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A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – September 3, 2013
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“Everyone who reads Walser falls in love with him.” —Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
“A Paul Klee in prose, a good-humored, sweet Beckett, Walser is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer. In Walser’s fictions one is always inside a head, but this universe— and this despair—is anything but solipsistic. It is charged with compassion: awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.” —Susan Sontag
“ Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness.” —J. M. Coetzee, The New York Review of Books
“Robert Walser moves me more and more. . . . He is truthful without making a frontal attack on the truth, he becomes truth by walking around it.” —Elias Canetti
“To his eye, everything is equal; to his heart, everything is fresh and astonishing; to his mind, everything presents a pleasant puzzle. Diversion is his principal direction, whim his master, the serendipitous substance of his daily routine.” —William Gass
“If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.” —Hermann Hesse
“The magnificently humble. The enormously small. The meaningfully ridiculous. Robert Walser’s work often reads like a dazzling answer to the question, How immense can modesty be? If Emily Dickinson made cathedrals of em dashes and capital letters and the angle of winter light, Walser accomplishes the feat with, well, ladies’ feet and trousers, and little emotive words like joy, uncapitalized.” —Rivka Galchen, Harper’s Magazine
“A writer of considerable wit, talent and originality...recognized by such impressive contemporaries as Kafka, Brod, Hesse and Musil...[and] primarily known to German literary scholars and to English readers lucky enough to have discovered [his work]...[Walser’s tales] are to be read slowly and savored...[and] are filled with lovely and disturbing moments that will stay with the reader for some time to come.” —Ronald De Feo, The New York Times
“A clairvoyant of the small.” —W. G. Sebald
“The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.” —Benjamin Kunkel, The New Yorker
About the Author
Robert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Berlin Stories and Jakob von Gunten (both available as NYRB classics), Thirty Poems, The Walk, The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.
Damion Searls has translated many classic twentieth century writers, including Proust, Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Hans Keilson, and Hermann Hesse. For NYRB Classics, he edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861, translated Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, and will retranslate André Gide’s Marshlands. He has received Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Cullman Center fellowships and is currently writing a book about Hermann Rorschach and the cultural history of the Rorschach test.
Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry and a novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and a fellow of the Howard and Guggenheim Foundations.
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Unsurprisingly, I've sought out everything by Walser that is available in translation and I feel strenuously grateful to NYRB for this new series of thematic collections of Walser's short prose. ("Berlin Stories" translated by Susan Bernofsky is another delightful book, and I hope ardently that there are more to come.)
Still, as years pass, and collections appear, I begin to worry that new collections of short pieces from Walser's vast un-translated work will begin to seem "picked over", just gleanings or scraps. Although it is true, as Walser writes, that "Enthusiasts are happy with little, in fact often extremely miniscule things" (163), I came to this book hoping that truly beautiful and first-rate work is yet to appear.
In this hope, I was not disappointed. Above all, what "A Schoolboy's Diary" makes clear is that Walser's trove of un-translated work is nowhere near to being picked over. The stories here are as necessary and enchanting as those to be found in any of the 5 collections of short prose currently available. (Fellow Walserians, please correct me if I have miscounted.)
Although I think readers new to Walser would do well to begin with a "general" collection of the short prose such as "Selected Stories", translated by Christopher Middleton, or "Masquerade", translated by Susan Bernofsky, these thematic collections are a great pleasure and you would not be wrong to start your exploration of Robert Walser right here.
Fanatics tend to disapprove of innovations and new arrivals. I admit that I questioned, as I picked up this book, whether Damion Searls could possibly be as worthy a translator as Middleton and Bernofsky, to whom readers of Walser in English are wholly indebted. ("Some young upstart", I assumed. Totally wrong. Although his appearance is youthful, he has an august list of translation credits a mile long.)
Though I came to this book armed and ready to disapprove, I found myself unable to - these are beautiful and flowing translations, like one of the sparkling lakes or streams that Walser often seems to be ambling alongside.
As usual, I read aloud and copied out passages that enchanted me. How is it possible to resist a writer who announces, "To give you an opportunity to see me would mean introducing you to a person who cuts off half the rim of his felt hat with scissors to give it a wilder, more bohemian appearance. Is that the kind of strange being you really want to have before you?"(51)
At a time when most people seem to consider themselves so terribly important, I think Walser's sauntering humility has a special resonance. How good it is to be reminded, "Tact and discretion are never anything over than attractive. Modestly stepping aside can never be recommended as a continual practice in strong enough terms." (161) Or simply: "Envy is a form of insanity." (53)
Pieces like "From My Youth" made me feel that I could see and understand Walser more directly than I had before. "Early spring was magnificent. All the houses, trees and streets gleamed as though they had come from some higher state of being. It was half dream, half fever. I was never sick, just always strangely and seriously infected with a longing for extraordinary things." (124)
As someone who seeks to emulate Walser, I endlessly compose short pieces, endlessly send them out, and endlessly receive friendly and baffled rejection notes. Admittedly, I often suspect that my uselessness as a human being is unsurpassed. How imperative therefore to read "The Last Prose Piece", in which Walser warns me against his profession in the strongest possible terms. How wrenching to find that Walser felt as discouraged as I feel as he endlessly wrote and submitted work -- indeed he writes, "The extent of my submissions will probably never be matched." (146) May these reminders of work and suffering banish my squirrely self-pity.
Above all, it is painful to read Walser's repeated desire to simply give up - though of course he cannot and will not, not until he enters the last sanatorium in 1933. "At last I have drawn a firm line under the truly astoundingly great column of figures and am done with pursuing that for which I am not sufficiently intelligent" (149).
What I would give for a time machine, so that I might rush back in time and encourage him. I'd also like to buy him a new hat.
Old and new fans of Robert Walser will revel in this book. As Walser reminds us, "When you are faced with a happiness that is not forbidden, you must seize and enjoy it." (177)
So what I'll do is convince you, dear random uninitiated reader, to pick up this little gem, flip through its pages and discover for yourself the treasures embedded within without trying your patience by going into excruciating details. And by letting Walser speak on my behalf.
The initial few short stories are written from the point of view of a school boy in the format of snippets on various topics ranging from school, poverty, careers to friendship, politeness, nature and so on.
It is astonishing to note that despite the glaringly trite nature of these subjects, Walser manages to bring something new to the stories by adding a distinct touch of his own. His tone fluctuates between mildly sardonic and wistful to complacent and observant but unassuming.
Sample what he has to say about "school" -
"School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelery indeed. What a burden we would be to our parents, workers, passersby, shop owners, if we didn't have to go to school!"
His thoughts on anger and conflict -
"Not only boys can bear grudges against other boys in such a way, so too just as well can grownups against grownups, mature adults against mature adults, and I would venture to say, nations against nations. A vengeance or revenge can collect in the heart of a nation due to self-regard that has been injured in various ways, and it grows and grows, without end, becomes more and more pressing, more and more painful rises up like a high mountain no longer to be cleared away, obstructs any mutual understanding, inhibits warm, healthy, reasonable reciprocal communication, turns into twitching nervous fury, and is so tyrannical and degrading that it can one day no longer be reined in and cries out wildly for bloody conflict."
There are references to nature, changing seasons and vivid descriptions of lush, green landscapes in the Swiss countryside aplenty.
"Autumn was beautiful, with its brownish melancholy that seemed attractive and happily right to me, while in May the blossoming trees and all the singing and wonderful smells plunged into sadness."
The short stories included in the latter half of the book seem to be written from different perspectives like that modest young men about to enlist in the army or confused, lost writers trying to seek validation in a life fraught with failures and rejections. (This is vaguely autobiographical I believe.)
Walser's short sentences gave me the impression of beads of morning dew collecting on blades of grass, the evanescent beauty of which evaporates away before we even have time enough to bask in its resplendence. But for as long as the novelty lasts, it is the most exquisite thing in the world. He is not overly pedantic yet his writing exudes immense charm and clarity.
To conclude, this is a thoroughly delightful collection but I'll hold out on that 5-star rating until I read a full-fledged novel of his.
**I received an ARC from New York Review of Books on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review**