Thursday, May 6, 2010

Robert Walser

Fortunately, Robert Walser (whose short story, Balloon Journey, lends its name to this page) is published more and more, these days, in English. As a matter of fact, some of his prose has been made available online, by Harper's Magazine, in the images below.

The first piece opens in a way that is beautifully characteristic of Walser's style and, more than faintly, touched by the madness, which, towards the end, became him.
"Jaunts elegant in nature now lay in the past for this sorrowful man, who in the course of time might well have amassed quite respectable skills in crossing his arms and gazing pensively at the ground before him."
Immediately, there is a mood of uncertainty ("might well"), of unfulfillment and disappointment about the past and about life. This mood, however, is, just as quickly, undermined by an image that describes the triviality, or emptiness, of ambition and status ("skills in crossing his arms and gazing pensively"). To be unrealised, or disappointing, might be tragic, but to be "respectable" and self-important is, it seems, just a little, ridiculous.

The story resembles two character portraits: father and son. The father lives in a stark, unpeopled, world, ruled by obligation. The description is hesitant: "His youth had been framed, as it were, by severe, naked, tall, blue, I mean to say joy-deficient cliffs." Walser's narrator has no compunction about realigning a metaphor, mid-way through a sentence, or emphasising, tautologically, an unsettling detail: "He was constantly pondering how to earn his daily bread, which, being rare, was difficult to come by." The condition of the world is anthropomorphic; the father is, not just, "favored" by fortune but, "followed" and "prompted" by deprivation, and "befriended" by loneliness. He turns his back on pleasure, entertainment, a "young beautiful woman who served him well by making a good impression on his arm," and remains, "incapable of emerging from his worries". He is a character to whom the world happens, but who accepts the conflict inherent in existence, and, all-in-all, who is rendered firmly in the image of his maker.

The son, on the other hand, is very different case: "a certain precious entity - by which I mean the worrying - was not imparted to him." There is something untoward in the son's approach, which has the narrator at a loss, afraid, it seems, even to describe him: "my pen can scarcely find the courage to depict him or sketch his portrait." The willful self-sacrifice, of the father, is absent in the son, "who sat in his room reading, at pains to consider himself happy." The longing to be agreeable, to appear happy, is the mark of immaturity; of a saccharine and offensive naivety. There is the hint of a challenge to anyone, who may share this longing: Admit your insincerity. The world is a hard, all-defeating place; to act otherwise, is deceitful.

With his hesitance, to describe the son, stated, the narrator launches, with wonderful perversity, into an ornate, extended metaphor, for that very purpose. This is the zenith of the story: an Arcadia, which, "in an illusion-promoting manner", is replete with, "meadows, trees and paths, fountains splashing in pavilions", "swans with plumage that appeared to singing", and, even, a figurative "bride" and "bridegroom". It is a friendly, unrealistic vision of material bliss, with which, Walser disagrees. The metaphor is, above all, ironic. The son does not embody paradise, he answers to the demands of other people, who, "limited his activities to well-mannered comportment". He is, pleasingly, vapid and will suffer no indignity. Is this a response to the father's own downtroddenness? Above all, however, he is doomed:
"What people expected and almost found appropriate to wish for, in light of his preciousness, came to pass. An illness took hold of him, and he let it bear him away until he departed."
This final sentence, delivered in the passive voice, enacting the nature of the son's existence, turning against, and colouring with irony, the rest of the narration, makes its point: to be pleasant, thoughtless and indifferent, is a terminal condition.


The reason for this publication from Harper's, I would guess, is that a new volume of Walser's writing, Microscripts, from which the stories above have been taken, is being published by New Directions this month.

The "microscripts" were written in a minute scrawl, according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated them (as well two recently published novels by Walser, The Assistant and The Tanners). She said the following about them, in an interview on the New Directions Blog:
"Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts [...]"

More from, and about, The Microscripts, can be read at Molossus and at Quarterly Conversation. And, short fiction by Walser can be read at Vice Magazine, who have published three other, newly translated, stories.


  1. Nice job on Walser. Do you know the source of the Canetti quote? 'His head is made of stars, but not yet arranged into constellations.' Thanks, Doug

  2. Thanks. Unfortunately, no. I got the quote second-hand and don't remember ever personally coming across it in any of Canetti's books.

  3. Google Books to the rescue: "The Human Province," by Elias Canetti, 1978, p, 79. trans, J. Neugroschel.

    And yes, nice job on Walser!

  4. Thanks Sam.

    Your blog is excellent.

  5. A very interesting post - I must get hold of Microscripts. Thank you for some very interesting Walser links - I have updated my article to refer to yours.