Thursday, May 31, 2012

There was plenty of mustard - a Robert Walser story found by chance

Yesterday in a comment Caravanas Ricardo joked that he could count the Robert Walser short stories he had read on one finger.  Me too, before I read Selected Stories.  Although Richard has also read a Walser novel, so he is way ahead of me.

The Tom Friedman show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was twelve years ago.  Friedman is a highly conceptual sculptor whose signature is the creation of objects that should not exist.  A pencil shaving made from a single pencil, or a large sheet of paper on which he wrote every word from a dictionary, or a self-portrait carved from an aspirin.  That sort of thing.  I eventually bought a book about Friedman, the 2001 Phaidon Tom Friedman, just to have something to show people.  No, really, “Two identically wrinkled sheets of paper,” they're right here.

The book also included favorite prose selected by the artist, and one of Friedman's choices was Robert Walser’s “The Dinner Party,” 1919, tr. Susan Bernofsky.  So that was my one finger.

It was a delightful dinner party.  There was plenty of mustard, and the whole works was accompanied by the finest wine.  The soup was admittedly a bit thick, and the fish contributed nothing to the entertainment, but no one took it amiss.

That is the first one-eighth of the four paragraph story.  It gets odd fast.  The emphasis on mustard is bizarre, but the out-of-place rhetoric is also immediately visible:  the banal opening, calling a fancy dinner “the whole works,” the fussiness about the fish.

Duck follows (“[a]mong other things”), and cheese and coffee.  The narrator becomes poetical (“The liqueur made us swim in a more beautiful age”) perhaps because a poet recites some verses.  Or else it is the booze.  I have now summarized the story through paragraph two.  On to number three, which begins:

One of the guests was frozen.  All attempts to being him to life were in vain.  The ladies’ dresses were magnificent, they revealed quite a lot, thus leaving nothing to be desired.

At this point, I see for the first time in this sketch the similarity to his great admirer Kafka.  Coming from the wrong direction, I begin to see Walser as Kafkaesque, although the reverse is more accurate.  The frozen man at the dinner party could be the subject of his own parable.

The last paragraph:

In parting I slipped the butler a hundred-franc tip.  He returned it with the remark that he was accustomed to better wages.  I asked him to be content with less just this once.  Outside a car awaited me, which then whisked me away, and so off I drove, and no doubt am still doing so to this day.


  1. Perhaps Walser wrote it with a single pencil sharpened only once?

    Have you read the Russian writer Daniil Kharms? I'm reminded of his minimalist tales of similar length and absurdity.

  2. I have not read Kharms. He does sound similar.

  3. Walser has a way of getting to Nonsense without ever seeming to aim at it; he lets the sentence take him where it likes (it seems) and suddenly there he is, politely being mad, eg, "Outside a car awaited me, which then whisked me away, and so off I drove, and no doubt am still doing so to this day."

  4. I wrote three or four comments on that line and deleted them all. It is so good.

  5. I just discovered Walser . I posted two of his stories on my blog, public domain translations, both very brief

  6. I have read two Walser collections and still feel like I only just discovered him.

  7. I also just posted two podcasts of his short stories -which collections did you read and have you a recommendation for one to acquire? Thanks

  8. I read the Middleton Collected Stories and the recent Berlin Stories. The former is closer to "classic Walser," I guess, but it would be nice if someone would take a shot at translating and publishing Walser's books as such, as originally published.

    We are still in the hodgepodge phase with Walser in English.