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Posts from the ‘Robert Walser’ Category

Eating Oatmeal Soup with Robert Walser

“only the journey to oneself is important.”

On a mild, early spring Sunday in February 1950, the writer Robert Walser and his friend Carl Seelig were eating in a pastry shop in St. Gallen, Switzerland. “Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette,” Seelig writes. “Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.” This episode delights me no end, in part because it occurred on the very day on which I was born, in part because it epitomizes the spirit of Robert Walser.

As we learn from Carl Selig’s book Walks with Walser, Walser was a man who was both simple and complex. A writer of tremendous invention and honesty, called by Susan Sontag “a Paul Klee in prose” and “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka,” Walser was content, if not delighted, to spend the final thirty-six or so years of his life in Swiss mental institutions, far from the big cities and the literary and artistic circles he had enjoyed in his youth. Much of what we know about Walser’s life we know because of this slim book written by Seelig and first published in 1957 as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser.

For anyone who has watched with anticipation as the writings of Robert Walser (1878-1956) have slowly appeared in English over the past two decades or so, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser has been high atop the list of Walser-related books we have wanted to see translated. This is Seelig’s narration of dozens of walks and conversations that he had with the writer over the twenty-year span from 1936 to 1956, when, usually several times a year, he would call upon Walser at a sanatorium in Herisau, Switzerland, where Walser had lived since 1933. Walser, whose books by then were largely forgotten, suffered from schizophrenia, anxiety, and possibly other disorders and had essentially withdrawn from society. Seelig, a patron of writers and biographer of Albert Einstein, seems to have been just about the only visitor Walser received. Eventually he became Walser’s legal guardian and the person primarily responsible for promoting the continued interest in Walser’s writings.

Now, sixty years after its first appearance, Seelig’s book has finally appeared in English as Walks with Walser (New Directions) and it doesn’t disappoint. On those long walks through the countryside and nearby villages, Seelig tried to draw the reticent Walser into talking about his past, his books, other writers, and numerous topics of interest. Walser, it turns out, seems to have been more or less like some of the great characters in his fiction — a delightful and sometimes wily crank who could easily have been mistaken for an unsophisticated soul.

Do you know what my downfall has been? [Walser says during the walk of June 27, 1937.] Listen carefully. All the dear sweet people who think they have the right to criticize me and order me around are fanatical admirers of Herman Hesse. They don’t trust me. For them it is either/or: “Either you write like Hesse, or you are and always will be a failure.” They are extremists in their judgment. They have no faith in my work. And that’s the reason I have ended up in this asylum . . . I simply lacked a halo, and that is the only way to be successful in literature. Any aura of heroism, martyrdom, or the like and the ladder of success rises before you . . . I am seen as rather merciless, which I am.  And thus no one takes me very seriously.

Walser frequently spoke about other writers and their books. He admired Dostoevsky, Dickens, Gottfried Keller, Georg Büchner, and a number of other now-forgotten European writers. He believed that Tolstoy’s Resurrection “is one of humanity’s sacred books” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “brilliantly naïve,” while Rainer Maria Rilke was “bedtime reading for old maids.”

One of the unforeseen delights of reading this book is the description of the many meals that the two walkers shared as they tramped through small Swiss villages. Walser and Seelig are constantly stopping for a café crème, a glass of wine or a beer, a small snack, or a full meal. “Lunch at Schäfli in Trogen. We both have a huge appetite and clean every plate: the oatmeal soup, the bratwursts, the mashed potatoes, the beans, and the pear compote.” Or “a lavish meal ” of “meat broth, tender schnitzel topped with a fried egg, beans, carrots, noodles, salad, and frozen meringues, accompanied, according to Robert’s express wish, by a Spanish red wine.” Or this: “soup with omelet strips, schnitzel, Brussels sprouts, peas, potatoes, cake and vanilla ice cream.”

On occasion, Walser and Seelig even talked politics, war, and peace. After watching an aerial dogfight take place above them near the end of World War II, Walser remarked “At some point this silly Hitler-worship had to come home to roost. Anyone exalted to the skies the way he was must eventually fall into the abyss. Hitler hypnotized himself into a cynical complacency.” Then, at the onset of the Korean War in 1950, Walser went on a thirty-minute harangue about American intervention.

Have you seen their faces? They’re the faces of gangsters, executioners: foolishly proud, arrogant, and predatory. What business do the Americans have with a civilized society’s fight for freedom? Of course they will destroy everything with their ultramodern war machines, and they’ll win. But afterward how will the capitalist beast be driven back into its cage? That is another, more protracted question. In any case, Washington isn’t exactly full of the best and brightest.

Even for readers who haven’t read any of his great books (many of which I have written about before), Walks With Walser (New Directions) is a delightful introduction to a true character. Translated by Anne Posten.

From: “Soups, from Fish to Oatmeal.” The New York Times, January 14, 1981. (Some modern recipes call for the addition of appenzeller cheese.)


Robert Walser’s Schoolboys

Walser Schoolboys Diary

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.”


Sebald’s Walser

The fifth essay in A Place in the Country, Jo Catling’s new translation of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus, is devoted to a “singular, enigmatic figure,” German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956).  Not long into the essay, Sebald declares “one cannot really speak of a story or of a biography at all, but rather, or so it seems to me, of a legend.”  “Le Promeneur Solitaire: A Remembrance of Robert Walser” is quintessential Sebald – and it’s also the best essay in the book, in my opinion.

Compared to the previous essays on Hebel, Rousseau, Mörike, and Keller, Sebald delves deeper into both Walser the man and Walser the writer and addresses the complex relationship between the two.  At the same time, Sebald makes clear the profound impact that both Walser and Walser’s writings had on him.

It is telling that Sebald subtitled this essay a “remembrance” (“erinnerung,” in German).  Even though he never met Walser, Sebald felt what was nearly a blood kinship with the Swiss writer, who he saw as the embodiment of his own beloved grandfather in manner and appearance.  Sebald even shows photographs of his grandfather (with small Sebald holding his hand) to demonstrate the closeness in appearance.  After he summarizes at some length the similarities between the two men, Sebald proceeds to ask a series of questions that lie at the heart of all of his own work as a writer.

What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps and coincidences?  Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?

Sebald acknowledges that in his own writings he often tried “to mark my respect for those writers with whom I felt an affinity.”  But his relationship with Walser was of a different order.  “It is one thing to set a marker in memory of a departed colleague, and quite another when one has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side.”

Among my early encounters with Walser I count the discovery I made, in an antiquarian bookshop in Manchester in the second half of the 1960s – inserted in a copy of Bächtold’s three-volume biography of Gottfried Keller which had almost certainly belonged to a German-Jewish refugee – of an attractive sepia photograph depicting the house on the island in the Aare, completely surrounded by shrubs and trees, in which Kleist worked on his drama of madness, Die Familie Ghonorez, before he, himself sick, was obliged to commit himself to the care of Dr Wyttenbach in Berne.  Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time, the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author who claims to have worked in a brewery in Thun [Kleist lived in Thun for several important years], the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee [a reference to Kleist’s suicide] with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum [where Walser lived for more than twenty years], Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history with the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile.  On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion.  I need only look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.  [My parenthetical comments – TP]

Catling’s translation of this essay first appeared in 2009 as the Introduction to Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Walser’s 1907 novel  The Tanners.  All of my posts on A Place in the Country (Logis in einem Landhaus) can be found here.

Sebald Place in the Country Walser Color Spread

Jelinek Plays with Walser

Cahiers 18 cover

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. 

Cahiers 18 inside

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. 

Sebald (and more) Events in March-April 2012

[Portions of Nach der Natur installed in Don Soker Contemporary Art, San Francisco, 2006]

If you are in the San Francisco Bay area, drop by the Berkeley Art Center, where five works by Christel Dillbohner relating to W.G. Sebald’s Nach der Natur are on display until April 1.  According to the artist’s website, her artwork entitled Nach der Natur “is a multipaneled ‘wax engraving’ on paper. In seventeen one-hour sessions, Dillbohner engraved W.G. Sebald’s prose poem Nach der Natur into a layer of wax which was applied on blackened mulberry paper (69” x 190”). After completion she then glazed the wax with white oil paint, which makes the fine (filigree) markings of her writing visible.”

Here are further details on the previously announced Festival Robert Walser being held in Newcastle upon Tyne, March 19-23.

Mon. 19/03 6pm
Short stories by Robert Walser.  Read by Tim Bennett, Gabriele Heller and Claire Webster-Saaremets
City Library, 33 New Bridge Street West, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE18AX, Tel: 0191 277 4100

Tues. 20/03 1– 2.30pm
A radio discussion on the role of madness in art and artistic legacy.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Grand Assembly Rooms, Kingʼs Walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, Tel: 0191 246 4607

Wed. 21/03 6.30-9pm
OPPRESSIVE LIGHT at The Lit and Phil
Selected Poems by Robert Walser.  Book launch – New translations by Daniele Pantano
DEEPLY MORBID at The Lit and Phil
An illustrated lecture on romance by Tender Buttons.  Written by Stevie Smith and Robert Walser. Performed by Tessa Parr, Directed by Tess Denman-Cleaver
New compositions by John Pope
Literary & Philosophical Society, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE,
Free but booking essential: Phone 0191 232 0192 to reserve a ticket

Thur. 22/03 6pm
Opening exhibition night with work by Billy Childish, Roman Signer and others
Newcastle University students show filmic work in response to Robert Walserʼs Microscripts.
Vane Gallery, 1st Floor, Commercial Union House, 39 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6QE, Tel: 0191 261 8281, Email:

Fri. 23/03 4.30-7pm
A talk by Reto Sorg about Robert Frankʼs exhibition Ferne Nähe /Distant Closeness at the Robert Walser Zentrum, Bern March 2012.
Followed by a panel discussion with Jo Catling, Lars Iyer, Daniel Medin, Daniele Pantano, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams about Walserʼs unique
7.30pm MORE ON THIS LATER at Culture Lab
A theatre performance by Gabriele Heller (theatre-between) and Claire Webster-Saaremets (Skimstone Arts).
Followed by a musical piece by Phil Begg and a musical performance by Joe Murray.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Grand Assembly Rooms, Kingʼs Walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, 0191 246 4607

Finally, on another note entirely, Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) will be shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19-May 3.

Sebald Events February-March 2012

“Festival W.G. Sebald: Politique de la Mélancolie” will take place in Paris at Centre Pompidou from February 22 through MARCH 12.  Participants include: Muriel Pic, Martine Carré, Jean-Christophe Baill, Martin RueffUlrich von Bülow, and Jürgen Ritt.  von Bülow will apparently speak about the Sebald archive at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.  According to the website:

Valérie Mréjen launches an investigation into writer W.G. Sebald and his work. Following upon the “lecture-performance” and the “spoken painting” that previous editions of the Festival have introduced as new and viable genres of contemporary art, this forensic investigation calls upon the ghosts of the past to cast a glimmer of light on the unknown future. 

“The SIP Re/View # 2: W.G. Sebald” will take place in Tel Aviv on March 5, 2012.

The Shpilman Institute for Photography and Holon Mediateque (Israel) are proud to announce The SIP Re/View # 2: W.G. Sebald, an interdisciplinary event dedicated to the works of noted German writer and scholar, whose work continues to resonate in contemporary art and culture.  The evening will begin with a panel of local artists and writers: artist Zvi Goldstein, psychoanalyst, artist and art-critic Itamar Levi and The SIP’s research manager, Dr. Romi Mikulinsky will, present three perspectives about Sebald’s evocative use of images and photography as vehicle to convey and distort meaning.  The event will feature keynote speaker Grant Gee, acclaimed documentary film-maker and director of Patience (After Sebald). This multi-layered film is narrated through a walk through coastal East Anglia whilst tracking Sebald’s  The Rings of Saturn. Gee will host an open debate with the public, following a screening of the film.

The event will also present a temporary library, focusing not only on Sebald’s work, but also on contemporary reactions in art, culture and literature, featuring the works and writings of international creative forces. As well as history and architecture books, special photography books and art manuscripts will be presented at the mediatheque during the first weeks of March.

Robert Walser

“Festival Robert Walser” will take place March 19-24 in Newcastle Upon Tyne.  A number of familiar names – including Jo Catling – will appear.  From their website:

One of the most remarkable artists of the Twentieth Century, the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) has had a huge influence on a long list of literary, artistic and philosophical figures from Franz Kafka to Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald to J.M. Coetzee, musicians such as Heinz Holliger, contemporary visual artists from Fischli & Weiss to Billy Childish, and filmmakers including João César Monteiro, Percy Adlon and the Brothers Quay.  In recent years, international interest in Walser’s work via a growing number of world class translations has generated a wealth of new writing, artwork and critical discussion which continues to explore Walser’s unusual legacy.  The Institute Robert Walser will use Walser’s multi-disciplinary appeal as the basis for a week long arts festival in Newcastle upon Tyne in arch 2012. The festival will bring together local and international writers, academics, performers, musicians and visual artists. Participants include: Billy Childish (artist/writer/musician), Roman Signer (artist), Daniele Pantano (writer) Luke Williams (writer) and Jo Catling (translator/academic). The festival will also serve to showcase the extraordinary cultural and artistic diversity in the city of Newcastle at this time; it will be launched on March 19th at Newcastle City Library and will take place across a range of venues.

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

Robert Walser, My Constant Companion

Walser The Tanners

“Walser has been my constant companion.”

Some artists obfuscate when it comes to talking about those who influenced them, while others readily identify their own artistic forerunners for us.  When W.G. Sebald reflected back on Robert Walser’s writings in an essay first published in 1998, he also traced a deliberate path connecting his own writing with Walser’s.  The essay, Le Promeneur Solitaire, which recently appeared in English in the guise of an Introduction to the new translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners (New Directions, 2009), is every bit as revelatory about Sebald as it is about Walser.

Originally published in his book of essays Logis in Einem LandhausLe Promeneur Solitaire begins with photographs of Walser – specifically seven portraits that span Walser’s lifetime, plus a series of snapshots of Walser posing during his infamous hikes.  Every time he looks at those photographs, Sebald writes, “I think I see my grandfather before me,”  and he reproduces two unidentified snapshots that seemingly show himself as a young boy hiking with his grandfather (the two photographs at the top of the right hand page below).  After enumerating several similarities between the lives of Walser and his grandfather, Sebald asks:

What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, coincidences?  Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which is beyond our comprehension?

There is scarcely a better description of the pattern behind Sebald’s own prose than this.

Walser Portraits

Sebald identifies so closely with Walser that he “has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side.”  So, when he writes about Walser, it can be instructive on occasion to simply substitute Sebald’s name for Walser’s.

[Sebald] hoped, through writing, to be able to escape the shadows which lay over his life from the beginning…transforming them on the page from something very dense to something almost weightless.  His ideal was to overcome gravity.

[Sebald was the] clairvoyant of the small.

Sebald pays much attention to Walser’s fragile state of mind, his remoteness from other people and from the momentous events of his own time, his utter lack of possessions, his lonely hikes, his eventual institutionalization.  “He was the most unattached of all solitary poets.”   He sees the handful of portraits of Walser as “stations in a life which hint at the silent catastrophe which has taken place between each.”  Sebald turns all of this into something resembling a state of grace.  “On the subject of the collective catastrophes of his day he remained resolutely silent.  However, he was anything but politically naive.”  For Sebald, Walser’s “purity” becomes the source for what he sees as Walser’s “aesthetic and moral assurance.”

Le Promeneur Solitaire is surely one of Sebald’s most personal essays about literature and it is wonderful to have it translated into English at last.

Forthcoming: Sebald’s “A Place in the Country”

Somewhat buried in the notices on the copyright page of the recently published novel The Tanners by Robert Walser is the first notice I have seen that an English translation of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus is in the works.  The Tanners opens with Sebald’s essay on Walser called Le Promeneur Solitaire (more in this in a forthcoming post), and the related copyright notice indicates that this essay from Logis in einem Landhaus has been translated by Jo Catling “from the forthcoming work A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald to be published by Random House.”  There is currently no mention of the book on the Random House website.

Logis in Einem Landhaus

As I have written earlier, Logis in einem Landhaus (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1998) includes essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Jan Peter Tripp. Undoubtedly influenced by his earlier forays into fiction – Die Ausgewanderten (1992) and Die Ringe des Saturn (1995) – Sebald inserts images of all types into the essays in Logis in Einem Landhaus. In fact, each of the six essays receives a large foldout image in full color.  Will Random House spring for the expense to do the same?  Until Catling’s translation of Le Promeneur Solitaire, the only essay from Logis in Einem Landhaus to have appeared in English is the one on artist Jan Peter Tripp, which is included in the British and American editions of Unrecounted, the book on which Sebald and Tripp collaborated.

Wandering with Robert Walser

walserumbrellaRobert Walser

Many things connect the two writers Robert Walser and W.G. Sebald, but probably nothing more than the passion each had for walking.

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.

Bob Skinner has been working on a draft English translation of Seelig’s book.  Even though his translation is still a work-in-progress, it makes for very compelling reading on several levels.  His Wandering with Robert Walser shows the sometimes crotchety Walser talking about his own books, other authors, his life, and a long list of other topics, including Hitler and the Nazis.

W.G. Sebald was a great admirer of Walser (I have written about Walser several times before), so, in order to make a link between the two I thought I would excerpt several passages that reflect on the topic of Sebald’s book The Natural History of Destruction.  On several occasions, Walser talks with Seelig about the aerial destruction of Germany by the Allies.

[from 2 January 1944] We spoke first about the bombing of German cities. I noted that I found is awful to wage war against women, children, and the sick, regardless of which side was doing it. Hitler’s bombing of London didn’t excuse the Allies’ use of this inhumane tactic. Robert objected sharply that I was being too subjective and sentimental. A country in as much danger as Britain must pursue the most hard-hearted Realpolitik. The Hitler-Huns deserved no better. When it’s a question of survival every nation becomes selfish; even Christianity must content itself with a secondary role.

[from 24 May 1944] On the aerial bombardment of Berlin: “Perhaps this horror has the benefit that residents of big cities will return to a simple, natural life. How much musty history has been dragged through the centuries! By the way, it can’t hurt the Germans to come under a foreign yoke again. Even civilized countries must learn to knuckle under if they want to be able to rule.”

I had my own brief Sebaldian moment when Seelig recounts a walk with Walser on February 5, 1950, which is the day I was born.

In a confectioner’s Robert rolls a shapeless cigarette which starts a little fire when it’s lit. A couple nearby snickers; they think he’s a hick. He says that in the sanitarium he’s now sorting and untying string for the Post Office. This work is all right with him; he’ll take what comes.

After Walser’s death, Seelig reflected on the walks and his notes:

[from Christmas 1955]  If in Wanderungen mit Robert Walser the subject is frequently food and drink, and certain subjects repeat themselves in occasionally contradictory ways, and passages occur which may perhaps shock a few readers, I’ve risked that for the sake of the integrity of a unique personality, even if that serves to cast a shadow on him. It’s a consolation for me that our strolls brought some variety to the monotony of decades in confinement. I’ll never find a more enthusiastic walking companion than him.