Posts Tagged ‘Robert Walser’

As I do each summer, I’ve been on the road this year, first touring the UK for the Poetry Translation Centre’s Mexican Poets’ Tour, and eventually making my way—via Mombasa, Los Angeles, and Texas—to Bujumbura, Burundi. As always, I carry an extra suitcase to accommodate books I’m reading and reviewing. These are a few of my favorites from this summer: some of them travel with me, others I devoured so quickly I left them at home, all of them are noteworthy. Congratulations to their authors, translators, editors, and publishers. I hope they make their way into the hands of many readers.

A Definitive Edition & Two Beautiful Reissues

César Vallejo’s The Complete Poetry (U California P, $65) sets a high bar for international poetry collecteds, with its bilingual presentation of all Vallejo’s poetry alongside an intelligent and balanced commentary by Mario Vargas Llosa, Stephen Hart, and Efrain Kristal. Clayton Eshleman’s translations are superb, proving that Vallejo is a poet of staying power and increasing relevancy.

New Directions continues their beautiful reissues of modern classics, with the slender, pocket-sized Everything and Nothing ($9.95), by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Yates, Irby, Fein, and Weinberger, and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas ($14.95). In his succinct introduction to the latter, Paul Muldoon summarizes Thomas’ enduring appeal, “When we tear away the tabloidian tissue there is revealed a poet who has overcome so much—his influences, his being under the influence—that our impulse to reach for him when our own sense of the world is obstructed or obscured turns out to have been well founded”

Books Noted

Homero Aridjis’ latest book in English, Solar Poems (City Lights, $17.95), translated by George McWhirter, continues in the same vein as his later work: the poet still writes with an intense lyricism, but the regular insertion of politics—Aridjis has worked day jobs as a Mexican ambassador, as representative to UNESCO, and as spokesperson for several environmental initiatives—often seems more intrusive than natural. Durs Grunbein’s The Bars of Atlantis (FSG, $35) is as intelligent and cosmopolitan as his poetry; a perfect companion to FSG’s Ashes for Breakfast, it already ranks among the best of books of prose by poets to be released in 2010. It’s translated by John Crutchfield, Michael Hoffman, and Andrew Shields. Lily Hoang’s The Evolutionary Revolution (Les Figues, $15) is a great addition to the TrenchArt Maneuvers Series, both conceptually dense and continually interesting, as it answers  questions like “What if evolution was decided by committee and revolution by mere chance? What if man was a subspecies?” The second issue of The Folio Club ($7.95), edited by Robert Pranzatelli, showcases the second of Onsmith’s cover illustrations celebrating bibliophilia. Its interior continues to develop the magazine’s concept of well-crafted narrative prose. Robert Walser’s The Microscripts (New Directions/Christine Burgin, $24.95)—read our excerpt here—is one of the most beautiful books published this year. As elegant as their other much-hyped release, Anne Carson’s book-in-a-box Nox, but more reserved, its heavy stock paper resembles that of a museum catalogue. Susan Bernofsky’s translations and the scans of Walser’s tiny stories are both incredible: the awe factor is deservedly present.



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Micro-Robert, by Geoff Gossett

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.

Microscript text 408/I

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.

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The Tanners, Robert Walser. (New Directions) $15.95

The-Tanners“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.   

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