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The Beggar at the Door

I’m still standing at the door of life, knocking and knocking, though admittedly none too forcefully, and breathlessly listening to see whether someone will decide to open the bolt and let me in.  A bolt like this is rather heavy, and people don’t like to come to the door if they have the feeling it’s just a beggar standing outside knocking.  I’m good at nothing but listening and waiting, though in these capacities I’ve achieved perfection…

I’ve been reading Robert Walser’s The Tanners for more than a month.  It’s a novel best consumed in small doses, full of wonderful writing and a touch of madness.  In a way, it strikes me as the novel that I imagine to be most like Walser himself: contradictory, plotless, modest, and occasionally magical.  It deals with dichotomies: freedom and dependence, city and country, money and the lack of money.

The Tanners is the story of the Tanner siblings: Klaus, Hedwig, Emil, Kaspar, and Simon, who is the main character.  Simon is a man of little ambition, drifting through life, jobs, borrowed places of residences, friendships. lovers.  His real talent is the gift of gab and its offshoot – the gift of self-delusion.  As he alternates between berating himself for his total lack of ambition and cherishing his utter independence, Simon spends an inordinate amount of time convincing himself – at least momentarily – of the goodness of his intentions, whatever they may be at the moment.   People either flee him in disgust or adopt him.

It’s curious that The Tanners, written in 1907, was never translated into English before this year, for the book would have been a Bible to the hippies and the Beats of my generation.  “Misfortune is educational,” Simon declaims, echoing a sentiment many of us shared as we muddled through the awful 60s.  Simon’s philosophy of life was one I could have called my own forty years ago: “I currently enjoy the respect of only a single person, namely myself.  But this is the one whose respect is worth the world to me; I am free and can always, when necessity commands, sell my freedom for a certain length of time so as to be free again after.”  What Simon rarely sees is the effect his dependence has on others; and, of course, no one can ever become dependent on Simon.

As I noted earlier, this publication of The Tanners contains the first English translation of W.G. Sebald’s essay Le Promeneur Solitaire, one of his most revealing pieces of writing on literature.

Walser The Tanners

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sam #

    Thanks, Terry — yours is the first thing I’ve seen written about The Tanners that begins to approach what the book is like. I’ve had the book almost a year now (I received the review copy way back last November) and I feel like I’m only just now appreciating how wonderful it is.

    One little correction — Sebastian is a friend rather than a sibling. I think maybe you are thinking about Emil?

    Something else I just noticed last night – the book covers a span of almost exactly two years, and narrator observes late in the book that Simon is in “his twenty-first year of life” (p. 291). So Simon is 19 or 20 at the time of the events recounted in the novel, which helps explain (I think) his continuous and sometimes contradictory reflections on his identity, and also his obsession with how he appears to others.

    I don’t know whether Walser ever read Samuel Johnson. but Johnson captured this aspect of youth very nicely in the Rambler essays. From 196:

    “Among other pleasing errours of young minds, is the opinion of their own importance. He that has not yet remarked, how little attention his contemporaries can spare from their own affairs, conceives all eyes turned upon himself, and imagines every one that approaches him to be an enemy or a follower, an admirer or a spy … But as time brings him forward into the world, he soon discovers that he only shares fame or reproach with innumerable partners; that he is left unmarked in the obscurity of the crowd; and that what he does, whether good or bad, soon gives way to new objects of regard. He then easily sets himself free from the anxieties of reputation, and considers praise or censure as a transient breath, which, while he hears it, is passing away, without any lasting mischief or advantage.”

    Also in Rambler 159:

    “But the truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself. While we see multitudes passing before us, of whom, perhaps, not one appears to deserve our notice, or excite our sympathy, we should remember, that we likewise are lost in the same throng; that the eye which happens to glance upon us is turned in a moment on him that follows us, and that the utmost which we can reasonably hope or fear is, to fill a vacant hour with prattle, and be forgotten.”

    November 13, 2009
  2. It has also been said of Robert Walser that he writes like a sort of pre-eminent blogger; comfortable with his own superior doubts, which induce him to go of in tangents, sometimes at the behest of a stylistic accident, etc. Informal, yet obsessive; a true genius of the species: blogger!

    November 14, 2009
  3. I see New Directions are publishing Walser’s ‘Microscripts’ next year – sound intriguing:
    “Robert Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper (many of them written during his hospitalization in the Waldau sanatorium) covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card. Selected from the six-volume German transcriptions from the original microscripts, these 25 short pieces are gathered in this gorgeously illustrated co-publication with the Christine Burgin Gallery. each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”

    December 11, 2009
  4. While The Tanners is good in its own right, the essay by Sebald is worth the purchase price of the book alone.

    March 26, 2010

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