The Tanners by Robert Walser
Review by S. D. Stewart
I don’t want to go running down some career path—supposedly such a grand enterprise. What’s so grand about it: people acquiring crooked backs at an early age from stooping at undersized desks, wrinkled hands, pale faces, mutilated workday trousers, trembling legs, fat bellies, sour stomachs, bald spots upon their skulls, bitter, snappish, leathery, faded, insipid eyes, ravaged brows and the consciousness of having been conscientious fools. No thank you!
Robert Walser was an odd fish and I like him a lot. Even though he once said, as W. G. Sebald reports in the introduction to this book, that he was essentially always writing the same novel, one which he said could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself,” I will continue reading his same-as-before novels because they captivate me. I like to think of him up in his stuffy attic room, frantically writing on borrowed paper with stolen pens, gripped in the passion of that writing, of hurling his herky-jerky version of the world down onto the page.
The Tanners is the disjointed story of the Tanner siblings: Simon, Klaus, Kaspar, and Hedwig (oh, and the mysterious Emil, who later randomly shows up in another character’s anecdote). Primarily, the “plot” (such as it is) follows the adventures of Simon as he bounces around from job to job while basically pursuing the sublime. From the start, Simon reminded me of Jakob from Walser’s anti-Bildungsroman Jakob von Gunten, with his similar tendency toward mockery traced with veins of sincerity. Or maybe it was just straight mockery, maybe I imagined the traces of sincerity—it’s really so hard for me to say for sure. When Simon refers to his own cheekiness, I couldn’t stop thinking about that Saturday Night Live sketch where Mike Myers plays Simon, the kid in the bath making drawings who calls people “cheeky monkeys.” It’s always unsettling for me when pop culture and literature suddenly collide in my head. And yet the two Simons do share a similarity, if only a superficial one. But I digress. Simon is a self-described ne’er-do-well prone to walking all night through the mountains to visit his artist brother Kaspar, his closest sibling. Simon’s gleeful flippancy is infectious and makes him a likely candidate for the reader’s sympathy. Hedwig is the only sister in the bunch, a small town schoolteacher who Simon also stays with for an extended visit. They bond, but she suspects him of being a freeloader, which he sort of is. Hedwig is an interesting character, and Walser allots her some good speeches. Finally, Klaus is the oldest brother, a stodgy straight-arrow type who thinks he knows what’s best for all of his siblings. He is annoyingly overbearing, though probably well-meaning.
In the introduction, Sebald draws some parallels between Gogol and Walser that I found to be relevant, having just finished a book of Gogol’s short fiction. Like Gogol, Walser has a tendency to introduce characters who at the time seem like they may come to play important roles in his narrative, only to either suddenly kill them off or fade them into the background. Sometimes they also reappear later, just out of the blue, and fill us in on what they’ve been up to for the past year or however long they’ve been gone from the narrative. The aimless plot wanders down side streets, dead-ends, turns around, leaves the city, climbs a mountain, walks off a cliff, gets a concussion, and turns up back in the city again a few chapters later with a new lease on life. Or something like that. I was anthropomorphizing the plot just then. I would imagine that the general unreliability of Walser’s prose could easily become maddening for some readers. The key is to float along with Walser wherever he chooses to take you. One must surrender completely in order to enjoy reading; there is no fighting it because Walser will always win. Always. We are on an adventure with him, as he discovers his own truths in his writing. In this way he is also very much like Gogol, who eschewed the narrative traditions of the time and instead went off happily exploring in his prose.
Throughout the book, Walser spins a gauzy web of natural beauty around his characters who, when not walking around outside enjoying the weather or laying stretched out in the forest, very much tend to spout off lengthy monologues in the general direction of each other, not seeming to expect responses and, in fact, rarely getting them. Walser’s prose is so sensual, his descriptions of both urban and rural settings sparkle with crisp detail clearly borne of a sharply observant mind. Half the novel one falls into a reverie, while the other half one stares at the closest wall, noting the intricate cracks in the plaster with genuine interest.
Despite the lack of plot, there are certain themes to pick out. With Simon and Hedwig, we find themes of youthful self-discovery, the search for meaning and happiness in one’s life, and the ever-painful plight of the daydreamers among us. With Kaspar, there are the ideals of art and the difficulties inherent in one’s pursuit of those ideals. In Klaus, we see a rather sharp critique of mainstream society and the trappings of materialism and the pursuit of wealth. Readers who have siblings, particularly multiple siblings, will also likely enjoy the novel on another level less accessible to those who don’t, for Walser does an admirable job of portraying the complicated and contradictory dynamics that often characterize sibling relationships.
As Simon opines late in the book, “How tedious it was always to be doing exactly the same thing.” Some books always do the exactly the same thing, what we expect them to do, over and over. Not with Walser. Even if he did claim to be writing the same novel over and over, his prose is always worth reading, because it’s granular yet dissimilar; it’s made up of life’s strikingly mundane and spectacular moments, as pointed out by the likes of Simon, who, after all, claims to be “an outlandish figure in my own homeland.”