Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Robert Walser quivers and startles with worldly life - Walser in Berlin

Robert Walser granted me a little break from Vienna with the newspaper sketches collected in Berlin Stories (1907-17, tr. mostly by Susan Bernofsky).  Walser was a young writer from the provinces let loose in the big city, and he sounds like it.  He walks and wanders all over the city, inside and out, and finds it all astounding.

Trevor Mookse wrote a piece a year ago that emphasized Walser’s energy.  I should avoid using any of his quotations.  He picks out the 1907 “Friedrichstrasse,” a fantasy about a street, which begins:

Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth dark ground below looks as if it’s been polished by human destinies.  The buildings to either side rise boldly, daintily, and fantastically into architectural heights.  The air quivers and startles with worldly life.  (9)

In that last sentence, please, as I did in the title, replace “The air” with “Robert Walser.”  I have some doubts about “polished by human destinies,” and some more about “architectural heights.”  What is on this street?  “[G]aping chasms… indescribable contradictions,” “countless heads,” the “siren Pleasure,” “foolishness.”  Walser could be spinning this thread about any busy street anywhere with little difference, and in fact writers around Europe were publishing similar Baudelaire-inspired flights in newspapers all over Europe.

Walser’s Berlin does not often have much Berlin in it, is what I am saying.  They are impressions of the city.  Peter Altenberg’s sketches, to pick a contemporary example, tell me more about Vienna.  Not necessarily a lot more.  Paris Spleen is not so informative about Paris, either.

If I just knew these pieces I would not know how strange Walser’s writing could be; knowing Walser’s strangeness the pieces perhaps seem stranger than they really are.  Or perhaps they are really are strange, perhaps my knowledge makes them strange.

The last quarter of the book contains pieces written after Walser had left Berlin, from 1914 to 1917, and whether the result of distance or some other stylistic change they become more concentrated and specific in their strangeness.  They become more like the Walser I admired from stories like “The Walk” and so on, all from roughly the same time.  Sebald’s Walser, as seen at the end of “Frau Scheer,” about a horrible German landlady, a subject of inexhaustible interest:

I still remember one New Year’s Eve when I stood together with Frau Scheer at the open window.  Everything outdoors was swathed in thick fog.  We were listening to the New Year’s bells.  The following autumn she fell ill, and the doctors recommended an operation… [I will snip her plainly described death and will]  As for myself, I soon left town.  I felt the urge to revisit my distant homeland, the sight of which I’d had to do without for so many years.  (133)

Strangest of all, the last story, “A Homecoming in the Snow” from 1917, although nominally about Walser’s return, following that “urge,” from Berlin to Switzerland for Christmas, feels like it could have been written about Walser’s own death in the Christmas snow in 1956.

I was not wearing a coat.  I considered the snow itself a splendidly warm coat.

Soon I would hear the language of my parents, brothers, and sisters being spoken once more, and I would set foot again upon the dear soil of my native land. (139)

Of course Jochen Greven, the Walser scholar who made and ordered the selections in Berlin Stories, did this on purpose, but still.  Strange, strange.


  1. A writer I've never tried, but obviously one I should - thanks for the tip :)

  2. Someone else will have to fill you in on his novels, but I do believe Walser is a writer you would find appealing.

    The little Walser boom has been fun to watch. NYRB has a new collection coming out in August - 70 stories in 208(!) pages.

    1. That'd be "A Schoolboy's Diary"? (I've just checked their site.) If this boom keeps going they'll have to translate the rest of the Microfictions because there will be nothing else left, and that will be nice. They'll Bolaño him. We'll end up reading his laundry lists.

  3. I hope they release the complete Microscripts in a facsimile edition. Reproductions of crumpled envelopes, that sort of thing, mixed together in a steamer trunk.

  4. I loved reading Walser when I was learning German. The pieces were short, the vocabulary relatively simple and I felt like I got something worthwhile for the effort it took to read a few pages.

  5. Walser's little whatever-they-ares have been rewarding. I suppose I should try a novel, too, though.