The publication of this collection of around forty short stories from Serpent’s Tail books affords the English speaking public a unique opportunity; that of reading Walser, possibly the leading modernist writer of Swiss German in the last century. He has received high praise in A Place in the Country, W.G.Sebald’s recently published posthumous collection and he is well-known as being a significant influence on Franz Kafka. His work here dates from 1907 to 1929 and along with his poetry won him recognition with Berlin’s avant garde. He combines lyrical delicacy with detailed observation; reflective melancholy with criticism of brash commercialism. The fine writing in this volume strives to achieve a hard won integrity together with an experimental capacity for reflection. It challenges the reader and provokes him to new insights.
Referring to Walser’s ten page account, Kleist in Thun, written in 1913 Susan Sontag in her introduction states, “Wasler often writes from the point of view of a casualty of the romantic visionary imagination”. Walser describes how Kleist, an intense poet of High German Romanticism arrives in a villa in the beautiful Bernese Oberland. Kleist is overwhelmed and disturbed by his own response to what appears to him as the artificiality of his surroundings, as though it were all a sketch by a clever scene painter in an album with green covers. “Which is appropriate. The foothills at the lake’s edge are so half-and-half green, so high, so fragrant”. The changes in the weather and the seasons are portrayed as Kleist struggles with his own historical writings which he is forced to destroy over and over. This piece portrays with sensitivity Kleist’s struggle for the peaceful moments when he can feel again the outright happiness of a child. All that now remains is a plaque on the wall to commemorate the poet’s visit.
Written over an extensive period these tales vary in tone from the surreal “Trousers” to the strange voyage of a captain, a gentleman and a young girl over the luminous course of the Elbe in “Balloon Journey”. In the more psychologically interesting “Helbling’s Story”, a bank clerk finds that he is feckless in time keeping and prefers the self-forgetfulness of dancing. His pursuit of his lively fiancée reveals that her sweetness tempered by her faithlessness. He seems caught between how he is perceived by his colleagues at the bank and his deep yearnings for isolation to the point of oblivion. There is a degree of Weltschmerz in some of these tales but worth the effort. Gradually, they repay the reader with their strange charm.
The longest story of sixty pages, “The Walk”, is an account of the writer venturing forth in his English yellow suit and recording his strongly felt impressions of the people, countryside and architecture that he encounters on a fine morning. As he gets into his stride, he remarks,” Spirits with enchanting shapes and garments emerged vast and soft, and the country road shone sky-blue, and white and precious gold”. Written in 1917, it also reveals his impressions of noisy cars passing by and of intrusive advertising in all its brashness contrasting with this rural idyll. He visits the post office, his tailor and goes to pay his taxes. Nothing escapes his eye, wild strawberry bushes, rivulets, the innocent play of children, honest black-jet dogs and he is almost hypersensitively given to reflect too upon the impression he makes upon others. Into this prose poem enter curious character like the odd lanky beanpole of a fellow called, Tomzack, who travels restlessly and devoid of human connection. Then with Swiss punctuality he dines with a cordial gracious lady that had previously been an actress. His self-justification and need for recognition attain huge and angry proportions when he negotiates his tax payments and it is at this point that his writing brings Kafka to mind. Out of this dense writing emerge passages with a sense of monumental grandeur and an awareness of transcending grace.
In addition to his value as a great writer, Robert Walser also affords the delights of entering a past world, that of Switzerland, a land isolated by the partial protection of its neutrality. The elegance of this past together with his sensitive impressions, including the already crowding and wearying pressures of commercialism, adds an extra level of piquancy. Joseph Roth, a well-known contemporary who also had a developed taste for irony, on arrival in Berlin, wrote in 1921, “The diminutive of the parts is more impressive than the monumentality of the whole”. In Walser’s writing we continually encounter this same fascination with the fine entrancing detail of small and beautiful things.
The cover image by August Sander shows three smartly dressed young farmers in Westerwald, although not entirely appropriate, makes an elegant jacket to these varied stories of imagination and vision.
A You Tube programme for German speakers is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twMopurvK8g Portrait und Erinnerungen