Monday, February 8, 2010

Lasting impressions: Robert Walser's The Tanners

portraits of Robert Walser included in W.G. Sebald's essay

Here’s what seized my attention right away. A young man enters a bookstore, asks to be introduced to the proprietor. Upon meeting the old man he begins a rambling, effusive overture detailing his profound desire to enter the world of bookselling. “My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love…” The proprietor agrees to hire the young man on the spot, giving him a week’s trial period. A week later, after having made a highly favorable impression, the young man approaches his employer and unexpectedly demands to be let go. “I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade in nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature…” His resignation speech is as deliciously excessive as his earlier declaration of vocational discovery. The sequence is hilarious, teetering on absurd, yet peppered with almost lyrical observations on the nature of work and youth and spiritual urges that resonate and will continue to resonate throughout this ambulatory, funny, hypnotic, strangely haunting work. It was the first novel from Swiss author Robert Walser, and the last to be translated into English—very beautifully, by Susan Bernofsky—more than a century after its 1906 publication.

Truthfully, it was the accolades alone that sold me on
The Tanners (New Directions, $20). Walser was not widely read during his lifetime (1878-1956), but among his readers were Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse and Walter Benjamin. Those who have pledged their admiration for Walser in the decades after his death include Susan Sontag, J.M. Coetzee and W.G. Sebald, who wrote the eloquent essay which functions as an introduction to 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 to the world in the most fleeting of ways.” Sebald’s evocation of Walser’s ghost-like movement through life, rarely settling anywhere, always walking, owning nothing, not even his own books, being institutionalized in a psychiatric facility in 1933, where he retired from writing, and finally dying of a heart attack on a snowy pathway, is captivating in its mystery, a mystery that extends into Walser’s work. The Tanners is titled after the siblings who inhabit its pages, but its central character, Simon Tanner, seems to have been conceived somewhat autobiographically. Only 20 at the novel’s start, he’s bright, seemingly full of promise, an orator of marvelous talents. “I don’t like to spend too long considering before I speak,” Simon says, yet he speaks always with wit and precision. He’s a hard-worker when employed. He moves from job to menial job, from apartment to spartan apartment, at times from sibling to sibling—his sister is an unmarried schoolteacher, his brothers include an academic and a landscape painter. Each worries over him fruitlessly. Toward the novel’s end Simon offers a typically loquacious confession to one of many strangers drawn to him. “I’m still standing at the door of life, knocking and knocking, though admittedly none too forcefully, and breathlessly listening to see whether someone will decide to open the bolt and let me in.”

The Tanners is both melancholy and relentlessly good-natured. Simon is both fascinated by and removed from the world around him. The book is constructed to an unusually large degree of letters and monologues—open the book at random, you’ll likely find someone writing or talking. Many of the speeches are Simon’s, though in Walser’s universe just about everyone is gifted with the ability to hold forth on whatever passing notion, and Simon’s wandering journey yields countless, arresting portraits of characters, even those glimpsed only briefly. Rosa, who weeps alone for an unrequited love; Klara, who falls wholly under the spell of each member of the Tanner clan she meets; a beguiling dancer; a young, married explorer, home from his travels, who likes to fire guns into the forest in the middle of the night; an old man with a dripping nose; a teacher suffering from domestic abuse; a gay nurse; a reformed pedophile. While never overwrought or imposed upon with psychological dissections, each character drifts vividly in and out of Walser’s vivid scenes, each one a depiction of urban or rural landscapes, a contrast that embodies the divided spirit of the protagonist. Sebald notes how so much of what occurs in Walser’s stories slip quickly and inexplicably out of memory, and I see what he means, Walser’s transitions can be so unassuming as to barely punctuate epiphanies, events, entrances and exits. Yet once you’ve read through The Tanners I think you’ll find that its faces and places and states of mind cascade through your memory. The order is lost, but the impressions remain.

The Tanners was my first experience with Walser’s work and I rushed directly from it to another Walser, Jakob von Gunten (NYRB Classics, $16.50), published in 1909, which I gather is his most famous novel, and which some of you may know as the source material to the 1995 Brothers Quay film Institute Benjamenta, which I haven’t seen. This shorter novel, translated by Christopher Middleton, written in the form of a diary, describes a deeply mysterious school for boys where very little is actually to be learned, so says the titular diarist, who at one point writes, “pupils are slaves, young leaves, torn from branches and trunks, given up to the merciless gale…” Yet Jakob seems to like this very much. He has come here, having ran from an oppressive father—in more ways than one does this novel seem to have had a major impact on Kafka—is eagerly striving to become “a zero” and aspires to a career in servitude. But there is also something very sinister about the Institute Benjamenta, which promises to be revealed to Jakob as he’s gradually embraced by its staff of two, made a favourite, and ushered into secret chambers where he at one point is instructed to “fondle” a “Wall of Worries.” The intrigue is only partly paid off, yet the finale is nonetheless satisfying.

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