Poor Robert Walser would like to give the impression that his writing might barely be worth paying attention to:
This story although I have my doubt about its veracity, gave me, when someone told it to me, great pleasure, and I will tell it here as well as I can, but under one condition: that no one interrupt me with yawning before it’s over.
It would be a mistake, Walser insists, to think of his writing as serious art, as literature. His self-annihilating narrators undercut their own authority at every turn. His is something amateurish, the work of a dilettante, and probably not even true. Walser goads: but can’t you tell I’m beside the point? Why do you bother reading?
For joy, of course, would be the hypothetical response. But Walser would have known that, I’m sure. He was forever teasing out and dramatizing in ungainly and absurd monologues, the difficult, inexorable intersections between selfishness and society, productivity and pleasure, hard work and happiness, idleness and invention. A Schoolboy’s Diary, a recently published collection of Walser’s short prose works organized and translated by Damion Searls, which in many ways expresses and animates Walser’s confounding tininess and incorrigible silliness better than any book to previously appear in English, is only further confirmation of the singular, complicated kind of joy that he both invented and explored.
I confess, when I heard of the publication of A Schoolboy’s Diary, I wondered, haven’t we already got the best of Walser? His most essential books, Jakob Von Gunten and Selected Stories, first published respectively in English in 1970 and 1982, have been back in print for over a decade, and a spate of additional books have recently appeared in English for the first time. But so ideal do the chosen themes of schoolboy-hood and diary writing prove as unifying principles for a book of Walser’s writing, it’s hard to believe one hadn’t been previously published. Or even that Walser himself hadn’t prepared the collection.
The distracted, hyperactive voice of the schoolboy expresses the persistent frustration that marks Walser’s prose. “I admit that the invention of the story I have to tell here has cost me not a little trouble, although readers may perhaps find it somewhat silly,” he writes. His narrators often seem almost lost for words, but almost lost in such a way that the only thing they can do is to speak more: more urgently, less sensibly, more intensely: “How beautiful it is to long for what is beautiful and good.” Guided by feeling, they speak through, over, and beyond a feverish self-doubt. Or, as J. M. Coetzee has remarked, “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.”
Like so many modern writers who favored the monologue as a form, digression is important to Walser, but even more so is contradiction: “Not even I believed what I was saying, and the most estimable of persons believed it just as little as I did,” announces the narrator of “The New Novel”. This, combined with his old-fashioned, childish deference—which has been noted, I think, in every response to his work I’ve read, from Susan Sontag’s early appraisal (“"Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble”) to Ben Lerner’s introduction to this most recent publication (“‘Walser’s celebration of the monotonous or uniform returns us to his fascination with subservience, with relinquishing all personality to imposed order”)—makes the conceit of A Schoolboy’s Diary so apt, and the collection so brilliant.
Join in, be proud, cultivate yourself, and, above all, grow up: all these dreary dictates are simply confusing chores to Walser. The strictures of class, manners, education, and fashion are a constant and often overwhelming source of anxiety. In the Fritz Kocher essays, which comprise the first third of A Schoolboy’s Diary, this tension is played out in the form of great ironic over enthusiasm: Fritz opens the short essay “Politeness” hilariously, with the line: “Nothing would be more boring than people not being polite to each other.” But later in the book, Walser’s narrators speak with more frankness about the affectedness they see:
Once there was a city. The people there were all puppets. But they walked and talked, they had movement and feeling and were very polite. They not only said: Good morning, or: Good night, they meant it too, and with all their hearts.
If the lamentable burden of society is one half of Walser’s obsequious temperament, the other is the gratification of noticing how nature dominates. Nature, in Walser’s hands, is a powerfully swirling, anthropomorphic thing. Like childhood, it glows with potential and the promise of fantasy. In “The Rowboat,” a story about a young couple kissing on a boat in the middle of a lake, “The beautiful moon has plunged into the water like a bold young prince into the thick of battle.” Never quite settling into a form, nature looms and leers, imposing itself on Walser’s narrators, inscrutably indifferent to their almost erotic excitement:
The mountains seemed so big and powerful to me, and they were too . . .The mountainous nature struck me as extravagant, with its beautiful dark forests soaring upward. I saw the narrow paths snaking around the mountains, so graceful, so rich in poetry.
Unlike other people, who in the eyes of Walser’s narrators are at best a spectacle, but more often a source of misunderstanding, nature’s enormousness overawes satisfyingly.
When reading a Walser story, there’s a temptation, which is also at the time a joy, to ask a very obvious, futile question: is this actually happening? As Sontag has said, “In Walser’s fictions one is (as in so much of modern art) always inside a head,” and the boundaries of that head aren’t always clear. But Walser’s writing to me feels so different from most modern art, and different from the sort of unreliable narration found in most conventional fiction. His stories never seem invented, but nor could they be real. His writing is the electricity in-between; the deflating confusion of falsely recognizing a friend in a crowd. Walser doesn’t take sides. He is one of the few writers who can keep the opposing poles of fantasy and reality suspended side-by-side in constant and impossibly complimentary opposition.
A Schoolboy’s Diary has more in common in certain ways with Christopher Middleton’s translation of Selected Stories than Susan Bernofsky’s version of Berlin Stories, having been conceived of and edited in English, rather than translated wholesale from German. And, like Selected Stories, it is uneven. Searls has collected work by Walser from almost every point in his writing life, and the outcome can be jarring. Just as I’d settled into Part I, it was over. Part II jolts between pieces. But all the same, Searls somehow succeeds in revealing a new side of Walser (or rather in amplifying something crucial in him), without straying too far from the precedent set by other translators.
“The usefulness of a fair is great,” the fictional schoolboy Fritz Kocher writes in one of his short essays. Adding, “All anyone does is trade, bustle, shout, run around, look, buy, and sell.” But in spite of this Fritz is not interested in the trading, and instead fixes on a snake charmer:
I can watch her for hours with the greatest of pleasure. She stands supremely still. Her face is pale, her eyes are big and lackluster, and the expression of her mouth is filled with contempt. I don’t mind letting her despise me: She is so sad.
How did we leave the supposedly all-important hustle-and-bustle of the marketplace so far behind, to end up here, alone, despised, and eye-to-eye with a snake charmer wearing “a tight-fitting red dress, feathered hat, and high little boots”? Releasing himself from the correctness and sense of consequence that comes with adulthood, Walser indulges in the hairpin-turn logic of adolescent conversation and thought, subjects coming and going, spinning out from one another in endless, self-sufficient ways.
The story of the fair closes with the lines, “My parents gave me a frank to spend. I wonder where it went.—Beautiful snake lady!” Fritz narrates like someone in the throes of addiction; his self-control shot to ribbons. He floats unimportantly through the world, smiling dumbly. Walser’s distaste for responsibility is a sort of Peter Pan syndrome. He teases out emotional uncertainty, and revels in the strange and sudden constriction and alienation of leaving childhood, entering adolescence, and approaching adulthood. In the collection’s title story, the narrator declares: “As a secondary school student, it is time to think about life a little more seriously.” The mental landscape of many of the pieces is something like what London must have been for the Darling children upon returning from Neverland.
Herman Hesse is often quoted as having declared that if Walser, “had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.” Not quite suddenly, however, Walser has something of a wide readership; even before the publication of A Schoolboy’s Diary, there were, by my count, a dozen books of his in print in English, including two collections of his poetry. It’s more than can be said for many more prolific, living writers. Counting in not just Germanophone countries and the United States, but the rest of the world where Walser’s works exist in yet more translations, the number of Walser’s readers probably does for the first time exceed a hundred thousand. And yet, the world doesn’t to me at least doesn’t seem to be noticeably improved.
Walser, who in everything he wrote strove for an impossibly sincere, childlike excitability and indecision, would, of course, have laughed at the idea of literature (let alone his own writing) as a means of progress. He was a romantic writer, but wrote in the most minor of keys. His narrators quiver with an unconcealed and provincial reverence for authority. “Nothing delights my soul as much as the feeling I get when I surprise my teacher with a clever answer,” writes Fritz Kocher. Nature and music are exalted; society is a baffling series of pyrrhic victories and embarrassments. “What’s wrong with me? Nothing at all, nothing at all. Please!” the narrator of “All Right Then” cries out. Far from showing the way forward, Walser’s writing speaks to being overwhelmed by even the smallest corner of the world, and is charged with an impressionistic and fearsome ecstasy at life’s vastness.
Oh, that snake charmer! What happened to that frank my parents gave me again?
Will Heyward is an editorial assistant at Knopf. His book reviews and journalism can be found at willheyward.com.