The Tanners, Robert Walser. (New Directions) $15.95
“The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether… he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways.” So begins W.G. Sebald in his introduction to New Directions’ recent publication of The Tanners, and the truth of his observation could easily be proven with even a cursory poll of American bibliophiles. Though admired in his own day by Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse, Walser has been largely over-looked among readers outside of Switzerland and Germany; until recently, that is, when academia rediscovered his works forgotten amongst the topmost shelves of modernism—wedged, perhaps, between dusty volumes of Remarque and Brecht.
Simon Tanner, of the title’s Tanners, is a study in paradox: loquacious and introspective, industrious and idle, he stumbles through the Swiss countryside and through various employments in constant vacillation between excitement and boredom. In fact, sense of belonging and comfort with surrounding seem to be emotional states that elude the Tanner family as a whole. They wander like orphans from job to job, town to town, and sibling to sibling with little of the self-confidence that is provided by an anchor of home.
Reading through the book one gets the impression that Walser suffered from some sort of literary anti-ADD. For him pen and paper must have swelled, as though viewed through a magnifying glass, until he could clearly see the missing bits of speech and chronicle he had yet to include. He then slotted all those bits into place so that each description, each dialogue, spans over pages and pages with hardly a pause for paragraphs breaks, or even the other sides of his characters’ meandering conversations. When Walser’s characters congregate in dining-rooms or stroll through fields, they don’t converse—they orate. In a 2000 review of The Robber and Jakob von Gunten, J.M. Coetzee remarks that “Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist.”
Yet somehow, despite his daunting blocks of unbroken text and long-winded oratory, Walser’s work remains readable and delicate. His humor is complex and his descriptions are laid out beautifully, with a painter’s eye. Simon’s indecision becomes irksome at times, but as his sister proclaims to him in a moment exaggerated vexation, “your behavior liberates our behavior from every sort of restraint.” And I find myself agreeing with her.
Tim Bagdanov, Fiction Columnist and Investigator of Oddities, is currently pursuing a Master’s of Teaching degree at Chapman University. A writer of fiction and poetry, he lives in Orange, California with his wife, Jessica.