THE TANNERS by robert walser

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simon says!

not the burst of perfect and heart-crumpling song that was JAKOB VON GUNTEN, THE TANNERS is more a patchwork of monologues, but both share the same saint’s heart and the ability to lay out all the observable open secrets of our every day.

some writers, you enter their house in faith and give yourself up to in awe — despite some weaker establishing shots, the occasional hastiness (or more frequently here, the overlong lingering). the heart of the miracle is everywhere apparent nonetheless. and anyway, you were converted by their best moment — and that was more than enough… and THE TANNERS does compensate the faithful, not in least ways by being lovely autobiography — even predictive autobiography:

And he’d frozen to death here, without a doubt, and he must have been lying here on the path for a while… Sebastian must have sunk to the ground here with an immense, no longer endurable weariness… How noble a grave he chose for himself… What splendid peace: reposing and growing stiff beneath fir branches in the snow. You couldn’t have chosen anything better. People tend to inflict harm on the eccentric — and this is what you were — and then laugh at their pain. Give my greetings to the dear, silent dead beneath the earth and don’t get too badly scorched in the eternal fires of nonexistence. You are elsewhere (154-5).

other compensations include a defense of the poet’s otherwise failures: “And never be so swift to look in scorn upon someone who is failing or appears lethargic or inactive. How quickly his sunshine, his poems can arise from these long, dull dreams!” (109); the helplessness and foolishness of loving art too much: “No sensible man allows himself to be made a fool of by any one thing, tormented and tricked for so long” (78); the agonies of teaching: “But when I’m teaching, I think of other things, things more distant and greater than their little souls” (188); comments on religion: “Religion here has too little sky, it smells too little of the soil” (282); and on misfortune: “Let me tell you, I’m a friend of misfortune, a very intimate friend” (258).

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& of possible further interest, another walser site which reveals some of the source material :

Between 1936 and 1955, Carl Seelig, who would become known as a biographer of Albert Einstein, took nearly fifty long walks with his friend the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Seelig would meet Walser at the train station at Herisau in eastern Switzerland or at the sanitarium where Walser had been since the early 1930s, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Seelig’s notes of their walks and conversations have appeared in German as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser and in French translation, but the book has never appeared in English. http://sebald.wordpress.com/category/carl-seelig/

seelig’s notes have been translated into english by bob skinner on this nice site with a good search feature, so that a search for “Geschwister Tanner” reveals the following anecdote:

Our conversation touched on Geschwister Tanner, of which Robert said: “I wrote it in Berlin in three or four weeks, essentially without corrections. Bruno Cassirer cut out a few sections he found boring, like the one where Simon found the clerk’s manuscript in the oven. That appeared later in the journal Marz, where Hermann Hesse was an editor. My praiseworthy medical director, Dr. Hinrichsen, who saw himself as an important writer, said once that the beginning was good, but the rest was impossible. He said it as though he would have gagged if he’d been forced to read the whole thing.” Robert laughed heartily at his own description.

pick it up at the library or buy it from the publisher.

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

heeded a thankfully persistent whisper of walser walser walser and fell hard. i’d heard the gossipy parts: how kafka dug him, how he lived his final years in a madhouse, how he died on a long walk in the snow, how he wrote in a pencilled hand so small that people thought it was a secret code but it wasn’t–it was just very very small.

i’d tried THE ASSISTANT, which is recently translated but earlier walser and could see the charm, but i was prejudiced against how its proto-modern style took too long to move things along (a similar feeling i got from zweig’s BEWARE OF PITY)… and so was wholly unprepared at how JAKOB VON GUNTEN broke me down and hollowed me out. it’s at times so shockingly beautiful i was, despite myself, moved to tears. not tears of empathy for some character caught in a melodramatic clutch–but tears for the friggin beauty of the writing. the dude writes like an angel–wherein modesty is one of the highest virtues, with pure charm, and with a scrambled semantic nonetheless crystal clear, which must be the emblem only of seraphim.

walser writes with the freshness and immediacy of a journal entry, but also with a constant self-consciousness that makes the entry have the permanence and art of a poem. christopher middleton’s translator’s intro is a good brief. here’s coetzee: “In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.” and elsewhere in the same review coetzee quotes walter benjamin who describes walser’s characters as like those from a fairy tale but after the fairy tale has ended.

[this book is a dream diary of a boys’ school and i kept thinking it was an unintended translation of hui neng’s platform sutra… or, it reminded me of the orphanage scenes in edward dahlberg’s BECAUSE I WAS FLESH… and i heard jakob as the flipside to mush tate’s equally pure sermons that extolled with the hypnotic, “think you’re in school, think you’re much, know you’re living…“]

[also suffering through a very real school’s very hectic end-of-the-year traffic jam, i was all too happy to read about this ideal school (where the teachers are all gone or asleep.)]

o i forgot to mention: it’s very very funny…

buy directly from the publisher or buy used or find in a library

Walserian Waltzes by Gad Hollander

very cool book i stumbled onto in a bookstore (is that stumbling a fading pastime?)… at a slim but just-right ninety-two pages, it’s got the heft of something three times as big… this sounds like a power tool review all of a sudden…

if the title throws you off with its awkward ballroom alliteration, try to ignore it–an inaccurate indicator of what’s inside… the walserian part refers to robert walser, the swiss novelist whose biography and fiction hollander empties and then refills and then empties again with significance of his own design.

hollander has a great sentence style, both lyrical and pleasingly complex. the book is made up of short sections, and they vary from essayistic meditations on madness to very beautiful borgesian ontological fables to headspinning prose blocks that live on the borderline of comprehensibility a la the fiction of maurice blanchot… in fact the book’s personality disorder at times reminded me of a real favorite– coleman dowell’s ISLAND PEOPLE–another book that deals explicitly with insanity.

for me it required a certain silence to read it in. there’s little action to move things along, and what action there is is figurative, metaphorical. but one hopes it’s wise to be thankful for something that takes and rewards a little concentration. despite it being made up of sections, they do feel ‘sequenced’ so that the whole feels like a complete work rather than a collection, ending also with a bravura flourish.

from early on:
“Robert had a thought and sat down. The thought had recurred throughout his life, assuming an abstract shape, and now, at the moment of his death, was no different. Though it helped to map the limits of his life, it had nothing to do with his death. Aware of its last rite in his brain, Robert sat down in the company of his thought. It happened in the mountains, in winter, when the mountains are are covered with snow. It was a thought he had always known, a shadowy trace moving inside his head like a sandwich-board figure without a message. It clung inside him as he sat down, as if to guide him on his final journey” (page 15).

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