Robert Walser




ONCE LAST spring, shortly before lunch and setting off for town, I stood halfway up the mountain where one enjoys a beautiful view of the country. The damp earth was fragrant with spring; I had just stepped out of the fir forest and now stood unmoving next to a shrub or bush on whose thorny branches perched a small bird with its beak wide open like a pair of scissors about to cut something. Apparently the delicate little fellow on the branch was trying to practice its singing, endeavoring to loosen its throat. Everything around me was so beautiful, so sweet, so friendly. A delicate, joyous presentiment, an exultation, a not yet released delight, a still unheard and not yet liberated jubilation made itself felt and heard everywhere. I saw spring in the tiny open beak of the bird, and as I walked on a few steps, because it was already ringing twelve down below, I saw the sweet, dear, heavenly spring in a different, altogether different form. A poor old woman, crushed and bent with years, sat on a little wall and gazed quietly before her as if sunk in deep reverie, so soft was the air, so mild the kind sun. The ancient little mother sat there sunning herself. "Spring has returned" sang through the air, here and every-where.




MÙA XUÂN MỘT LẦN VÀO MÙA XUÂN, ngay trước khi ăn trưa và lên đường trở về thị trấn, tôi đứng ở lưng chừng núi, nơi người ta có thể ngắm nhìn cảnh đẹp của đất nước. Đất ẩm thơm mùi xuân; Tôi vừa bước ra khỏi rừng linh sam và bây giờ đang đứng bất động bên cạnh một bụi cây hoặc bụi rậm, trên những cành đầy gai có một con chim nhỏ đang đậu với cái mỏ mở rộng như một chiếc kéo chuẩn bị cắt một thứ gì đó. Rõ ràng là anh chàng nhỏ bé thanh tú trên cành cây đang cố gắng tập hát, cố gắng thả lỏng cổ họng. Mọi thứ xung quanh tôi thật đẹp, thật ngọt ngào, thật thân thiện. Một tình cảm tinh tế, vui vẻ, một hân hoan, một niềm vui chưa được giải phóng, một niềm hân hoan vẫn chưa được nghe thấy và chưa được giải phóng khiến nó được cảm nhận và nghe thấy ở khắp mọi nơi. Tôi nhìn thấy mùa xuân trong chiếc mỏ nhỏ xíu đang hé mở của con chim, và khi tôi bước đi vài bước, vì bên dưới trời đã điểm mười hai giờ, tôi nhìn thấy mùa xuân ngọt ngào, thân thương, trên trời dưới một hình thức khác, hoàn toàn khác. Một bà già tội nghiệp, gầy guộc và cong queo theo năm tháng, ngồi trên một bức tường nhỏ và lặng lẽ nhìn ra phía trước như thể đang chìm đắm trong sự mơ màng sâu xa, không khí thật êm dịu, ánh mặt trời dịu dàng. Người mẹ bé nhỏ xưa ngồi đó phơi nắng một mình. “Xuân đã về” vang khắp không gian, đâu đây.



Bác Gúc dịch 






Sovereign Insignificance




FOR THE feuilletonist anything can be an occasion for a prose piece: a walk in the mountains, a new hairstyle, an old fountain, shopwindows, a kitten, a carousel, a Parisian newspaper, an hour of the day. It is, however, the rare feuilletonist, no matter how fine a quick-sketch artist, who can bestow permanence to reality's ephemera, which is one reason we tend to ignore miniaturists in prose—to our great loss in the case of a genius like Robert Walser.

 Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, Walser left school at fourteen to apprentice as a bank clerk. His primary cities of residence during his active writing career (1898-1933) were Zurich (1896-1905), Berlin (1905-1913), Biel (1913-1921), and Bern (1911-1933), though he also worked for a time in Basel, Stuttgart, Thun, Winterthur, and Wddenswil, and as an assistant butler in Castle Dambrau in Upper Silesia. The pattern of his life was one of short-term jobs, mostly of a clerical nature, and short-term stays in furnished rooms—between 1896 and 1905, he changed residences seventeen times. Before the end of the century, his poems and short prose began to appear in literary journals and in the feuilleton sections of newspapers, and in 1904 his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsatze (Fritz Kocher's Essays), was published. More than a dozen others followed, including the novels The Tanners (1907), The Assistant (1908), and one of the twentieth century's master novels, Jakob von Gunten (1909), whose epony- mous narrator is a pupil of the Benjamenta Institute, a school for butlers (Walser himself attended one in Berlin) where "the educators and teachers are asleep, or they are dead, or seemingly dead, or they are fossilized, no matter, in any case we get nothing from them."

  Admired by and an influence on Kafka, Jakob von Gunten, though subtitled "A Diary," is more an oneiric account of Jakob's life in a school where the only class is "How should a boy behave?" and whose primary staff consist of the principal, Herr Benjamenta ("a giant"), and his sister, the mysterious, sad, beautiful Lisa Benjamenta. Even Jakob, in keeping with the world both outside and within him, has "contrived to become a mystery" to himself. The novel is bathed in unreality and shimmers with contradictions. Jakob is a dreamy, benevolent rascal, a sort of King Midas who turns everything he touches into riddles. It is his willingness to embrace the ordinary and the contradictory that allows him to thrive in the stultifying, rule-ridden atmosphere of the institute. "Everything that's forbidden lives a hundred times over," he writes, "thus, if something is supposed to be dead, its life is all the livelier. As in small things, so in big ones. Nicely put, in everyday words, but in everyday things the true truths are found."
 For the German novelist Martin Walser (no relation),
Jakob von Gunten is "the most radical book I know." Walser himself saw it as a rather bold poetic fantasy, and it was his favorite of his longer published works. Sales, however, were dismal, and its few critics mostly dim, as in this review by Josef Hofmiller in Suddeutsche Monatshefte: "Such feeble and sapless scribbling without a thought for tomorrow is unendurable." Walser's career as a writer would never really recover from this publishing fiasco.
  In 1917 Walser suffered, "due to the pen, a real breakdown in my hand, a sort of cramp," as he said in a 192,7 letter. "With the help of the pencil, I was better able to play, to write; this seemed to revive my writerly enthusiasm." The
Mikrogramme, or microscripts, that were found after his death consist of 526 slips of paper containing drafts Walser wrote in pencil during the 19z05 and early '30s, many of which he revised and saw published in the leading newspapers and journals of his day. Jochen Greven, the editor of the twenty- volume Samtliche Werke in Einzelausgaben (1985), discovered that Walser's tiny handwriting—once considered an indecipherable code and a sign of the author's madness—was in the old German Slitterlin script and indeed decipherable. Transcribed by Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte, these scraps of paper with their minute script constitute the six volumes of Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet (From the Pencil Region, 1985—loon), which supplement Greven's edition. Of the eighty-eight texts in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, all but three come from Samtliche Werke in Einzelausgaben, the exceptions being "The Belletristic Book" from volume five of Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet and "The Tip" and "The Caouel"  from Feuer (2.003), a collection of prose pieces and poems previously unknown, though many of them had  appeared in journals and newspapers during Walser's lifetime.
  In 1929, after severe episodes of anxiety and depression, Walser entered Waldau, a psychiatric clinic outside Bern. There, after a while, he managed to return to writing, until four years later when a new director decided that Waldau should house only acute patients.
("The Precious One," written while he was in Waldau, reflects, to a degree, his life and state of mind while there.) In 1933, against his wishes, Walser was transferred to a clinic outside Herisau, in eastern Switzerland, after which he apparently wrote no more. In the introduction to her translation of Walser's final and truly most radical novel, The Robber, Susan Bernofsky cites an interview by Catherine Sauvat, the French biographer of Walser, with Josef Wehrle, a former attendant at the asylum in Herisau, who recalled observing Walser writing on scraps of paper after meals and then throwing them away. Walser destroying this writing (if he wrote anything in Herisau other than necessary and perfunctory letters) is certainly plausible, as he had discarded earlier manuscripts, including three novels (another was lost by a publisher).
  For the first few years in Herisau, Walser expressed the hope that, after being out of the asylum for a few years, he might begin to write again, but by the 19405 this no longer seemed a possibility. "Why bother me with all this scribbling?" he tells the Swiss writer Carl Seelig, who would become his legal guardian and write Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (1957) based on their meetings during Walser's last two decades. "Can't you see I don't give a damn about this?



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