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from the December 2013 issue

Robert Walser’s “A Schoolboy’s Diary”

Reviewed by George Fragopoulos

There is an inevitable period of adjustment when reading the work of Robert Walser.

There is an inevitable period of adjustment when reading the work of Robert Walser. A few readings are in order: the mind has to recalibrate itself to the Swiss author’s indelible style. Central to this style are Walser’s peculiar narrators and their propensity to see the world as a startlingly alien place, one in which every experience, every thing, is radically new, uncanny, charged with, as Susan Sontag has written, a “creatureliness of life.”  There is a revelatory aspect in almost all of Walser’s writing, a trait, I would argue, that firmly places him in the Romantic tradition as much as the Modernist. His readers, if they are to be sensitive to his aims, have to try to see the world as his narrators do: as a place of unceasing change, where even the most mundane aspects of life are symbols laden with meaning. In this sense, Walser’s prose has more in common with the writings of Walter Benjamin than it does with his other modernist peers; for Walser, as for Benjamin, everyday objects and common experiences become gateways into the most profound philosophical reveries. Therefore, we should take seriously the idea of Walser as a practitioner of a dialectical materialism akin to Benjamin’s.  

This may be why writers and readers populate Walser’s works, because they are creators of worlds and dedicated interpreters. This newly released collection of texts, A Schoolboy’s Diary, translated and edited by Damion Searls, is in keeping with the author’s longstanding fixation on bookish and writerly sorts. In a piece titled “Reading,” Walser stastes: “To a certain extent, a book is a fetter: It is not for nothing that one speaks of a captivating or gripping read. A book bewitches and dominates us, it holds us spellbound, in other words it exerts a power over us, and we are happy to let such tyranny occur, for it is a blessing.” If there is any one aspect of Walser’s work that Searls’s collection brings especially to view it is that the author, as much as any other literary modernist, was greatly concerned with the question of representation; that is, the difficulty of casting the world—in all its multiplicity, variance, and bizarreness—into fictional words that are at once freestanding imaginings and faithful depictions of reality. Integral to this project is an interrogation of the self. Others, such as Elfriede Jelinek, have argued that when Walser writes of an “I” he is almost never speaking of himself. The writer Guy Davenport has called this Walser’s “kithless epistemology.” That’s true to a point.  But Walser also always seems to be in search of this lost self as well. The “I” suggests both a dislocation and loss of the self, while also exhibiting a stubborn insistence on its very need and existence. Much has been made of Walser’s biography, of the fact that he spent the last remaining years of his life in a sanitarium. While there, Walser never truly stopped writing, going as far as creating an almost indecipherable “microscript” in order to continue writing. (Much of this is covered in Susan Bernofsky’s introduction to her translations, Microscripts, of some of these texts.) Walser found in his graphomania a “fetter” or tether from which to ground himself in the world, an antidote to his kithless deracination. When he writes in “Six Little Stories,” “I am only an ear, an unutterably moved ear,” the strangeness of the image should not distract from the urgency of the message: the necessity of being open to the call of reality’s possibilities. The existence of the self is only one such possibility, but one no less wonderful than others.    

 The first section of A Schoolboy’s Diary collects the essays of the fictional Fritz Kocher.  The essays, like much of Walser’s shorter works, are on a wide array of themes. Kocher tackles subjects such as school, the imagination, and poverty. The schoolboy Kocher may even double as an alter ego for Walser. And yet, Walser the “editor” is also on view in Kocher’s schoolboy writings:  

The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school. I had some difficulty convincing his mother, a dear and honorable lady, to allow me to publish them. She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son. Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree. The essays may seem unboyish in many places, and all too boyish in others. But please keep in mind that my hand has not altered them anywhere.

To search for Walser in his words is to find him everywhere and nowhere. In another section of “Six Short Stories,” there’s this:

Now I’ve just remembered that once upon a time there lived a poor poet, very oppressed by dark moods, who, since he had seen his fill of God’s great world, decided to put only his imagination into his poems. He sat one evening, afternoon, or morning, at eight, twelve, or two o’clock, in the dark space of his room and he said to the wall the following: Wall, I’ve got you in my head! Don’t try to trick me with your strange and placid visage! From now on, you are the prisoner of my imagination.

 There are subversive implications to a world in which the Imagination trumps God’s powers for representation.  It is also terribly strange to take something so concrete and hulking as a wall, and then blithely transfigure it into an airy, metaphysical captive.

Searls’s new collection is essential: it further illustrates that Walser is an incredibly protean figure: peripatetic, swift, always a step or two ahead of his readers, but always patiently waiting for us to reach him.

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