I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books. Please visit their website for a fantastic selection of titles, including more of Walser’s books in translation. This collection has been translated by from the German by Tom Whalen, Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner.
This collections defies classification as far as genre is concerned. The introduction to the book calls the writings a collection of eighty-one “brief texts” that were written throughout the course of Walser’s life. Some of the writings appear to be fictional short stories but others have a distinctly autobiographical feel to them. Walser even writes a few short dialogues and a book review. In addition, he has a wide range of topics and themes and writes about anything from nature, to fashion, to death and dying. This is a collection best absorbed a few pieces at a time so one can savor his pithy and didactic collection.
Walser makes mundane things seem fascinating. My favorite piece that falls into this category is entitled, “A Morning” in which he describes a Monday morning in a bookkeeping office as the minutes painfully tick by. The central figure is man named Helbling who unapologetically walks into work almost thirty minutes late. Walser’s description of the interaction between Helbling and his boss makes us laugh and cringe:
Totally be-Mondayed, his face pale and bewildered, he shoots in a jiffy to his place and position. Really, he could have apologized. Up in Hasler’s pond, I mean head, the following thought pops up like a tree frog: “Now that’s just about enough.” Quietly he walks over to Helbling and, positioning himself behind him, asks why he, Helbling, can’t, like the others, show up on time. He, Hasler, is, after all, really starting to wonder. Helbling doesn’t utter a word in response, for some time now he’s made a habit of simply leaving the questions of his superior unanswered.
Walser makes ordinary events like suffering from a toothache, wearing a fashionable overcoat, having afternoon tea and observing a beautiful woman absolutely riveting.
Another common and enjoyable theme that occurs frequently in his writing is that of nature. There are pieces dedicated to the description of a peaceful morning and a walk on a beautiful autumn afternoon.One of my favorite pieces, entitled “Poetry” reads more like poetry than prose. In this brief and reflective writing we get the sense that Walser is constantly fighting against a deep melancholia and he uses the occasion of a winter day as the inspiration for expressing his emotions. He writes:
I never wrote poems in summer. The blossoming and resplendence were too sensuous for me. In summer I was melancholy. In autumn a melody came over the world. I was in love with the fog, with the first beginnings of darkness, with the cold. I found the snow divine, but perhaps even more beautiful, more divine, seemed the dark wild warm storms of early spring.
It is not surprising that Walser fought a deep depression and anxiety for which in 1929 he was voluntarily hospitalized in Waldau, a psychiatric clinic outside Bern. By the early 1940’s he was permanently confined to the hospital and declared that his writing career was over. There are hints in this collection that even as early as 1917 Walser is fighting some powerful demons. In the story entitled “The Forsaken One,” written during that year, Walser pictures himself as a lonely, hopeless vagabond who is wandering around on a gloomy night. He finds a house that is terrifying but he feels compelled to step inside and wander around until he finds an angelic female figure whom he calls a “celestial outcast.” He feels an affinity toward her and is relieved that he has found someone that is just a lonely and isolated as himself.
It is truly impossible to cover the scope of this collection unless I were to make my review several pages long. I have tried to sum up the writings that have made the greatest impression on me. But I am confident that everyone can find something in this collection that he or she loves. Thanks to the New York Review of Books for bringing us this brilliant classic in translation.
About the Author:
Robert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Jakob von Gunten and Berlin Stories (available as NYRB Classics), The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.