Thursday, September 15, 2011


Been reading a lot of Robert Walser these days and even writing a little about him (in this review of his Microscripts, for the Collagist, and a just-finished review of the Berlin Stories coming out in the next issue of the wonderfully-named The Literary Review). To my mind, two questions naturally follow from this: 1) Why Walser, and 2) Why reviews?

Let's start with Walser, a writer who I was initially excited about, then disappointed in, then gradually re-excited about. In this way, I think I'm like most people, who probably heard about his wacky life (last 25 years spent in a mental institution in the Swiss countryside) and bizarre literary output (a veritable ocean of unclassifiable story/essay/prose-poems, which grows significantly thicker and more gnarled during the sanitarium years, when Walser began writing exclusively in code, on the backs of beer coasters and envelopes, etc. These form the aforementioned Microscripts), and then read him, only to discover that his voice is insanely straightforward and therefore almost impossible to read. Children would probably get, and love Walser. Children and horses. For poor convoluted lit majors like myself, however, his little hymns are disconcertingly shiny. They lack the handholds I've been trained to expect in fiction: the puzzles and ambiguities that I expect to find under every book and usually do. So reading them is either like trying to walk on ice without my skates on (I slip all over the place), or wearing skates and trying to walk through a parking lot (I herk and jerk through the stories without any real fluidity). 

Nevertheless, being a true literary masochist, I persist. After reading pretty much all his books over the course of the last three months, (I think the only one I haven't opened is The Assistants, an early novel),  I'm getting the hang of it. I'm starting, not only to be fascinated by Walser, but to actually enjoy reading him. And of course, now that I can actually get something out of him, I've decided that he really is one of the great marginal authors: a mini-talent of epic proportions (everything in Walser is both mini and epic: he's like a Joseph Cornell box in this way, as many people have remarked, or like a Yuri Norstein film, as I believe no one has). 

Some tools for access that have been useful for me, and which I offer to the aspiring Walser reader (in no particular order):

1. Proximity. More than any other author I've ever encountered (except maybe Bachelard), Walser benefits, or suffers, from the actual physical distance between his books and the reader's face. I know this sounds goofy, but I swear it helps. You cannot read Walser standing up, or at a desk, or at arms' length: like an optical illusion, he seems to snap into place somewhere around four to six inches from the nose. Ideally, I think he needs to be read with your cheek on the opposite page, so that the letters begin to stand up off the page like tiny trees. In this way you immediately get the strange balloonist's intimacy-with-distance thing, which is one of Walser's most beautiful effects. 

2. Speed. Walser should be read in third gear. Any faster, and you'll just glide down the page; any slower, and you'll start sinking through it. Above all, don't savor his metaphors: their doors don't open, they're like model train sets. They run and look beautiful, but don't really benefit from exploration or pressure. In this way, they are the exact opposite of Gogol's tiny animals, which they superficially resemble. 

3. Ballooning. I touched on this before (and in the Collagist article), but Walser is a balloonist. He's also a walker - except that, somehow, he turns walking into a sort of human-sized ballooning, as if his head were the pilot and his body the jumble of air and strings. I like to think that anyone who has ever been in a hot air balloon (I have not) will get a physical sense-memory reading him.

4. The English Romantics. In the Literary Review review, I compare Walser to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Both were depressives, walkers, and attentive noters, and in both cases, this combination of emotional instability and the very crafty use of vocal instability as a styistic tactic can be both confusing and illuminating. We want to say that Walser wrote to be happy, and that when he stopped being able to write, he became insane - and I think, in an interesting way, that this is both true and not true at the same time. Like Coleridge, Walser was (sometimes dismally, sometimes ecstatically) aware that his true subject was himself, and that use could and should be made even of his difficulties.

5. Flaneurie/The Dandy. Readers of Beaudelaire, Walter Benjamin (especially in One-Way Street and the Arcades Project), Ammons, Thoreau, Will Schofield, or any of the other great literary dandies will recognize immediately what he's up to. Basically, the trick is to put down your book, or pipe, or Wii and go outside. After that, the world begins coming to you, and if it doesn't, you're still fine, since the lack of inspiration is one of the central tropes of late dandyism. 

6. The Prose Poem. Walser's works make this category pointless. 

7. Diaries. Unlike Kafka, Walser didn't keep one. 

8. No irony. There isn't any in Walser. This is maybe the hardest thing a prospective modern reader has to get over. 

Silly and juvenile as he occasionally sounds, Walser is a sharp, sometimes frightening author. The Berlin Stories can sound like Triste Tropiques occasionally - there's this feeling that the narrator is standing in the middle of a crowded street, not alienated at all but rather completely immersed: dreaming the same dream as everyone else. In this way, he shows just how much of an outsider he is. 

Anyway, a wonderful, pantheon-level writer, and one that I'd recommend. Start with the early stories, either in the Berlin Stories or elsewhere. One of the other unique things about Walser is that he appears to have been translated solely by translators of genius, particularly Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky. I haven't found a bad edition of his work in English. 

I think on second thought I'll save reviewing for next time. 

(Drawings both by Guy Davenport, who wrote the greatest single piece of criticism about Walser, which is actually a story)

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