Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Robert Walser, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories

Robert Walser. Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories . Translated from the German by Tom Whalen, with Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner. New York: New York Review Books, 2016. 181 pages. $15.95 paperback.

                Famous authors can have a sobering
                effect, whereas a total unknown can
                invigorate us.

                Robert Walser

Who was Robert Walser (1878–1956)? A contributor to newspapers, a writer of several novels, a holder of menial jobs, a man who spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a sanitarium, where his purpose, he said, was not to write but to be mad. Given the ever-growing twenty-first-century interest in his work, one might think of Walser in this way: the total unknown as famous writer.

Walser is made for our time: he presents himself in his short prose pieces as awkward and self-deprecating, irreverent and knowing. If he is, to borrow a melodramatic phrase from James Joyce’s Dubliners , outcast from life’s feast (“It goes without saying I lived eternally alone”), he is happy, still, to notice whatever may prompt incongruous delight: “I may only live on the outskirts, but at least my room has a parquet floor.” His celebration of the everyday and unspectacular can reach hilarious heights: “Early each morning, my Daseinlust , or pleasure-in-being, refreshes itself with the finest Dutch cocoa.” Or he can puncture the pompous and preening with exact description: “Once he had kissed the golden shoes of an artiste. The gold didn't shimmer, instead it simply lay pale, as if applied like a thin, vacuous coating of varnish.” And Walser turns tragedy into self-mocking, Beckettian comedy: “I remember once I had for a time a severe toothache. In order to numb the pain, I ran into the fields and roared there like King Lear.” A life shot through with pathos, a body of work filled with comedic high spirits: Walser reminds me of the American poet David Schubert, another writer who had the misfortune to be too far ahead of his time.

Delight in the ordinary marks Walser as something of a parodic faux-naïf modernist. Again and again he draws upon and reinvents scenes that suggest children’s stories, picture postcards, theater sets: a mountain path, a quaint village, a restaurant, a castle. Familiar figures appear as if on cue: children at play, farmhands, a kindly grandmother. The only figure who cannot be accounted for is he who writes, solitary and forever passing through (to where?), forever noticing what’s odd (a restaurant patron who plays a succession of musical instruments and makes animal noises) or what’s oddly haunting:

I stepped under the roof of a summerhouse that stands on the rocks. Everything green quickly became dripping wet. Down on the street a few people stood under the dense foliage of the chestnut trees as if under wide umbrellas. This looked so strange; I don’t recall ever having seen anything quite like it. Not a single raindrop pushed its way through the densely layered mass of leaves.
And Walser notices women. But there are no girlfriends in this volume, really. Or if there are, they are ghosts, or feminine traces: eyes, feet, voices, faces hidden behind hats. (J. Alfred Walser?) Women, as Walser often imagines them, are remote and powerful, exercising their will benevolently or despotically, as if following a handbook of courtly love. (See the illustration above, by Walser’s brother Karl, with a woman who seems to be awaiting or moving toward someone else, even as she’s being serenaded.) In one prose piece, a goddess sitting on a cloud descends to an elegant main street and surveys the crowd with her “large blue kind eyes.” Elsewhere, a woman notices Walser staring at her and returns “a long and deep look of pride and protest,” which Walser then imagines dropping onto him from above, “dark brown and blazing.” On a rare occasion, things go further, if only in imagination: a “forest woman,” “wild, large, beautiful, unfamiliar,” wearing a straw hat and little more, allows the writer to see and kiss her legs.

The most extraordinary encounter with the feminine takes places in “Lake Piece,” which seems to prefigure Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West.” It is a beautiful summer night:
As I walked over an arched bridge, I heard from below, out of the water, a wonderful voice making its way up to me; it was a brightly clad girl in a gondola who was passing by, and I and perhaps one other, who was also intrigued by the tender voice, bent over the railing to listen with utmost attention to the charming song that, in the amphitheater or concert hall formed by the gentle night, warmly and brightly faded away. We two or three, we who were listening, admitted to ourselves that we had never heard such beautiful singing, and we said to ourselves that the song of the sweet-tempered singer gliding onwards in the almost invisible skiff was tremendous, less through art and magnificent vocal talent than through a wonderful intensity of soul and the rapture of a dear, generous heart.
The singer towers “like a figure into the air,” and as she continues to sing,
The song was like a royal palace growing to a fabulous size, so that one believed one saw princes and princesses dancing and galloping past on splendidly festooned horses. Everything transformed itself into sonorous life and into a sonorous beauty; the whole world was like kindness itself, and one could no longer find fault with life, with human existence.
The beauty of this song is the beauty of a moment, without the grand reordering of reality that follows in Stevens’s poem. This song is not a matter of abstractions in conflict, imagination contending with reality; Walser’s singer is engaged in a battle against “shyness and ordinary behavior.” Her song loses itself “in the distance,” and the writer moves on, to the next prose piece, and the next, and, finally, to his own silence. One of the last pieces in this volume seems to point to the end of Walser’s work in writing: “He was gripped by an illness he could not resist, and leaving memories behind, let it lead him away.”

Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories includes eighty-eight short prose pieces written between 1907 and 1933, arranged chronologically and translated into beautifully lively English. This book is a major addition to the body of Robert Walser’s work in English translation. Publication date: September 13.

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

Related reading
Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures (my review)
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[The phrase “outcast from life’s feast” appears in the story “A Painful Case.” Cover image from the publisher’s website.]

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