RIP Christopher Middleton, early translator of Robert Walser

Poet and translator Christopher Middleton died last week at the age of 89. Middleton was the first translator to bring Swiss Modernist writer Robert Walser to an English-language reading audience. He translated many other writers, including Georg Trakl, Christa Wolf, and Friedrich Nietzsche. But for me, his translation of Walser’s Jakob von Gunten remains the most important, as it was the first Walser book I read, which lead to a reading love affair of epic proportions. Middleton also translated many of the works in Selected Stories of Robert Walser, a fine collection of Walser’s short fiction. I’ve included two favorite excerpts from that volume below. To read a remembrance of Christopher Middleton, check out this piece by his fellow Walser translator Susan Bernofsky. The Paris Review also posted a tribute with one of his poems.

The walk seemed to be becoming more beautiful, rich, and long. Here at the railway crossing seemed to be the peak, or something like the center, from which again the gentle declivity would begin. Something akin to sorrow’s golden bliss and melancholy’s magic breathed around me like a quiet, lofty god.

—from ‘The Walk’

Often I walked in the neighboring forest of fir and pine, whose beauties, wonderful winter solitudes, seemed to protect me from the onset of despair. Ineffably kind voices spoke down to me from the trees: ‘You must not come to the hard conclusion that everything in the world is hard, false, and wicked. But come often to us; the forest likes you. In its company you will find health and good spirits again, and entertain more lofty and beautiful thoughts.’

—from ‘Frau Wilke’

the tanners [book review]

Recently I began reading Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. I associate Walser with the winter season, and particularly the month of December, likely because that was when I first started reading his work. Walser also died in December; he was found lying in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, having suffered a heart attack during one of his frequent and much-loved walks.

The Assistant has been a joy to read so far, brimming with Walser’s off-kilter cheekiness and his typically exuberant scenic descriptions. And so, with my enthusiasm for his writing in its current heightened state, I thought I’d share another of my Walser reviews from the archive, with the hope of encouraging others to investigate this still tragically under-read writer.


The Tanners by Robert Walser

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.”

late rain world

The world was late today. I don’t know. I was late. But I wasn’t expecting the world to also be late. I had hoped for a leisurely ride in on mi bicicleta. Instead there were cars everywhere. An automotive horror show. Maybe it was the rain. Rain slows the world to a crawl. Like slow motion, creeping and crawling. Not me, though. I was pedaling quite rapidly, in fact. Bike commuting reminds me I am alive. Otherwise I might think I was a walking corpse. Or a dancing one. I’m skipping a meeting this morning. I don’t care. It empowers me. Robert Walser would skip it. Walser wouldn’t still be here seven years later, though. Walser wouldn’t have made it seven months. Seven weeks, maybe. More likely seven days. He’d be in his attic room writing his soul out on shreds of borrowed paper with a stolen pen. Oh, where is the rain crow. He migrated long ago. Now who will tell us when it is about to rain. I felt the cold rain on my face and knew I was alive. No more alive than last month or last week or yesterday, but alive nonetheless. 2013 dreams have been vivid so far. It’s like there is an arthouse revival series going on in my dream life. I’m liking it. There’s nothing else to report, I’m afraid. Raining, check. Biking, check. Reading Walser, check. No more rain crow, check. Not a corpse, check. Alive, check.

jakob von gunten [book review]

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

I feel how little it concerns me, everything that’s called “the world,” and how grand and exciting what I privately call the world is to me.

I used to love a good Bildungsroman. Perhaps every young person does, as they are approaching the age where they will be cast unfeelingly out into the world, whether prepared or not. I guess I saw myself in these characters, encountering obstacles and slowly overcoming them—it gave me hope that I would also someday be prepared. But as I got older I never really did feel ready to be an ‘adult’ and so the Bildungsroman became a myth. Life was more a series of never-ending lessons that no amount of advance preparation seemed capable of preparing oneself for. I believe they also call this losing one’s naivete.

This novel is written as a journal by Jakob, who is attending a school for servants. Walser himself attended such a school, and likely based the book in some part on his experiences there. Some say that the novel is a parody of the Bildungsroman genre. To an extent I think this is true. Jakob does enter the world at the end, but in a bizarre and unexpected way, and it’s certainly questionable how prepared he really is. He never completely grows out of childhood because, as he says, “I was never really a child, and therefore something in the nature of childhood will cling to me always, I’m certain.”

In between his mockery of the Bildungsroman genre, Walser injects bits of his own truth. Jakob is a dreamer. In one entry, he writes, “With all my ideas and follies I could one day found a corporate company for the propagation of beautiful but unreliable imaginings.” Jakob doesn’t take school, or much of anything, seriously. He’s prone to reveries and cheekiness. He enjoys provoking the school’s principal, and yet he also maintains a hushed level of respect, largely kept to himself, for this complex man.

Jakob has a tenuous relationship with his brother Johann, who lives in the same city but operates in a higher echelon of society, one that Jakob privately mocks in his journal entries:

People who make efforts to be successful are terribly like each other. They all have the same face. Not really, and yet they do. They’re all alike in their rapid kindness, which just comes and goes, and I think this is because of the fear which these people feel. […] Whoever can feel right if he places value on the tokens of respect and the distinctions conferred by the world?

Walser himself likely thought this way, at least to an extent. While writing, he led a life balanced precariously on the precipice of financial disaster. He did not have concern for material things and perhaps felt out of place in the larger world outside his creative pursuits. Regrettably, he never found much literary success during his lifetime, later becoming suicidal and eventually institutionalized, at which point he stopped publishing altogether.

Jakob counters the boredom of life in his school with healthy amounts of daydreaming. He imagines things to be a certain way, such as the ‘chambers’ in which the principal and his sister, the instructress, live. For most of the novel Jakob is not allowed in this private area of the school, and dreams it up to be a network of intricate castle rooms and apartments, full of corridors and spiral staircases. And yet he is profoundly disappointed when finally he enters those rooms and finds them simple and frugally furnished. This clash of reality with his dream life constantly chafes at him:

Bare reality: what a crook it sometimes is. It steals things, and afterwards it has no idea what to do with them. It just seems to spread sorrow for fun.

Despite his sometimes uneven nature, Jakob is an immediately likeable narrator. And even though this is meant to be a journal, Walser uses certain literary devices to help string together what is largely an erratic and meandering narrative arc. For example, he has Jakob peer through the keyhole of the principal’s office and laugh following each meeting he has with Herr Benjamenta. This recalled to my mind a similar technique Thomas Wolfe used in Look Homeward, Angel, itself a Bildungsroman of the American variety. In that novel, Wolfe associates certain repetitive phrases and actions with particular characters, which I think helps maintain a tighter narrative flow, in addition to quickly endearing the characters to a reader.

The humor in this book frequently borders on the absurd, and is one of its strengths. Jakob likes to often end his entries with non sequiturs. He is snarky and usually perceptive in his snarkiness. Walser was clearly a close observer of human nature and behavior. He imbues Jakob with these skills, and so while we get a lot of ridiculous banter from him, we also glean sharp insights. The result is a short compact novel that generates both laughs and moments of contemplation, often on the same exact page.

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