A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories
by Robert Walser; translated by Damion Searles
NYRB Classics; 208 p.
The story goes that legendary Swiss Modernist writer, Robert Walser, met Lenin during World War I. Both found themselves in Zurich and when they met, Walser, reportedly, only said, “So you, too, like fruitcake?” This odd story captures the allure and abiding mystery of Walser and his works: he created worlds of endless ambiguity that felt both of this world and dreamily aloof. Walser, born in 1878, gained some early praise for his works, but then drifted away into relative obscurity as his writing grew more experimental and his life more eccentric. He ended up in a mental asylum, and was ultimately found dead in 1956 by children who stumbled upon his frozen body.
There’s something of the writer’s writer status in Robert Walser. Read by few since his death, but adored by the right people (Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, J.M. Coetzee and, more recently, Ben Lerner, Rivka Galchen and Benjamin Kunkel) there’s something of an in-the-know feel about reading Walser. As his writings become almost completely translated, more and more writers discover this often meek, playful, and secretive artist and feel in the presence of found genius.This status of a writer’s writer speak not only to the act of discovery, the gift of stumbling upon this unknown brilliant person, but also to the nature of the enjoyment. Walser, like other writer’s writers can do so much in one sentence as to floor anybody who values words, sentences, and the basic building blocks of literature.
Take this opening sentence to his story “Hans” from the new collection of early short stories, translated by Damion Searls, A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories:
When Hans, somewhat later, after much in his life had changed and he found himself occupied with entirely different things, thought back every now and then to that time, which he had primarily spent sauntering, strolling, and ambling around, the first he liked to remember, with a deep inner pleasure, was how one evening, after dinner, when it was just beginning to darken, he went out to the nearby lake where he sat down on a bench provided for such restful sojourns under the finely forking, delicate branches of a willow tree, so that, while in conformity to the gloomy weather it was raining out of the gray summer evening sky into the lake as though crying as if out of tear-filled eyes, he could sit for an hour there and dream.
This opening paragraph, consisting of one sentence that always feels on the verge of ending, perfectly distills Walser’s unassuming power. He starts with overgeneralized sweeping statements that mean both nothing and everything at the same time (“much in his life had changed and he found himself occupied with entirely different things”) then follows the thought into meandering territory, stumbles upon beauty (“restful sojourns under the finely, forking, delicate branches of a willow tree”) then falls back into some sort of existential dread (“conformity to the gloomy weather”) but ends up back in the realm of supposed sunshine (“he could sit for an hour there and dream”) which creates a non-story full of everything without the reading fully understanding where or what is supposedly going on.
For those, like myself, who knew little to nothing about Walser, this collection not only serves as the perfect introduction, but will likely convert you to the Walser fan club. Most of the book consists of micro stories or these micro essays, sketches of landscapes and strange little ideas that appear to meander for the sake of meandering. Some of them read like unfinished ideas for future stories, but they are all manipulative and delightfully ambiguous. Sometimes it feels as if Walser writes in a secret code that seems understandable and legible to all, but only understood by his world of one, himself but they manage to create an undeniable pull on the reader. “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, the best story in this very impressive collection, highlights his wide range of genius and talent. Written from the voice of a young teenage boy on topics given to him by his teacher, they are exercises in restraint and subtle subversion. On the assignment to write about “Man” Kocher writes:
Man should stand above his fellow creature, the animal, in all things. But even a foolish schoolboy can see people acting like irrational animals every day. Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture: why do people indulge in it? It must be because from time to time they feel the need to drown their reason in the dreams that swim in every kind of alcohol.
Indeed there is something magical about his stories (if you can call them stories), and something of the magician in Walser and the persona he creates. To call stories magical, especially in contemporary culture, conjures up images of inspiration and warm fuzzy feelings. Walser, though, is a writer of dark, black magic. Deceptively simple, his truly singular voice creates layers of unnerving ambiguity. Regardless of the setting or the topic, Walser manages to lull you to sleep only to scream you awake with some subtle twist (“Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture”), something feels wrong amidst the obedience and serenity of his writing, but there is never any release, it is constant uncertainty and tension.
Past this, what makes Walser both uber-modernist and still important is the pervasive playfulness of his work. You can spend hours trying to take apart Walser’s stories and sentences, in trying to figure out what the stories are actually about, whether Walser means anything he says, trying to discriminate between ironic and genuine statements, or in trying to comprehend if any of what he writes is more than the playful imagination of a genius wordsmith. But after the sterile analysis, there’s an abiding feeling of pleasure in the presence of singular art, something that remains intact regardless of our abilities to categorize.