Robert Walser’s Schoolboys
Time seemed to stand still because it had to stop and eavesdrop on all the beauty and all the evening magic. Everything dreamed because it was alive, and everything lived because it was permitted to dream. [“The City,” 1915]
Is there any writer who seems more clinically optimistic than Robert Walser? His deliciously confounding narrators – many of which are children or servants – instinctively grasp that ignorance is a precondition to certain types of happiness and wisdom, just as they understand that it is often the so-called unimportant things that really matter.
[Hanswurst] is and always will be a child, a blockhead unable to tell the important from the unimportant, the valuable from the worthless. Or maybe, in the end, he is smarter than he himself realizes, and has more wit than he himself is capable of acknowledging? Remain, dear question, nice and unanswered, I beg of you. In any case, Hanswurst is happy in his own skin. He has no future, but he also doesn’t want any such thing. Say a little prayer for him! He’s too dumb to. [“Hanswurst,” 1914]
(I love that tiny prayer to stay innocent: “Remain, dear question, nice and unanswered.”)
“Hanswurst” is one of the many gems encountered in the new volume A Schoolboy’s Diary (New York Review of Books, 2013), translated by Damion Searls. Spanning the years 1899-1925, these fifty-plus stories (depending on how you count) are nearly all narrated by Walser’s impish, cock-sure, wise-beyond-their-years, but somehow still innocent schoolboys as they survey the world from the cusp of their school desks. With a nice touch of grandiosity, the opening line from the title story (1914) proclaims the collective purpose of these stories, “As a secondary school student it is truly time to think about life a little more seriously.”
For me, the story sequence “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” (1904) steals the show. “FKE” purports to be a series of twenty-one brief essays written by a young lad for his school assignments. An unnamed person introduces Kocher, a student who “passed away not long after he left school,” by telling us that “a boy can speak words of great wisdom and words of great stupidity at practically the same moment: that is how these essays are too.” Kocher’s essays, on subjects assigned by his teacher, are filled with boundless enthusiasm and youthful self-confidence. “I want to and I will get stronger, freer, nobler, richer, more famous, braver, and more reckless every day,” Kocher writes, sounding like a boy who wants to grow up to be a comic book hero. But, since freedom, for Walser, is always fraught with consequences, Kocher adds: “I’m sure I’ll get an F for saying this.” After sampling the various temptations of freedom, Walser’s schoolboys almost always return to the safe and desirable confines of school and discipline. School prevents the mind from “degenerating into slovenliness” and serves to reduce temptation by being “the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelry indeed.” Instead of freedom, Kocher declares, “a firm command and silent obedience – that would really be much better.” In fact, the one time that the teacher offers to let the students decide the topics of their essays, Kocher draws a blank. “To be honest, nothing comes to mind. I don’t like this land of freedom. I am happy to be tied to a set subject.” Kocher’s originality is a condition of always being the foil, of playing Rosencrantz rather than Hamlet. Nevertheless, hovering around the edges of “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” is the looming inevitability of adulthood, with its burdens of cynicism and greed and other perceived adult maladies, like taking one’s self too seriously. “Even a foolish schoolboy can see people acting like irrational animals every day.” And so it seems almost inevitable that Fritz Kocher “had to die young,” before he loses his innocence.
Nature, on the other hand, is that part of the world where cynicism and other adult ills are banished, and a good number of the stories in A Schoolboy’s Diary involve restorative trips to parks or the countryside.. “It is hard to write about Nature,” Kocher says, “Writing about people is easy: they have fixed characteristics. Nature is so blurry, so delicate, so intangible, so infinite.”
Oh, how beautiful it was on the cliffs above the lake, which was like a gentle smile in its color and outline – a smile containing the best will in the world and the most graceful goodness, a smile that can only be smiled by lovers, who almost always have a certain similarity to children. I always walked along the same path, and every time it seemed entirely new. I never tired of delighting in the same things and glorying in the same things. Is the sky not always the same, are love and goodness not always the same? The beauty met me with such silence. Conspicuous things and inconspicuous things held hands with each other like children of the same mother. What was important melted away and I devoted undivided attention to the most unimportant things and was very happy doing so. [“Spring,” 1915]
Nevertheless, even nature’s influence must be limited in the end: “We went home when the time came when you have to go home, as it always does.”
Some of Walser’s schoolboys do get to an age where they think of other things than gossiping about their teachers or hiking in the woods. Several stories written around the time of the World War I address military life as if it were little more than a continuation of school life, merely governed by an stricter hierarchy and and a more obligatory code of obedience (Walser served in the Swiss military about then). But, unlike the uncertain virtues attributed to school attendance, military service has the clear, overriding benefit of serving the country, and joining the military seems like an idealistic undertaking, albeit still with comic book hero overtones. “The soldier is meant to defend the fatherland…What true soldier would be capable, in the hour of universal need, in the wonderful hour of bitter earnestness, in the hour of danger, of being disloyal and forgetting what he owes to his fatherland?” [“The Soldier,” 1914] In later soldierly stories like “Something About Soldiers” and “In the Military” (both 1915), military realities set in, like monotony and the lack of cleanliness (“Have I even once in my service, or more than two or three times, used soap? Not that I know of.”). But while Walser’s young soldiers have nothing but praise for the enforced simplicity of their lives, it is impossible for the reader not to notice that military service in neutral Switzerland often amounted to marching “in formation and in time down spic-and-span streets, through a beautiful, rich country…” Notice, in the following quote, the dialectic that Walser’s narrator poses is between peace and military life, not between peace and war.
Yes, goodness gracious, I am certainly a proponent of the slackard’s life, laziness, happiness, and peace; but alas I am also for the military. I think peace is nice and I think the military is nice. How can I make heads or tails of this strange contradiction? I cannot deny the peaceloving part of myself, but nor can I deny that I am a true friend of the soldier’s life. [“In the Military,” 1915]
In her short 1982 essay “Walser’s Voice,” Susan Sontag searches for ways to characterize the distinctiveness of Walser’s unique narrative tone. She invokes the art of Paul Klee, the poetry of Stevie Smith, Japanese pillow books, Kleist, Beckett, Musil, and Leopardi. But in the end, she suggests that “any true lover of Walser will want to disregard the net of comparisons that one can throw over his work.” So what is it that makes him such a “wonderful, heartbreaking writer,” to invoke her words? Thanks to the thoughtful and focused selection of stories in A Schoolboy’s Diary, we can see how Walser carefully develops a textual strategy to show the awkwardness of characters on the verge of emerging from their youth, characters who are long on emotions and short on things like detail and analysis.
Gently and softly the distant sounds of busy daily life rise up from the depths of the populated plains to your listening ear, while your eyes drink in the blindingly beautiful dear white of a cloud floating in the blue sky like a fairy-tale ship. Sweet cooing and roaring, sweet humming and whispering airs, and there you stand under all that light, in all that light, among all those colors, and you look across to the nearby mountains reaching up into the air silently, big and shrouded in mist, like figures in a dream, and you greet them like friends – you are their friend, they are your friends. You are the whole world’s friend; you want to fall into its arms, the arms of this wonderful friend. She holds you in her arms and you hold her. You understand her, you love her, and she you.
Let’s look at what is really going on in this paragraph. As the narrator listens to the distant sounds of a city, he first observes a white cloud against a blue sky, then he has the pleasant awareness of a vague blend of sounds, lights, and more colors. Next we see a series of transformations: the nearby mountains become anthropomorphic friends and the world itself becomes a female lover (or at least a maternalistic figure), with a subliminal hint of sexuality. Throughout A Schoolboy’s Diary Walser’s youthful narrators provide neither overt psychological depth nor significant descriptive detail. Life, for them, isn’t much more complex than the rudimentary shapes and outlines found in a coloring book. In fact, some elements are so vague (one is tempted to say “so wistful”) that it is difficult to pin down their source, such as the phrase Sweet cooing and roaring, sweet humming and whispering airs, which sounds like a youthful mash-up of poorly remembered lines of poetry. The suggestion that this is a dream and a fairy tale implies that the narrator at least marginally grasps the fragile, untethered nature of his own perceptions, while Walser’s use of the first person and his habit of intimately addressing the reader as “you” tries to draw the reader into the narrator’s charmed vision. By asking us, in essence, “Don’t you see this, too?”, the narrator seems to be hoping against hope that the chimerical vision of youth will last forever.
Translator Damion Searls (who also seems to have selected the stories for this volume) makes the case in his Translator’s Note that Walser is “by no means a naive or accidental writer…much less the quasi-outsider artist he is sometimes presented as.” On the contrary, Searls describes him as a consummate professional who was diligent as a writer and who tended to every aspect of seeing his works into print. In a story called “School Visit” (1921), Walser writes admiringly of a teacher, but I wonder if the characterization might not also apply to himself as a writer. “The teacher called forth the childish eagerness, intelligence, and abilities of her charges almost like a sorceress. Her work seemed easy, but the observer remarked to himself that there must be a lot of effort, a lot of prior organizing and leading, great patience, and much self-sacrificing consideration and insight lying behind this smoothly functioning, well-rounded perfection.”
The official book launch for A Schoolboy’s Diary is September 10, 2013 at 192 Books, 192 Tenth Avenue (@21st)), New York. Searls will discuss the book, along with poet Mina Pam Dick. According to 192’s website, “currently, Dick is doing work that makes out and off with Buchner, Lenz, Holderlin, Wedekind, and Walser.”