What an idea I had, to spend a few days writing about Robert Walser. Some other few days, I hope.
I read through the 1982 Selected Stories, tr. Christopher Middleton and others, in part because, directed here by Fernando Pessoa, I was looking for literary clerks. A cold trail is what I got for my trouble, although “Kienast” (1917) features “a man who wanted nothing to do with anything,” a fine Bartleby-like sentiment, except he is openly mean, greedy, and selfish, which is quite a ways from Melville’s transcendent character or the complex interior life of Pessoa’s Bernardo Soares. Perhaps I should have tried the Walser novel with the promising title of The Assistant.
But it is Selected Stories I read, so it is Selected Stories that I will write about, despite the fact that I have so little to say about it. Walser’s main tool is dissociation – the story is told through its gaps and breaks. “Everything always reminds one of its opposite” Walser, a proto-deconstructionist, writes in “Snowdrops.” Even in a little sketch, just a page or two, the little leaps and kinks make Walser’s writing not simply hard to interpret, but even worse hard to remember. “The She-Owl” (1921):
A she-owl in a ruined wall said to herself: What a horrifying existence. Anyone else would be dismayed, but me, I am patient. I lower my eyes, huddle. Everything in me and on me hangs down like gray veils, but above me, too, the stars glitter; this knowledge fortifies me.
Hmm, perhaps I have found a clerk, disguised by metaphor. But with the next paragraph, the voice shifts. The “I” has clothes. Yes, a metaphor. The narrator is a woman, growing or grown old, wearing large glasses, reading a poet “whose finesse makes him fit to be digested by owls.” This is pretty much the story, the page-long piece.
I have made Walser sound so gloomy when in fact he is so much fun. Mookse Gripes, reading Walser’s recent Berlin Stories collection, wonders where the exuberance comes from: “one cannot help but notice the vibrancy, the wonder at life.” Walser’s writing is actively imaginative and goofy. He writes about a man with a pumpkin head, or a balloon trip to the sun, or an essay on trousers:
A skirt is noble, awe-inspiring, and has a mysterious character. Trousers are also incomparably more indelicate and they suffuse the masculine soul, to some extent, with a shudder. Again, on the other hand, why should horror not grip us modern people, slightly?
Much of the fun in Walser is right there: the overly formal register that is not quite right for the subject, and the swerve towards “horror,” which is immediately followed by the hope that women will someday wear extremely tight trousers that would “nestle” against “the soft, rounded flesh of the leg”: “I would die of delight, or at least hit the floor in a swoon.”
So it seems I could write about Walser all day just by leafing through this book. What do poets like? “Every true poet likes dust.” Someday I will spend more time sifting through Walser’s dust.