Jelinek Plays with Walser
Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris continue their outstanding collaboration with their Cahiers Series 18, Her Not All Her: on/with Robert Walser, a play by Elfriede Jelinek. The only stage direction in the play is this: “A number of people to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs, as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” which obviously provides wide latitude for producing the piece on the stage.
There are no characters or voices identified; instead, the play is written in paragraphs, just like a short story or essay. Without the clue provided by the stage direction, it would be eminently reasonable to read straight through Her Not All Her as if there was but a single voice that probably emanates from Walser. “Would you like to hear the novel of my life?” But on closer inspection, it becomes less and less clear who might be speaking at times. In some paragraphs the first-person narrator seems as if it could be no one but Walser. At other times it appears that someone else might be addressing Walser; or, it could well be that Walser is addressing himself in the third person – a not unreasonable possibility. But even when it seems like it might be Walser speaking, it isn’t always discernible which Walser is speaking – the young Walser-as-successful-writer or the elderly Walser who spent the final three decades of his life in a mental institution, where he wrote but meagerly.
Memory is a hardware store where writers try to help themselves to something for free until all of the suffering falls on their heads because they pulled the bottommost plank out of the pile first. So now I garb myself in delicate absentmindedness and no one can ask anything of me now, I’m dreaming, or temporarily dead at the moment.
“Who speaks?” asks Reto Sorg in an afterword to the play. “This question returns insistently in modernity…”
What Jelinek’s play highlights is that the act of literary confession, striving for self-determination, is always also an attempt to free oneself from just this obligation to have any identity at all.
To be sure, an overriding attribute of this play is uncertainty. Her Not All Her forces the determined reader – and even more so, the stage director – to invent distinctions in and contexts for the text. As Jelinek says in a statement about the play:
Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.” It is true he never stops saying “I”, but it’s not him.
The title Her Not All Her is an English adaptation of the German original (Er nicht als er), which itself is a wordplay built out of the German syllables of Walser’s name, as if Walser was himself was a literary construction. There are several brief, but extremely evocative videos of a 2011 production of Er nicht als er at Meetfactory in Prague under the direction of Katharina Schmitt here and here and here, which show one approach to producing this on stage. For anyone who wants still more, there is a CD horspiel of the play available here, spoken by Bruno Ganz.
This is the first time the play, which premiered in 1998, has appeared in English. The 40-page pamphlet also includes a brief statement by Jelinek, an essay on Jelinke and Walser by Reto Sorg, Director of the Robert Walser Centre, and reproductions of thickly impastoed paintings of faces by British artist Thomas Newbolt. The translations are by Damion Searls. I previously wrote about Cahiers Series 14, Animalinside by László Krasznahorkai.
[Photographs courtesy Sylph Editions.]