A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser
Review by S. D. Stewart
For readers new to Robert Walser as well as those who consider him an old friend, this collection published by NYRB provides a delightful survey of his idiosyncratic short prose, which was the bread-and-butter of his working writer years. Spanning the length of Walser’s published career, the selections reflect all the best aspects of his ‘little prose pieces’: the absurdity, humor, pathos, and poignancy.
Overall, I found this collection more accessible than Speaking to the Rose and more consistent in its selections than Selected Stories. On the other hand, I place Masquerade and Other Stories squarely on par with this one, so either of these would be good places to start with Walser’s short prose in English.
This book welcomes a new Walser translator onto the scene, Damion Searls, thus sidestepping the perpetual Bernofsky-Middleton debate among readers of Walser in English. Searls, who has translated many other fantastic writers, including Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Proust, Rilke, etc., does an admirable job of rendering these ‘Walserings’ into English.
There are more than 70 short pieces collected here, most previously untranslated into English, and while there isn’t a rigid order, the pieces do flow in a pleasing manner, guided as they are, in Searls’ words, ‘by themes of beginnings and writing’. This one below leans more toward the prose poetry end of the spectrum, but as always, Walser’s short prose for the most part resists classification, which makes it feel all the more authentic in its voice.
MORNING AND NIGHT
Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors!
How different, though, at night—then tiring thoughts came to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you had never imagined, and peple walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you too were firm of will and strong.
In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Morning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.