Thursday, December 10, 2015

Robert Walser: “nothing less than ghastly”

Robert Walser’s first novel The Tanners (1907) begins with Simon Tanner entering a bookstore and pleading for the chance to work there. The bookseller gives him a one-week trial. That’s long enough for Simon to make up his mind:

Robert Walser, The Tanners , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2009).

The Tanners is a deliriously funny and odd novel. Walser’s prose takes on a special strangeness in an extended narrative: characters speechify for pages on end; they undertake difficult, interminable walks; crucial events come out of nowhere and pass with no further mention. It’s something like reading a novel that has lost the ability to remember its narrative line from chapter to chapter. I love it.

I count Robert Walser and David Schubert as two great lucky finds in my life of reading. In other words, writers whose names might prompt a “Who?” (Though Walser was and is now far better known than Schubert.)

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

comments: 4

Chris said...

Apologies if I've asked this before on one of your previous Walser posts, but are you familiar with Guy Davenport's short story about Walser, "A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg"?

I've been circling around Walser for years, partly due to the Davenport story. I read Jakob von Gunten in the '80s, wasn't really all that impressed, and had a hard time getting through some of his stories, but I did enjoy The Walk. And I'm a big fan of the Quay Brothers' animated shorts, several of which draw on Walser (though I still have not seen their version of Institute Benjamenta).

Michael Leddy said...

I know some of Davenport’s essays but not the story. Thanks. (I just got a copy from JSTOR). Before starting The Tanners I’d read only short Walser pieces. The Walk might be my favorite of those. (I have the novels and other books lined up for future reading.) I’ve borrowed a DVD of the Quays’s short films from the library and never found time to watch — I’ll have to try again. I had no idea that there was a Walser connection; it was a chance borrowing. Thanks for that too.

About the field of snow in the title: there’s a scene in The Tanners that has an eerie relation to Walser’s later life.

Chris said...

The Quays are huge Walser fans. Other than Institute Benjamenta, though, the influences can be somewhat difficult to trace in their work, but at least one of their shorts is dedicated to Walser. Their most interesting short film is probably Street of Crocodiles, which has nothing to do (at least directly) with Walser. I'm sure it was on whatever collection you took out. It's pretty brilliant.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, you mentioned that one in a comment. And now I realize that’s why I borrowed the Quays from the library. And then my dad had a stroke, we returned everything we had out, drove to NJ . . . I’ll try again.