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.