in The Robber —he made no claim to any kind of messianic calling. It was enough for him to call himself—with bitterly resigned irony—at least the ninth-best writer in the Helvetic Federation. We, though, can grant Walser the honorific title with which he endows the Robber and to which in fact he himself is entitled, namely the son of a first secretary to the canton.

The first prose work I read by Robert Walser was his piece on Kleist in Thun, where he talks of the torment of one despairing of himself and his craft, and of the intoxicating beauty of the surrounding landscape. “Kleist sits on a churchyard wall. Every-thing is damp, yet also sultry. He opens his shirt, to breathe freely. Below him lies the lake, as if it had been hurled down by the great hand of a god, incandescent with shades of yellow and red.… The Alps have come to life and dip with fabulous gestures their foreheads in the water.’ Time and again I have immersed myself in the few pages of this story and, taking it as a starting point, have undertaken now shorter, now longer excursions into the rest of Walser’s work. Among my early encounters with Walser I count the discovery I made, in an antiquarian bookshop in Manchester in the second half of the 1960s—inserted in a copy of Bächtold’s three-volume biography of Gottfried Keller which had almost certainly belonged to a German-Jewish refugee—of an attractive sepia photograph depicting the house on the island in the Aare, completely surrounded by shrubs and trees, in which Kleist worked on his drama of madness, Die Familie Ghonorez, before he, himself sick, was obliged to commit himself to the care of Dr. Wyttenbach in Berne.

Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time, the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author who claims to have worked as a clerk in a brewery in Thun, the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum, Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile. On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.

Top: Robert Walser on April 23, 1939. Photograph by Carl Seelig/Keystone/Robert Walser Foundation. Above: W. G. Sebald on September 8, 1999. Photograph by Ulf Andersen/Getty.



Books August 6, 2007 Issue

Still Small Voice

The fiction of Robert Walser.

By


http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/06/still-small-voice



In “Jakob von Gunten,” the 1909 novel by the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser, the hero adopts the motto “To be small and to stay small.” The words apply just as well to Walser himself, whose life and work played out as a relentless diminuendo. The up-and-coming young novelist of the period before the First World War, capable of producing three novels in as many years, turned to shorter forms, and saw his audience and his income dwindle gradually through the war years and the nineteen-twenties. Once a fixture of smart Berlin society, Walser exchanged the world of salons for a series of tiny furnished rooms and, finally, in 1929, a mental institution. Even his handwriting diminished; he was able to squeeze a last novel—a short one, but still—onto just twenty-four sides of octavo-size paper. For years, some scholars believed that the script in which Walser composed this novel, “The Robber,” and many other later works was an uncrackable private code, and not until 1972, fifteen years after his death, did transcriptions from the so-called Bleistiftgebiet, or “pencil area,” begin to appear. The publication, starting in the eighties, of six volumes of painstakingly transcribed texts brought to light some of Walser’s most beautiful and haunting writing, and reinforced his posthumous reputation in German. The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.
In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically. Three of Walser’s four surviving novels are now available in English, along with several collections of stories quarried by various translators—most notably Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—from the ten volumes of short prose that Walser published during his lifetime, and the deep trove of deciphered microscripts. The most recently translated novel, “The Assistant” (New Directions; translated by Bernofsky; $16.95), abounds in declarations like “How tasty the coffee was again today.” No irony there—and you can read a lot of Walser without finding a single mention of food, drink, weather, clothing, architecture, or cigars that is not entirely appreciative. Joseph, the assistant, also enjoys swimming on his days off: “What swimming person, provided he is not about to drown, can help being in excellent spirits?” The proviso about drowning introduces a dark flutter of ambiguity, but, generally speaking, Walser’s narrators claim to be in excellent spirits even when they are drowning: “Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it’s very valuable, very.” Sometimes Walser seems a sort of saint of cosmic compliance. At other times, in his good-natured acceptance of all things, he appears to be mocking the very possibility of such an attitude: “I only know that all the poor people work in the factory, perhaps as a punishment for being so poor.” Indeed, the Walser tone, hovering between beatific quietism and a burlesque of conventionality, is detectable in the immortal reply he gave a man who visited him at an asylum and asked about his writing: “I am not here to write, but to be mad.”
The seventh of eight children, Robert Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland, on April 15, 1878. On his mother’s side were peasants and artisans, and, on his father’s, pastors, including, in his grandfather, a frankly utopian social reformer whose activism cost him his clerical collar and inspired reactionaries to fire shots at his windows. The grandfather kept the bullets as souvenirs, and may also have passed on some of his politics to his grandson; Walser several times sketches a utopia of freedom and equality which seems to have arrived not by revolution but, in very Swiss fashion, through a sort of universal politeness and consideration.
Walser’s father was a struggling bookbinder, though it is his mother, Elisa, who seems to have loomed larger. According to Catherine Sauvat, Walser’s French biographer (there is also a German biography, by Robert Mächler), Elisa Walser’s periods of depressive withdrawal were often followed by bouts of rage in which she reproached her children either for tormenting her or for ignoring her. Despite a household climate of financial insecurity and mental illness, the Walser siblings were a lively and talented brood who took great pleasure in one another’s company; by far Robert’s closest friends in life were his brother Karl and his sister Lisa. Still, given that not one of six boys and two girls became a parent, it’s hard not to suspect the enduring presence of some shared childhood unhappiness. The eldest brother died at fifteen; the other siblings became teachers (one of whom preceded Walser to the Waldau mental institution, and another of whom committed suicide), an artist, a banker, the wife of a matchstick-company manager, and—in Robert himself—a writer who can seem a reductio ad absurdum of the good child: cheerful and polite in all circumstances and ready to see the justice of any punishment he receives.
The family could not afford to send Robert to school past the age of fourteen, and before devoting himself to writing he worked as a clerk at a bank, in an elastics factory, and for a luckless inventor. He also attended an academy for servants and was briefly a butler in a Silesian castle. Walser put all of this to use in his writing, and, as a novelist, he can be placed in that comic tradition of European clerking fiction that runs from Gogol through Kafka and down to José Saramago. However, unlike Kafka—who admired “Jakob von Gunten” and whose own first book was hailed by Robert Musil as “a special case of the Walser type”—Walser did not find it possible to hold down a job and write at the same time. His frustration with clerkly existence is evident in the deadpan story “Job Application”
Esteemed Gentlemen,
I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable position, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free. . . . Large and difficult tasks I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-reaching sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I do not like to strain my intelligence overmuch. . . . Assuredly there exists in your extensive institution, which I imagine to be overflowing with main and subsidiary functions and offices, work of the kind that one can do as in a dream?—I am, to put it frankly, a Chinese; that is to say, a person who deems everything small and modest to be beautiful and pleasing, and to whom all that is big and exacting is fearsome and horrid.
The passage shows the tightness of Walser’s switchbacks from sweetness to sarcasm and back to sweetness again. It also offhandedly announces his credo—everything small and modest is beautiful and pleasing—and establishes the depth of his affinity with Kafka. After all, Kafka in one of his letters makes the same curious declaration—“Indeed I am a Chinese”—and cherished the idea of smallness in a similar way: “Two possibilities: making oneself infinitely small, or being so.” For both writers, smallness implied a drastic aversion to power, the exercise of it as well as submission to it. And Walser’s notion of smallness came to enfold the entire world. In a late sketch, he is still dreaming of China:
Nobody there is so foolish as to believe himself better than his fellow beings. I think of the Chinese as people polite and happy in equal measure, as friendly as they are helpful. There, modesty is the crowning glory of sentiment. . . . China is teeming with people, but nobody vexes anyone. . . . The human traffic is like an ocean.
In 1904, when Walser was twenty-six, he saw his first book published, a collection of essays on everything and nothing by the fictional naïf Fritz Kocher. Among Kocher’s observations are that leaves fall to the ground in autumn, that country fairs are useful and pleasant, and that “more people perish than want to.” Walser had assembled the essays over several years, while working intermittently in and around Zurich and Bern, and once they had appeared between two covers he felt emboldened to move to Berlin and seek his fortune there.
In Berlin, he moved in with his brother Karl (a notable illustrator and stage-set designer) and attempted to live by his pen. He didn’t do badly at first, and his literary success, along with his brother’s connections, secured him a place in German artistic circles, where he was sometimes governed by an imp of the perverse. As adolescents, he and Karl had apparently perfected the art of perching in a high window and throwing their hats onto the heads of passersby, and their mischief persisted in adulthood. One evening at a party, they challenged the famous playwright Frank Wedekind to a bout of Hosenlupf (literally, “trouser-hoist”), a Swiss wrestling variant that makes inventive use of an opponent’s waistband. When Wedekind, discomfited, fled to a café, his tormentors pursued him, hailing him with friendly, if cryptic, cries of “Muttonhead!” and causing him to get caught up in a revolving door. On another occasion, in a literary salon, Walser interrupted the high-flown talk by seizing a young Englishwoman’s leg and praising her small feet
This sort of behavior made Walser stand out in Berlin, as did his Swiss-German dialect and his lack of formal education. And his acquaintances—he had few friends and, it seems, in the course of his life, not a single lover of either sex—were thereby confronted with the same question as his readers: where did innocence and joy end and playacting begin? In later years, stung by his failure to be taken seriously as a writer, Walser claimed that the ingenuousness was just an act: “My vocation, my mission, consists mainly in making every effort to keep my audience believing that I am truly simple. I give them the illusion that unspoiledness and naïveté still exist.” But it can be hard to tell. When Walser met Lenin in Zurich, during the war, all he had to say was “So you, too, like fruitcake?”
“The Assistant,” which was written in Berlin a hundred years ago, in a six-week sprint, and appeared in 1908, is only Walser’s second published novel, and here his innocence seems more truly innocent than is sometimes the case. Told from the point of view of Joseph, an impoverished young clerk who joins the employ and the household of a precariously solvent inventor named Tobler, the story might be defined in terms of the intersection of two motions: the daily up and down of Joseph’s moods, and the relentless decline of his master’s fortunes. Joseph, “a passionate smoker,” puffs on Herr Tobler’s cheroots and consumes Tobler’s food with the relish of a man who has known hunger. He also likes taking walks in the woods and chatting up Tobler’s mercurial wife. Joseph’s more anxious moods arrive when he fears that he will lose access to these pleasures, either because Tobler goes broke or because his own tendency to do “stupid things”—he sometimes has the cheek to address his betters as their equal—gets him fired
“Could it be possible for me to live without doing stupid things? And in this household I do them so splendidly. . . . And how can I think of existing without drinking Herr Tobler’s coffee? . . . And in whose neatly covered and turned-down beds do I intend to go to sleep afterwards? No doubt beneath the arches of some cozy bridge!”
“The Assistant” is full of such pell-mell soliloquies, and it’s no wonder that Walser soon abandoned third-person narration for the more congenial mode of the monologue. The aspect of his style already perfected here is the beautiful abstractness of his descriptions: “Autumn was arriving, everything appeared to be sitting down, somewhere something was coming to a standstill, nature seemed at times to be rubbing its eyes.” When Herr Tobler flies into drunken hysterics, we are told, “Masculine and human rationality was now bawling and jeering and babbling.”
Walser’s clerks and layabouts are perhaps the nicest, most considerate people you can meet in modernist fiction, but they can also be cuttingly ironic in the way of only the very polite: that “cozy” bridge to sleep under, that “masculine and human” rationality. Susan Bernofsky reproduces this effect and others with impressive fluency and naturalness, and she must also have enjoyed dusting off words like “swillpot” and “thunderation.” It’s only too bad that, for want of such a translation, Virginia Woolf never learned that the desire she expressed in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction” for a more impressionistic and less narrowly empirical modern novel, a novel of floating sensibility rather than fixed characters, had been, to such a remarkable degree, anticipated a dozen years earlier by a Swiss writer living in Berlin.
Something else Woolf wrote in her essay seems to apply to Walser: “If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work on his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style.” To this Walser adds a certain specification of what it would mean to be a free man. After all, for Herr Tobler and his wife, there is a love interest (their marriage) and a catastrophe (their bankruptcy); for their assistant Joseph there is neither. And Joseph doesn’t need the disciplined temperament of a successful entrepreneur, since he isn’t trying to be one. He can simply decline to be yelled at anymore and, as he does on the last page of the book, walk off down the hill: no paycheck, but no debts, either. If Joseph seems remarkably unconcerned about where his future wages will come from, this may be because “The Assistant” describes the last serious job that Walser held before moving to Berlin. The book is a covert Künstlerroman, its hero on his way to becoming an artist
“Jakob von Gunten” is Walser’s next Berlin novel—and a masterpiece, not least of ambiguity. Jakob has enrolled in a school for servants in order to learn humility, an effort that seems, at first, to be imposed by necessity, since, despite his aristocratic surname, Jakob is almost penniless and needs to make a living somehow: “As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish.” Later, his attitude is more complicated:
If I were rich, I wouldn’t travel around the world. To be sure, that would not be so bad. But I can see nothing wildly exciting about getting a fugitive acquaintance with foreign places. In general I would decline to educate myself, as they say, any further. I would be attracted by deep things and by the soul, rather than by distances and things far off. . . . And I wouldn’t buy anything either. I would make no acquisitions. . . . I would walk about on foot, just as usual, with the consciously secret intention of not letting people notice very much how regally rich I am. . . . It would never occur to me to take a cab. Only people who are in a hurry or want to put on noble airs do that. But I wouldn’t want to put on noble airs, and I would be in no hurry whatever
You can read this passage several times without figuring out whether it constitutes a declaration of the sublimest contentment, given that Jakob’s fantasy of wealth is identical to the reality of his poverty, or whether Walser is saying something else—that only a rich man could enjoy the simple life, since only then would simplicity be his free choice. So it is reading Walser: you catch a glimpse of real spiritual nobility, and then wonder whether the very idea of such a thing—spiritual nobility, in a world of rich and poor—isn’t meant as a sarcastic joke.
What’s beyond doubt is that Walser spent a good deal of his life on foot and in no hurry. Homesickness and poverty compelled him back to Switzerland in 1913, and, in the next decade and a half, he seems to have been out walking whenever he was not at his desk or asleep in bed. From now on, Walser concentrated on short prose, and it is tempting to suppose that his prodigious rambling contributed to the style of his later stories. “Stories,” in fact, is not the word for these feuilletonistic flights of prose; they are squibs, sketches, anecdotes, essays, fantasies, or an unstable compound of all those. It’s remarkable to see what variety and richness, what easiness and charm, what winsome inanities and philosophical depths he could pack into half a page of one late sketch alone, as in “Boat Trip”:
Odd similarities between things at rest and things flowing occurred to me during the trip that I, too, participated in, and I would have been delighted to have been as fascinating a storyteller as one person there, who was asked to invent a tale so that the outing not become boring. . . . Here and there fish, driven it seemed by an uncontrollable curiosity, bobbed upward from the depths to visibility, as though wishing to help the listeners be satisfied with the tale. On fish one finds no arms. Is that why they have such huge eyes and expressive mouths? Is it because they have no legs that they make the best swimmers?. . . A girl sitting with us in the boat compared traveling over the water to the imperceptible gliding and progress of growth, that of fruit for example, which perhaps would have little desire to ripen if it knew to what end
In his “Essay on Freedom,” Walser seems to be describing at once his own nature and the mode of his later prose: “Freedom wants both to be understood and to be almost continuously not understood; it wants to be seen and then again to be as if it were not there.” Tempting as it is to wring one’s hands over the philistine reading public that was not eager to sponsor Walser in the growing freedom of his writing, really it’s remarkable that the editors of ordinary newspapers—one of whom received threats of cancelled subscriptions unless the “nonsense” stopped—published any of this work at all. In the end, not surprisingly, they were unwilling to run much more of it. Walser could afford to rent only the meanest of furnished rooms, one of which a visitor inventoried thus: “There was only a bed, a table, and a chair. A cheap map of Europe was tacked to the wall.” As his public grew smaller, Walser began to compose much of his work, in his almost indecipherably tiny and abbreviated script, without any expectation of publication; but we should not conclude from this that he didn’t care about recognition. In being understood and almost continually not understood, both parts were important, and one of the threads holding together “The Robber,” written in 1925, is the Walser figure’s concern with his reception as a writer and as a person: “Local men of the world call me a simpleton because novels don’t tumble out of my pockets.” “The Robber” itself, more an assemblage of passages than a novel in any ordinary sense, did not tumble into the world until 1972—a fitting date for a beautiful, unsummarizable work every bit as self-reflexive as anything produced by the metafictionists of the sixties and seventies
In 1929, Walser was brought by his sister Lisa to the Waldau mental institution, in Bern (where their brother Ernst, given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, had lived for eighteen years, until his death, in 1916). To be sure, Walser was not quite normal psychologically, and his later work can sometimes be reminiscent of the alternately friendly and menacing private universes elaborated by other institutionalized “outsider artists.” But he seems to have suffered more from unhappiness, isolation, and poverty than from anything else. Neither the admitting doctor’s report nor the testimony of those who met and spoke with Walser during his last decades render his diagnosis of schizophrenia very persuasive. Walser’s brothers Karl and Oscar believed that he simply preferred life at Waldau to life outside (and for that reason ultimately refused to contribute to his keep). They were probably right: Walser could now devote himself to writing without having to worry about earning a living, while the presence of others relieved him of some portion of his solitude. Rather than take his own room, Walser chose to sleep, barracks style, among the other inmates, though his taste for company did not extend to conversation. One of his last prose pieces describes a pretty girl who steadfastly rebuffs all offers of dinner, gondola rides, and flowers; she prefers to sit alone in the sun, “luxuriating in the simplicity of her wants.
Walter Benjamin, in an essay from 1929, made the ingenious suggestion that Walser’s cheerful people must all be convalescents; only recovered health could explain the intense pleasure they take in absolutely everything. More recently, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben offered a gloss on the flatness, the thus-ness, of Walser’s frequently very matter-of-fact prose: this, he says, is how the world of left-behind objects and people will look after the Messiah has come and gone, abandoned in what Agamben calls the Irreparable. That works, too, for much of Walser’s writing, though it doesn’t cover the ironic moments. In these, it truly seems as if Walser has been laid under a curse: permitted only to speak well of the world, he is forced to express any sorrow or rage he feels in terms of the most unequivocal praise. The resulting sense of torment, endlessness, and absurdity puts one in mind of Kafka again.
In 1933, Waldau came under new management and Walser was moved to another asylum. He did not protest this plan at first, but when the day came he refused to get out of bed and had to be taken away by force. In the new asylum, in Herisau, in his native canton of Appenzell, Walser received visits from a man of letters named Carl Seelig, who oversaw the reissue of some of Walser’s work and made a record of his conversations with the writer. It was Seelig to whom Walser said that his role was no longer to write but to be mad, and he also gave Seelig what might be taken as an explanation for his abandonment of writing following his forcible transfer: “The only ground on which a writer can produce is that of freedom.” For several years, Seelig petitioned for Walser’s release, but without success, and Walser remained an inmate of the Herisau asylum until he died, out on one of his long walks, on Christmas Day, 1956. Someone had the sang-froid to snap a photograph: footprints in the snow lead to a tall man lying with one arm thrown behind his head, for all the world as if his last gesture had been to toss off the hat that lies a few feet away.

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