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Posts from the ‘Robert Walser’ Category

Walser’s Strategies

None of us boys in the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.

In his recent New Yorker review of Death with Interruptions, James Wood calls José Saramago a “cunningly modest” writer – a phrase I think is also eminently suited to Robert Walser (1878-1956).  In Walser’s richly suggestive, endlessly elusive novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), the Benjamenta Institute is a school that ostensibly teaches young men to enter servitude as a profession, although no one in the novel manages to be truly servile.  Even Jakob, our narrator, dreams that he “would like to be rich, to ride in coaches, and squander money.”  Almost always anxious to please, Jakob nevertheless feels most alive when breaking the rules or rebelling against colleagues or school.  The Benjamenta Institute is a complex and almost comic web of hope and disappointment, dignity and shame, love and masochism where, in the end, the identities of master and servant are blurred, if not exchanged.  In this regard, Walser’s Institute is a variant on the private schools and military academies sprinkled throughout the history of literature (Robert Musil’s classic Young Torless, which takes place in a military school, had just been published in 1906).

The real reason that Jakob and most of his fellow rebels enter the Institute is to try to trim away ambitions, desires, and other troublesome attitudes that will lead only to disappointment in life for those of meager means. Jakob, who is wickedly observant and quick to deflate any pomposity, senses that the best strategy for happiness and success is to lie low, have modest hopes, and to not develop the kind of intelligence that only becomes a hindrance.

A person who sets a high value on himself is never safe from discouragement and humiliations…we pupils aren’t by any means without dignity, but the dignity we have is a very, very mobile, small, pliant, and supple dignity.

…if a hand, a situation, a wave were ever to raise me up and carry me to where I could command power and influence, I would destroy the circumstances that had favored me, and I would hurl myself down into the humble, speechless, insignificant darkness.  I can only breathe in the lower regions.

Jakob would rather relieve himself of the burden of consciousness. Toward the end of the novel he imagines he is a soldier marching to Russia in Napolean’s army.

Soldierly discipline and patience would have made me into a firm and impenetrable, almost empty lump of body…I would feel no more pain…

Essentially plotless, Jakob von Gunten is a  series of observations and meditations, mostly on Jakob’s fellow students, where Walser is wickedly funny

[Peter’s]  father is a policeman, and Peter was trained as a clerk in a rope works, but he seems to have played being very ignorant, unusable, and unsuccessful, which I, privately, find very endearing.

Fuchs is crosswise, Fuchs is askew.  He speaks like a flopped somersault and behaves like a big improbability pummeled into human shape.

I am unbelievable fond of silly people.  I hate the kind of person who pretends he understands everything and beamingly parades knowledge and wit.  Sly and knowing people are to me an unspeakable abomination.

Walser is so sly a novelist that we scarcely notice that he never gives us a mental map to orient ourselves.  By the end of the book it is not possible to physicaly descibe the Institute where we have just spend several hours.  Is it a series of buildings or only a few rooms?  We don’t know.  The manner in which Walser cloaks the Institute in vagaries, mysteries, and rumors points the way to Kafka’s use of the legal system or a castle as structures for grand parables.

W.G. Sebald, who admired Walser, is in many ways the polar opposite.  Among other contrasts, Sebald’s erudite narrators prize history and specificity.  I have a sense that Sebald, the literary scholar whose works draw upon many literary traditions and strategies, admired Walser precisely for his un-literaryness.  I sense in Sebald at times a yearning to be untrained and hence more “natural.”  Alas, here Walser was right: once you bite into the apple of knowledge you can never really go back.

Walser’s World

Outside, everything lay beneath an opaque fog. How beautiful it was that one couldn’t see anything at all.”

It’s a world that opens like so many others – with the pressing of a doorbell. Joseph, the newly hired assistant has arrived “from the lower depths of society, from the shadowy, barren, still crannies of the metropolis” to work for Herr Tobler, a bourgeois businessman whose unrealistic expectations for his own inventions and ineptitude at business are painfully clear to the reader from the outset. As Joseph unpacks the sum of his worldly possessions, one item stands out, a ball made of “old threads, bits of string, neckties, buttons, needles and scraps of torn linen.”

Hapless Joseph thinks and speaks in a language that is pompous, comic, and oddly quaint. Joseph, however, is not a simple character but an extremely complex one, capable of great flights of imagination and moments of pure paranoia, and Walser lets us skate across his consciousness like a stone skipping across the surface of a deep lake. He views himself oddly from the exterior. “He and his entire person appeared to constitute merely a sort of frill, an ephemeral appendage, a knot tied for the nonce…” Affecting a cheery ordinariness, Joseph is delighted in his own modest homilies and observations, and he’s a clear descendant of so many of Flaubert’s characters and a precursor to those of Svevo and Musil. “I merely wish to do my best to shed some light on the question of what is going on with my person and with the particular zone of the world charged with the task of enduring my presence,” Joseph muses.

But as much as he likes to occasionally dabble in philosophy, Joseph’s abiding strength is his ability to remain ordinary, to avoid conflict – to survive as an assistant, not an instigator. He longs for “a single, general thought [that would] suffice to keep one’s life progressing along a good smooth path.” In a way, Joseph finds this law – or, if not a law, at least a passable parable for life – when he is sent to jail for two days for missing his compulsory military service. There, he and his fellow prisoners gleefully pass the time in a game called Slap the Ham, in which one prisoner is sequentially slapped on the buttocks by his compatriots until he can successfully guess which one was responsible for the last slap, at which time the prisoner who is outed becomes the next ham. The hours pass quickly in this fashion.

Walser is especially astute about the self-deception of bourgeois logic, which can so easily fall into “the illusion of the extraordinary.” Frau Tobler, for example, “had no eye for color or anything of the sort, she knew nothing of the laws of beauty, but precisely for this reason she was able to feel what was beautiful.” As the Toblers sink further into debt they manage to convince themselves they are entitled to live life even more extravagantly than before.

Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, Traveler 170 at Night, 2005

Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, Traveler 170 at Night, 2005

Amazingly translated into English for the first time only last year, Robert Walser’s 1908 novel The Assistant is quaintly ahistoric, as if the reader has entered a world completely contained within a snow globe. W.G. Sebald admired Walser for obvious reasons, starting with the role that nature plays in Walser’s world. Joseph flees into nature whenever the social world become too puzzling. Nature is a place of memory and boundless imaginative possibilities. “Earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws.” But I really think it was the endless odd, delightful details in Walser that Sebald admired, the ball made of “old threads, bits of string, neckties, buttons, needles and scraps of torn linen.”

Walser spent the last two and a half decades of his life in mental institutions. In the All-estero section of Vertigo, when Sebald visits his friend the schizophrenic Austrian poet Ernst Herbeck in a mental hospital, the image that stands in for Herbeck is most likely a cropped portrait of Walser.

The Adventure and Disobedience of Reading W.G. Sebald

Blackler Reading Sebald

I’ve just completed a quick read of Deane Blackler’s new book Reading W.G. Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience and I’m impressed. I won’t pretend to review it (I’m not remotely qualified), but I’ll give a brief summing up. Blacker’s principal thesis is simple: “Sebald’s poetics foreground the disobedient, adventurous reader.”

I argue that three aspects of Sebald’s practice manifest in the four works of prose fiction, his use of a writerly narrator figure, the insertion of black-and-white photographs into the text, and his construction of place as poetic space, confirm the fictional nature of his literary enterprise and produce a disobedient reader. [page x]

Noting that many reviewers and scholars have held remarkably different views on Sebald’s basic enterprise – is it fiction? travel? memoir? – Blackler, an Australian scholar, set out to understand “How were we to read Sebald?”She positions herself not as a German-language scholar but as one interested in how Sebald’s works operate on and liberate readers, creating (essentially forcing) them to question the narrator, puzzle over pictures, and otherwise interact with the text rather than dutifully absorbing it. It is this characteristic, more than any other, which makes Sebald a post-modern writer.

In the first half of the book she provides an overview of the interrelationship between Sebald’s biography (as it is known, largely from published sources) and his writings. She also gives a synopsis of the major critical publications on Sebald as of 2006. These are both very useful summaries and are worth the price of admission in themselves. Even though at one time or another I had read most of what she cites, I was surprised what I had forgotten. Until a full biography is published (and one is being written now by Mark M. Anderson), it feels as if so much knowledge about Sebald is spread thinly across a wide range of largely obscure journals, making it easy to miss something crucial. For example, Blackler refers to a novel that Sebald wrote during his 1967 stay in Manchester, a novel that he could not get published. Does this novel, written more than twenty years before his next attempt at fiction, still exist somewhere? Blackler doesn’t say.

The second half of the book consists of her readings of Sebald’s books as she builds up her case that Sebald was deliberately developing a new type of relationship between text and reader. I’ll leave the scholarly discussions over her thesis to others. But I will say that I found myself feeling that Blackler was often articulating how I feel as I struggle to understand why reading Sebald is unlike reading just about anyone else.

Deane Blackler, Reading W.G. Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007).The cover photograph, by the way, is an unidentified image from Sebald’s Vertigo and, according to Blacker, probably shows Robert Walser.