Robert Walser might be hailed the forgotten modernist. Beyond academic circles and lovers of German literature, the reverberations of the Swiss writer are scantly felt in the English-speaking world. They are more easily perceived through the writers he influenced: Kafka, Hesse and Musil. Here is an artist who, rather than demand the special attention of the reader to appreciate a fierce, innovative style, writes from an absolutely basic level of prose. His devices are by no means a destruction, or of themselves a statement. His only tragedy, if he can be accused of having one, was being born with too big of a heart.
“A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories” is a collection of short pieces translated by Damion Searls, many appearing for the first time in English. Searls’ selection spans twenty-six years, from Walser’s first work in print “Greifen Lake” (1898) to “A Model Student,” (1925) a piece from his last book “The Rose.” The work is divided into three sections—first is “The Essays of Fritz Kocher,” the essays of a recently deceased schoolboy, followed by an expansive collection of short stories, topics ranging from adultery to military service to the life of an artist and finally, his sensual odyssey through nature, “Hans.”
What little we know of Walser’s biographical details are riddled with contradiction; an old soul with a child’s voice, a free-wandering nomad who firmly believed in authority, full of wild ambition but too servile and self-negating to act. “I am certainly a proponent of the slackard’s life, laziness happiness and peace: but alas, I am also for the military,” he writes in “In The Military.” One can see in pictures of the young author, in school uniform, eyes imbued with the weight of years far surpassing his own. Walser was raised in Biel, Switzerland, surrounded by the “broad, white silence” of alpine lakes and of villages nestled in valleys, peaks shrouded in mist—young Kocher describes nature as “blurry, delicate, intangible, infinite.” In “Greifen Lake,” published at age twenty-one, even high mountains “rise modestly.” In one of Kocher’s entries, “From the Imagination” the protagonist says, “What’s all around you is for thinking. What’s far away is for dreaming.” It is just that, the “all around” the moment, the impossibly small instant, that Walser captures with unmatched art. One wonders in reading, what eventually consigned the ingenuous young writer to a sanatorium.
After the publication of “The Essays of Fritz Kocher” in 1904, at the age of twenty-seven, he moved to Berlin (in the essays, Fritz Kocher expresses his desire to move to Berlin, were he a musician) in the hopes of pursuing the life of a writer. For the level of abashed naïvete, impressionistic wonder and whimsical dreaming of Walser’s writings—it’s appropriate that so many of his subjects are children.
And yet “Schoolboy” isn’t quite the thematic crossbeam of the collection. Searls says he was “loosely guided by themes of beginnings and writing” in compilation. It is an indispensable collection for anyone studying the craft of writing because it demonstrates, at length, the writing impulse in its most primordial form. And yet his devices are mysterious—as deep as one pries, there is always some suspicion of irony. Some of the most jarring tales are told in a voice no more amplified or lengthy than a fairy tale. It’s as fine an example as any of what can be achieved with an absolutely rudimentary style.
Structurally, the collection is familiar. The diary form in literature dates back to at least the nineteenth century. Most basically, his works are flash fiction; an anachronistic term applied to the early twentieth century. The “Kocher” assignments could have easily been written in an hour each, the course of a class. That is also, perhaps, their deception. Young Fritz’s “Essays” are a collection of exercises written for his classes on subjects ranging from“Poverty” to “Politeness,” from “The Fatherland” to “The Classroom.” Each a meditation on its subject presented in a voice simultaneously “boyish” and “unboyish.”
But to say that Walser’s writings eschew traditional literary devices would be an understatement. Remarkably, most of these stories are bereft even of conflict. Their simplicity belies a calculated and deliberate style, begging the argument that what the author has accomplished is utterly unique and indeed, truly modernist, not because he deliberately destructed the wall of tradition, as say, Joyce did, but because he dared to go for a walk. The delight in reading Walser is analogous to the lonely, meditative delight of a long walk.
Ben Lerner mentions in his introduction the amnesia-like sensation of reading Walser. This stems partially from the digression of his sentences but also their simple, terse monotony. Even the most heartrending moments are like footsteps through snow. According to Lerner, Walser’s prose is based more on motion than stable meanings. Incredibly flighty, the narrator will, on more than one occasion, forget where he is, physically, or how he got there. “Let an old pipe be mentioned here,” he writes in “Hans,” after a lengthy description of a room, “but hopefully only in passing.”
There is a striking unity in Walser’s life and art—the letters in his hand were diminutive, reportedly less than a millimeter high by the time of his death. He was discovered lying in the snow, by two children and their dog, dead, on Christmas Day, 1956. Though it’s never explained how young Kocher met his end and it is exceedingly difficult to gather from context, one imagines that it must have been something like his creator’s—a matter of the heart. (Taylor Cowan)
“A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories”
By Robert Walser, Damion Searls (trans)
New York Review Books Classics, 208 pages, $14.95