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Thinking Small

The translator of this strange new book by the Swiss writer Robert Walser reports that his “position in the modernist canon has been….firmly established.” Some years ago Susan Sontag called Walser “a major writer” and invoked a range of artists—from Klee to Beckett to Kafka—to identify his several virtues. “Was Walser a great writer?” asked J.M. Coetzee, concluding with a nod to another authority: “If one is reluctant to call him great, said [Elias] Canetti, “that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness.”

And yet we find, in virtually every recent article devoted to this canonical writer, a note of defensiveness, of apology and regret. He was, it is duly noted, forgotten and ignored. He thought himself a failure. The quarter of a century that he spent in mental institutions was owed, at least in part, to the disappointment that he suffered as a “scandalously neglected genius,” as Coetzee puts it. Apparently those of us who have paid him little or no attention have much to answer for. So we are admonished by Canetti, and by no less an advocate of Walser’s work than Walter Benjamin.

Walser was born in Switzerland in 1878, lived for some years in Germany, and had some early success as a novelist and occasional essayist. Though he was admired by Kafka and other important writers, they could do nothing to halt the inexorable decline in his fortunes and in his mental state. By the time he died in 1956, he understood—as another translator, Christopher Middleton, once put it—that, “as an artist of the infinitesimal” he had been “eclipsed by grander scribes.” The only stable employment he achieved in the course of his lifetime, as another writer had it, was “in the role of crazy person.”

Walser was an original and insinuating writer. The best of his books is Jakob von Gunten, a novel at once breezy and episodic, mischievous and improbable, marked by the protagonist’s assertion that “sometimes I say and think things that surpass my own understanding.” But then everything Walser touched seemed at least somewhat improbable. The Robber is an almost plotless fiction that blithely goes its way and refuses to add up. Much more substantial, but not less quaint and delectable, is The Tanners, a family novel that patiently, lightly anatomizes the ordinary life of a family without in the least wishing to arrive at any general insight or criticism of that peculiar, abiding institution. Often in Walser’s work one has the sense that even what seems frank and heartfelt must also be more than a bit opaque. W.G. Sebald describes his style as “a pretense at awkwardness brought off with the utmost virtuosity,” though the virtuosity is by no means always obvious, and the awkwardness is, much of the time, obtrusive. Rivka Galchen speaks of Walser’s work as “some automatic writing experiment gone horribly right,” which is a clever formulation, though what exactly seems so indisputably right in Walser’s “automatic writing” the critic does not explain.

This new volume is a selection of twenty-five very short pieces by Walser drawn from hundreds written—so the dust-jacket of the handsome edition informs us—on diminutive strips of paper “covered with tiny antlike pencil markings.” For many years, apparently, the pieces were “misconstrued as secret code.” The volume also contains “facsimiles of the original microscripts and the original German texts.” The English translation by Susan Bernofsky is frequently inspired, the peculiar avidities and disjunctions of Walser’s prose conveyed with unfailing esprit, Walser’s self-conscious meanderings by turns diffident and indiscreet. “I’ve stated this quite juicily, don’t you think,” Walser declares half-way through a characteristic entry, as though he were a robust and jaunty fellow addressing a familiar rather than a slyly fugitive dreamer lurching uneasily from one thought to another.

In truth, Walser does not know what he is after in these pieces, and it does not help much to be told by Bernofsky that they are “unambitious” and written to escape the author’s felt “burden of being always, as he wrote, in the spotlight of his own critical judgment.” Walser’s contemporary promoters see little or nothing to criticize, little that gives them pause in his “unambitious” work, and would appear to find the microscripts entirely charming. Bernofsky recommends that we read them as the expression of a “completely new sort of aesthetic,” but we can only wonder what would be the defining mark of this newness.

No doubt Walser is largely indifferent—certainly in the microscripts—to the rules of standard narrative construction. He can begin a piece as if he were about to tell us a dream, only to shift without transition to an actual moment in his childhood and on to an apparently unrelated incident involving a nun and a soldier. Throughout he interjects vagrant thoughts and misgivings. “Don’t the words almost smell a bit like wistfulness?” he suddenly asks, with no intention whatever of following up the thought. “The story keeps on going,” he declares, just at the point where one fragmentary microscript terminates. Mischief, to be sure. The sort of charm that comes with a sovereign indifference to petty rules and expectations, displayed without hauteur or swagger. But this is not quite a “completely new sort of aesthetic.” It is a modernist audacity of the mildest and least consequential sort.

There is a kind of newness, too, in Walser’s irregular swerves from one accent to another. Coetzee notes in Walser’s work generally “casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal,” the kind of thing we have long admired in a whole range of modernist writers. In Walser, though, the moves seem often clumsy or naïve. He seems not to know what he is doing in the modest excursion he has begun. Even when he is possessed by dark thoughts of deprivation and loneliness he is tempted to fool around, to suddenly declare that “in his hair the wind was playing,” or to give himself up to flatulent poetic reveries such as “the air appeared to be the bride of the garden, and the garden its bridegroom.” Though the dominant accent of a particular piece may well be discernible, the impulse to digress seems usually unconnected to any large expressive purpose. The swerves in much of this work are random, as are the banalities delivered in occasional doses, and the somber reflections serve no apparent end. The legend of Walser as sufferer inevitably shadows our reading of these works and lends them a certain poignancy, but the works do not elaborate a coherent psychology or furnish even the bare outline of an exemplary or symptomatic life.

In fact, Walser’s claim to originality may lie principally in what Middleton once referred to as his “clownishly serious” posture. Often this quality is notable in Walser’s appetite for paradoxes that are pregnant with possibility but end up being, in his hands, mainly a matter of word-play, paradox indulged more or less for its own sake. “And is not, by the way, our very epoch itself possessed in so many respects of a quite canny uncanniness?” he asks in a characteristically promising speculation, characteristically followed up (and dropped) with a “But let me set this question aside for the time being.”

Walser seems in earnest when he evokes his own sorry state, only to undercut this earnestness with an inflated, self-mocking idiom that leaves us wondering, to no avail, what his motive might be. “Thus far I have lived through very little,” he declares—a man, as he says, hoping for “a shred of sympathy,” “innocuous,” oddly clueless and possessed of “a pernicious kindness of heart,” whatever that may mean. But central to this ambiguous self-portrait is the following:

One of the few amorous adventures experienced by your colossally humble servant transpired on an express-train and consisted of my falling to my knees before an extraordinarily well-calibrated voluptuosity in the form of a charming fellow traveler. On another occasion I idolized, while seated on a garden bench painted grass green and with a swiftness that filled me with astonishment, a lady who happened to walk past.

Such passages are marked by a willful air of self-mockery and exaggeration. The speaker is and is not humble, is and is not enthralled. His astonishment is a mock-astonishment, the “well-calibrated voluptuosity” a verbal caprice or performative gesture signifying, in itself, nothing but the will or instinct to perform. To be sure, the speaker in such a passage records a range of susceptibilities and disappointments. But we can make out in all of this mainly the speaker’s propensity to ridicule his own gift for failure. So unstable is Walser’s focus in such pieces, so restless his gravitation from one reflection or observation to another that we cannot take seriously anything he says.

That there are oddly affecting moments in the microscripts is indisputable. We believe, as we move from one piece to another, that we are in the unsteady hands of a man coping with a heavy freight of heartache and passivity. He is, or he takes himself to be, a loser. But the writer’s clownish antics and mock-grimaces confer upon the work a perplexing aura. Walser seems to take a weird, ambivalent pleasure in his subordination to a condition he can do nothing to alter. He delights in being inadequate and therefore somehow superior to those ordinary beings who do not know how entirely they are constrained and confined and delude themselves in supposing that they are free to break loose.

In several of the microscipts Walser turns his attention to the “beautiful people,” individuals “virtually incapable of relinquishing the illusion that they are good.” Such persons, he goes on, are apt to be “perusing some Vienna Choir heights that can scarcely have existed.” Apparently well-adjusted people, such as a woman named Mrs. Black, may best be known by “calf muscles [which] displayed a marvelous moderateness.” In such moments Walser’s satire is directed at the manners and morals of solid bourgeois types, though the exercise in satire bears with it no conviction, no cleansing or corrective force. Walser is again quite simply fooling around, trying on an accent, in this case derisory and superior, letting himself go, outlining what may be “a peculiar story” that has no determinate shape or logic. Though he betrays in his own outlook a streak of cruelty or ressentiment, the truest note is sounded where Walser notes that “these good people left him utterly in the lurch, and the completeness with which they abandoned him might appear in itself to possess great worth.” Here we have, once again and predictably, the note of failure, the plaintive accent of an outsider barred from the good things of life.

Here and there Walser will say something like, “To this day a robust quantity of inexhaustibilities resides within my person.” But the hyperbole in the declaration gives the game away. The fellow has in fact nothing to crow about. Elsewhere he declares, “In the merchant’s home I mastered the salon tone, as I believe myself entitled to assume, swimmingly.” But then nothing could be more remote from Walser than successful mastery of “the salon tone.” He is not a man equipped to skate along any surface or to be “swimmingly” on comfortable terms with life. Try as he might to extricate himself from himself, to cast aspersions upon the multitudes of others who live blindly and complacently in the ordinary world of getting and spending, Walser knows himself to be by no means a master of the situations of life. The insouciant comedy-of-manners accent, here and there audible in the prose of the microscripts, tempts Walser with the prospect of a detachment and sprightliness he cannot authentically claim.

Neither can he claim our admiration for the occasional flourishes, discordances and exacerbations of his sentences. Walter Benjamin argued that with Walser “the only point of every sentence is to make the reader forget the previous one,” a notion more applicable to the microscripts than to anything else in the writer’s work. But rarely in these tiny pieces do we come upon single sentences that can fill us with joy or move us to astonishment. Rarely does Walser invite us to participate in the writer’s enthusiasm for what he is making. For we do not exist for him, no more than the others to whom he refers in sentences that cite “beautiful women” or “a small-town merchant” or “defenders of the fatherland.” So little is Walser invested in what he names, so unstable and glancing is his curiosity that one can only wonder at the modest fascination the microscripts fitfully exert. Though we know, as we read on, that there will be no payoff, no revelation, we are amused, almost in spite of ourselves, by the writer’s vagrancies and minor eruptions, as if there were to be found, around the next bend of the next digression, the true beating heart of the somewhat deranged fellow with the dark cloud hanging mildly above him.

Robert Boyers is editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and director of The New York State Summer Writers Institute.