Following last year’s publication of Robert Walser’s The Tanners, shortlisted for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award and reviewed by Molossus contributor Tim Bagnadov here, Molossus is proud to present an excerpt from his next book to be published by our esteemed friends in New York, The Microscripts. The Microscripts collects forty stories scrawled in a nearly microscopic hand on discarded scrap paper, transcribed after Walser’s death, and translated here by Susan Bernofsky. What Walter Benjamin hailed “one of the profoundest products of modern literature” will be released by New Directions, in collaboration with The Christine Burgin Gallery, 25 May 2010.
The Prodigal Son
Once again I encountered the “incomparably uncanny man,” whom I consider a likeable, useful person. Hurrying down an antiquated, perhaps downright uncanny alleyway, I bought tobacco in a little cigar shop. The shop owner insisted I address her as “Frau Doktor” in deference to her husband’s rank. Courtesy isn’t always quite so appealing but it does strengthen the one who, as it were, advocates for and pledges himself to it, who takes up its cause. The wind is comporting itself quietly; people are looking my way as if they expect something from me, and as calmly as you please I allow them to brush me with their eyes, whose beams polish, plane, round and flatten me. In my opinion it is one of the amenities of life to perceive the present as the eye of God, whereby I lay at your feet the assurance that a certain religious fervor prompts me to speak in such a way. This man of the world or pious man—which needn’t be such an incommensurability—doesn’t believe in “fatednesses,” but now something entirely different has just occurred to me, namely the circumstance that imperious, dogmatic persons can just as suddenly turn into indulgent, docilely obliging ones. Repeating with great pleasure that I have a by no means unfavorable impression of this uncanny individual who haunts the nocturnal streets, I announce to you respectfully that I have now and then had occasion to see him standing before a shop window. he maintains apparently excellent relations with distinguished house- holds and looks as though he were as old as the hills and in the bloom of youth—as though he were constantly remaining the self- same immediate middle, the good fellow who isn’t good, the bad one who isn’t bad. And is not, by the way, our very epoch itself possessed in so many respects of a quite canny uncanniness? But let me set this question aside for the time being so as to make my way swiftly and without hindrance to the “Glünggi.” even if the uncanny fellow may consider industrialists who read Ernst Zahnsche books and perhaps have even declared this Swiss author, their favorite producer of belles lettres, to be wobbly in questions of taste and matters of erudition, I shall nonetheless declare this spoonlet tale to be a factitious ludicrosity that cannot be thrown down from its pedestal. uncanny Man is one of those everlasting saplings who, standing in a kitchen one morning at nine o’clock, press to their lips with indubitable enravishment a little teaspoon that a woman of perhaps forty summers has pressed into service for purposes of breakfasting. Are there not sins just as paltry as they are sweet? Are there not eyes in which contentment shimmers like a burgeoning summer? Are there not wintry dissatisfactions in life’s warmer seasons? But devil take it, my Glünggi is still waiting to be dispatched.
I shall now come to speak of the famous biblical prodigal son, who sank with a beggarliness that knew no peer into the most pitiable remorsefulness, which would make him appear to deserve the designation “Glünggi” in every respect. This whimsical honorific refers to a milksop or oversensitive sissy, to whom apologies are of great concern. Glünggis are short on moxie. When they make a mistake, they sincerely regret it. At night these creatures emit highly resonant sighs. The prodigal son may well represent a prize example of this species, for he is depraved, and moreover considers himself depraved, thereby achieving the utmost pinnacle of Glüngginess. A different Old Testament figure represents the utter opposite of a Glünggi type. This figure is named Saul, and of him it is known that he had no patience for emotionality. Saul considered music, for example, to be harmful to one’s health. First of all, he loved music with all his heart; secondly, however, he cursed its emotional capacity. By simultaneously drawing it to him and thrusting it away, he proved himself an inveterate music lover. The music pierced his heart, which, however, showed itself to be exceedingly, that is, most improperly, up at arms about this penetration. Once Saul let himself go. “Bring me David so he can sing me a song, the young wretch.” This is what he ordered, and at once his command was carried out. David was not lacking in beauty and pliancy, and he was also the most peerless scoundrel. He sang and plucked the strings marvelously, with an outright scoundrelly charm. Saul, in thrall, but nonetheless enterprise-y and assaultive, hurled his spear at the rouser and riler of souls. The boy was indeed riling and rousing petrifactions with his artistic culture. Saul was no Glünggi. Neither was David, for that matter, since he was taking no steps whatever to protect himself from hurled-spear eventualities.
Thus far I have lived through very little. One of the few amorous adventures experienced by your colossally humble servant transpired on an express-train and consisted of my falling to my knees before an extraordinarily well-calibrated voluptuosity in the form of a charming fellow traveler. On another occasion I idolized, while seated on a garden bench painted grass green and with a swiftness that filled me with astonishment, a lady who happened to walk past.
Uncanny Man, for whom you might perhaps be able to spare a shred of sympathy, belongs to the estimable clan or group of individuals who are unlucky to a tolerable extent and succeed in feeling happy about the circumstance that they are a sort of prodigal son. He is possessed of so-called healthy views. He is more innocuous than he suspects. He assumes he is merely uncanny, utterly failing to perceive his own cluelessness. Does this not bear witness to a pernicious kindness of heart? He has at his disposal a garden-variety erudition, which can just as easily be harmful as helpful. His immaculate overcoat is uncannily flattering.
The prodigal son turned up at home all covered in rags. And how unreservedly, how prostrately he repented! Uncanniness in our time seems to me possibly to lie in our unwillingness to repent, in our being too frail to disclose our own frailties. No one wants to be a Glünggi, least of all me. And yet I am all the same pleased to have spoken in this missive of the prodigal son. He met with understanding. Being happy, after all, surmounts and surpasses all frailty and strength. Happiness is the shakiest of things and yet also the most solid.
Published here by permission from New Directions Publishing, all rights reserved. All images of Robert Walser and of Robert Walser microscripts copyright © the Robert Walser Foundation Bern, Switzerland. Translation copyright © Susan Bernofsky, 2010.