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Selected Stories (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – January 31, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Described by Susan Sontag in the introduction to his Selected Stories as "a good-humored, sweet Beckett," Swiss novelist Robert Walser (1878-1956) committed himself to a sanatorium in 1933 and spent the rest of his life there. Admired by Hesse and Kafka, his subjects in these mostly very short pieces (an exception being the melancholic "The Walk") are various and appealing from an essay on trousers to a mock job application and a short "play" involving a stork and a porcupine: "What a kissing that would have been! We shudder at the thought of it." An excellent introduction to a masterful writer.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German
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If the absolute inevitable truth of every word of that sentence isn't immediately clear to you, you may not be the kind of reader who will be knocked off your feet by Robert Walser, whose typical prose piece is always a kind of wandering. The most acclaimed piece (and the best, I think) in this collection is in fact titled "The Walk," a perfectly honest title that serves to summarize the plot.
If you're one who needs beginnings, middles, and ends...
If you insist on naturalistic dialogue...
If you want at least a modicum of happening...
you may not be the kind of reader who will rave about Walser to your friends, as I have been doing since I started reading him a couple years ago.
Walser was roughly a contemporary of Franz Kafka, who read and seems to have been influenced by Walser. Although Walser wrote four long pieces usually labeled as novels, his most characteristic works are short sketches, two to ten pages, only rarely resembling anything most people would call a story. Some of Walser's work was published in his lifetime, and he had a coterie of distinguished fans like Hermann Hesse. Then, after 1933, when he was committed to a "madhouse," he was as forgotten as a politician's promise. His rediscovery began with American and English readers, especially translator Christopher Middleton.
By our times, Walser is widely perceived as a pioneer surrealist; his work certainly has surreal effects, but his intentions, as I read him, were never to extend reality but merely to capture it as he alone saw it. That he was, perhaps, slightly mad and certainly eccentric did refract his vision in unexpected and original colors. His subject, even when writing in his not-fooling-anyone disguise as a simple man, was always his own strange, joyful, aimless personality.
Catch the word "joyful" there! Walser is NOT a depressing writer. He's a man enchanted with everything, from mustard to mountains. He's wry, salty, silly, satirical, and sooo penetrating.
The translations in this collection are close to the character of Walser's "wandering" German. There's another collection - Masquerade - translated by Susan Bernofsky. I prefer Bernofsky somewhat for syntactical cleverness in translating, but this collection includes The Walk, the most picturesquely brilliant of all Walser's prose.
Some critics have said that Walser was a columnist before there were columns, and it's easy to imagine Walser being a huge success reading his pieces on NPR, but for all their apparent inconsequentiality, Walser's works have a profundity that will accumulate as you read.
He is too often compared to Kafka, his contemporary and fellow modernist and while it's true Walser influenced the younger writer, I find this comparison quite misleading. Kafka is too busy describing the encroaching walls in a nightmare that never ends, while Walser is outside picking the flowers for a story that never begins. And the dark cynicism that pervades Kakfa couldn't be more distinct from Walser's breezy landscapes. This is not to say that Walser's pieces don't turn gloomy--they do; instead, his gloom tends to the pensive rather than the oppressive, and he relieves the darkness with the lightest of touches. A similarly misleading and imprecise comparison might be to call him an existential Thoreau.
I read this book all the way through in a few days; that was a mistake. (It doesn't help that I'm not predisposed to this school of modernist writing, and there's no doubt much of Walser's wordplay is lost in translation.) As with certain modernist or imagist poets of the period, a little bit can go a long way, and there is a crushing sameness (dare I say, cuteness?) that burdens Walser's writing when it is collected and considered en masse. Sampling the book several months later, however, I'm willing to admit that, by not dipping into the book over a longer period of time, I missed some of the aphoristic wit and the lyrical charm. So, oddly enough, although I had originally tossed this collection into the pile for the local charity, I've decided to keep it, to revisit these pieces a second--or third--time, at a more leisurely pace.