Robert Walser. Looking at Pictures . Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton. New York: Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2015. 144 pages, illustrated. $24.95 hardcover.
The ancient practice of ekphrasis is a matter of speaking about a work of visual art, providing a verbal analogue of a mute image. (Think shield of Achilles , Iliad 18.) In these twenty-five short prose pieces, Robert Walser (1878–1956) writes about paintings, to paintings, and from within paintings. And at times he leaves paintings aside to discuss other things. Each work of art becomes an occasion for the writer’s own imaginative performance.
Walser writes about paintings (by his brother Karl, Fragonard, Watteau, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and others) as if no one had ever thought to do so before. Thus the element of arch naïveté in his prose: “A painter is a person who holds a brush in his hand. On the brush is paint.” “Every great painter the world has known has been cheerful, quiet, thoughtful, clever and superbly educated.” Historicizing a Fragonard painting, Walser presents himself as a game amateur doing his best: “Railroads didn’t exist yet, and the niceties of central heating had not yet been worked out. No one had ever heard of petroleum lamps.” And of Watteau:
Knowing little about him, I shall nonetheless promptly make my way, as if rambling across meadows, into the task of describing his life, as if stepping into an attractive, prettily wallpapered little house, this being a life devoted to gaiety, that is to art, in other words to a certain delight in one’s own person.A delight in one’s own person indeed.
The aesthetic of Looking at Pictures is a playful blend of realism and its alternatives. An imaginary painter writes in a notebook of painting “meticulously precise likenesses” of people and things. Elsewhere Walser praises painted bouquets as possessing “flower-bouquetishness,” and painted domiciles, “domesticity.” And of a Beardsley candle: “It may be that never before has an illustrator reproduced the flickering of a candle in so candle-like a manner, so flickery.” Paintings (or the figures therein) at times become so real that they talk back: Van Gogh’s Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux tells Walser of her early life; Manet’s Olympia asks Walser to tell her a story. The high point of this play comes in a piece about Diaz’s The Forest Clearing : its landscape becomes the setting for a terrifying monologue by a mother abandoning her child, a mother conscious of her presence within a painting: “I swear to you, as truthfully as I am standing here with you in this forest painted by Diaz, you must earn your livelihood with bitter toil so that you will not go to ruin inwardly.” And the leaves on the ground offer their comment on Walser’s work:
“What has been written in this brief essay appears to be quite simple, but there are times when everything simple and readily comprehensible recedes from human understanding and only can be grasped with great effort.”Elsewhere Walser leaves paintings behind. “An Exhibition of Belgian Art” begins with an undescribed visit to one exhibition site, followed by a stop at a café, thoughts about a girlfriend, recollections of military sevice, more thoughts about a girlfriend, an account of a dream, a story from Swiss history, until finally:
Pleased as I am to have had the opportunity to speak about a stately and beautiful artistic event, I consider myself obliged to limit myself with regard to the extensiveness of my remarks. Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice to by others.The deciphering of Robert Walser’s pencilled microscripts and the rediscovery of his beautiful, funny, sad, enigmatic work (in German and in English translation) is one of the great developments in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literary culture. I look forward to further new arrivals in translation from both published works and the Bleistiftgebiet (pencil zone).
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)
[Thanks to the publishers for a review copy of the book. Cover image from the New Directions website.]