A Prose Piece for Your Gaps: Robert Walser’s Short Works
A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories
by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Damion Searls
New York Review of Books, 2013
“I filled other people’s gaps with prose pieces,” says the writer-narrator of “The Last Prose Piece,” one of the many witty-poignant compositions in the new translation of Robert Walser’s shorter works, A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories. A stand-in for Walser himself, this fictional prose writer recounts his ordeals in producing a written piece — the careful and dutiful labor, the pride at the moment of completion — as well as writing’s aftermath, in which a lovingly crafted story is sent out into the world, orphaned from its creator, to meet with indifferent editors and a no-nonsense, unappreciative public (the kind of readers you might picture reading newspapers in their hats and ties, exasperated by Walserian experiments — they are serious people and have no time for writerly foolishness!).
Thankfully we, his real readers, can laugh at their expense, and at the expense of the prose writer as well, who is forever sighing, sobbing, and then starting a fresh paragraph. Though he claims that he’d never advise another to take on his miserable profession, he can’t stop writing stories by the cartload. When he says he’s spent his life filling “other people’s gaps,” he means, first and foremost, physical spaces — “people’s mailboxes, pockets, and warehouses” — full of stories that now function as supplies, stockpiled for later use. But as we move through this and other pieces of Walser’s oeuvre, we realize that beneath the easy, delightful sentences that don’t explicitly admit to loftier goals, the spatial gaps aren’t all that Walser’s writer has aimed to fill, and they’re not all that Walser fills for us. There remain unnameable gaps in existence, in its meaning and in the means to cope with it, gaps that stuffy reader-characters may not feel, but that real readers certainly do. So when an author says, “I filled other people’s gaps with prose pieces,” we might answer that surely it’s not a bad way to live, filling in gaps like these.
Walser himself had not spent the whole of his life as a writer. Born in Switzerland in 1878, he had tried to become an actor and then trained and worked as a butler. He moved around Germany and Switzerland, for a time making a living off his prose, experiencing both periods of public recognition and of dismissal, and even serving in the military, before succumbing to mental illness, institutionalization, and finally death in a snowy field in 1956. Clearly struggling with difficult existential gaps of his own — at one point he had attempted suicide — he nevertheless managed to produce wonderful, deceptively simple writing that influenced figures like Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse; Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald, and J.M. Coetzee have all written on Walser, as has Ben Lerner, who penned the introduction to this most recent volume. Though Walser died as a literary outsider, since the 1960s his work has been reexamined, eventually earning him recognition as “a major twentieth-century prose artist.”
A Schoolboy’s Diary is a three-part collection, with translator Damion Searls gathering together over seventy stories spanning most of Walser’s career. The first third, preparing us for the rest of A Schoolboy’s singular tone, is comprised of Walser’s first book — “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” — published in 1904 when the Swiss author was just in his twenties. It’s a series of young Fritz’s in-class assignments, which give Walser the chance to write creative vignettes on topics like “Man,” “Friendship,” “Politeness,” “Careers.” One can feel how Walser enjoys assigning the essays to himself: here is a topic, now expound on it from the eyes of a thoughtful schoolboy. How would he see the world, what would he say about it given the constraints of his readership, the authoritative teacher? “I want to be industrious and obey whoever deserves to be obeyed,” Fritz writes. “Parents and teachers deserve it automatically. That’s my essay.”
Young Fritz proves a wonderfully effective voice: his insights alternate between the clear-sightedness of innocence and its opposite, judgmental ignorance: as his fictional publisher tells us, “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.” Fritz fills up the pages with endearing claims about how adults should behave and offers acute speculations about why they don’t behave as they ought to. “Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture,” he says, “why do people indulge in it? It must be because from time to time they feel the need to drown their reason in the dreams that swim in every kind of alcohol.” We enjoy watching Fritz watch others: he meets a beautiful snake-charmer at a fair and recognizes the loathing in her gaze, how “the expression of her mouth is filled with contempt.” But he does not take offense, as we might expect of an inexperienced young person, because he’s also capable of discerning the “indelible sorrow” that lurks underneath it. He writes: “I don’t mind letting her despise me: she is so sad.” Elsewhere, Fritz claims that heroism is still possible — it just has to change form to suit a more contemporary sensibility. We wonder if the snake-charmer encounter is not a type of heroism too, a heroic decision just to perceive and then forgive.
Walser, however, doesn’t leave us with uncomplicated goodwill towards his guileless hero. After speaking of the dignity of true friendship and pouring out his wishes to honorably defend the fatherland, Fritz muses that maybe poor people are made to work in factories “to punish them for being so poor.” He’s a wealthy boy made uncomfortable by the poverty around him, and doesn’t see who should be blamed save those who incite his discomfort. People who beg must be unreliable and dishonest; Fritz avows that he’d rather die than make such “an improper request.” Yet we forgive Fritz preemptively, not only because his childish lack of empathy was learned from adult example, but also because we’re informed, by the aforementioned publisher, that the boy had died shortly after leaving school. It’s a move that helps infuse the text with Walser’s signature melancholy, adding a bittersweet haunting to otherwise comical or even aggravating lines.
The themes set up in “Fritz” flow through the miniature pieces of Part II, many of which are about a page and half in length, and through Part III, a 27-page story called “Hans.” As the eponymous story suggests, Walser favors tales of school. He studies students, teachers, and the cruelty of their interactions (at times, teachers mock and whip; at others, schoolboys taunt their elders, making them beat their heads against the wall, unable to stop themselves even as they recognize their rascally behavior and feel guilt for it). Roles change fluidly and frequently: “You often have the opportunity in the classroom to play the hero, the traitor, the victim, the martyr.” All of our future personas, it seems, we’ve already playacted, or perhaps genuinely lived, in the confines of classrooms. As Fritz writes in his essay on the topic of “School,” and as is evidenced by tales of other boys in other classrooms, that institution is “the anteroom, the waiting room as it were, of life.”
Along with students, poets show up frequently throughout the collection, and just as frequently make apt targets for Walser’s humorous depictions. They kick each other out of romantic locales, competing over who gets to remain in the lovely forest clearing and produce the best descriptions of its scenery; they spurn work, demanding grants for their laziness; they trap the world inside of themselves and won’t let it out (“Guys, I’ve got you locked tight in my head,” says a poet to fields and forests); and they refuse to make new friends (“I am afraid of the unnecessary inner work that would be required of me” explains a poet in declining the friendship of a gentleman). Editors and publishers aren’t spared, either; they’re portrayed as offering less-than-constructive feedback:
We lost your prose pieces in the chaos and hubbub. Please don’t hold it against us and please send us something new. We would like to lose that too, whereupon you can send in something new yet again. Work hard. Bite back any superfluous ill temper. We do feel bad for you.
It’s no wonder the poor writer of “The Last Prose Piece” might want to give up the profession, no matter how virtuous it is. Though he’s spent his life filling in other people’s gaps, ameliorating the terrible emptiness in people’s lives, he’s received no gratitude in return. Tired of the grief, he wonders if it isn’t time “to look around for another line of work that might make it possible for [him] to eat [his] bread in peace.”
Some of the pieces here exhibit Walser’s Romanticist tendencies. There are vignettes consisting wholly of descriptions of mountains, lakes, vallies. You’ll find much in praise of nature’s beauty, infinity, ineffableness, and sublime moments like a line in “Hans” stating, simply, that that “One day, he experienced an unforgettable, magnificent storm.” Nature’s simplicity is superior to human complexity, and, true to the spirit of Romanticism, those who remain close to nature, admiring its offerings and accepting its will, are superior to those who don’t. Characters who become too ingrained in society care only about wealth and forget their mothers, while poor ones cope courageously with the harsh winds of life. Hans comes across a couple of peasants that seem lifted directly out of Tolstoy:
The sight that the beggar man and woman offered our passerby was moving […] since it showed how two entirely impoverished people in isolation stuck together, faithful, honest, and solicitous, by sitting next to each other thoroughly unmiserable in their sorrow, instead innocent, affectionate, and warm-hearted in their need, awaiting whatever came with a deep inner calm and in fact, it seemed, almost good cheer.
For direct contrast, Hans encounters an angry, unyielding man screaming in a field, and describes him as insane, completely unfit for living:
Perhaps the rebel in the empty field had suffered an injustice, but what will come of anyone who can no longer bear injustice, no longer endure a hard fate? Don’t you agree, dear reader, that they who accept life in good spirits, whatever bad things life might also bring, are blessed?
The praise of all “this poverty that does not rail and rage” as opposed to that which complains at cruelty is enough to make the reader want to storm in with a bad-tempered Marxist revolution. Don’t you see, one wants to say to Walser’s ill-fated sufferers, you must not bear your oppression so joyously, or at least your author must not paint you as doing so!
At the same time, though, nothing in Walser can be read so simply. After asking the reader if they agree that the undemanding beggars are blessed, he writes: “Words such as those given just above are actually what Hans says, not the author, who indeed would do best just to stay in the background and keep the most scrupulous silence, rather than pressing forward, which doesn’t look good at all.” The author, it seems, would rather delegate clear, passionate declaration of ideals to someone else. He prefers to take pleasure in ironizing, turning tenets on their heads, while his real philosophy remains ambiguous. A true Romanticist, after all, wouldn’t spare us the gut-wrenching drama of Werther when tying up the plot of a triangular love affair in “The Devil of a Story.” Instead, “All three of them wretchedly sobbed. It was just that all three were too sensitive, and so nothing came of it, and with that this story is over too.”
Other points on which Walser remains ambiguous are his contrary views towards battle. Having himself served in the Swiss National Guard, Walser speaks highly of a soldier’s duty, and describes with delight the straightforward life of the military, its simplicity and cheerfulness, its unworried, unpretentious life full of honest swearing. But it’s difficult to take him at face value, especially given this maybe-serious, maybe-ironic section from “The Military”:
What does a soldier have to think about all day? The fact is, for the thing we call militarism to work properly, he should really think absolutely nothing or deliberately as little as possible. He is only too happy to avail himself of a custom that frees him from discomfort and complaints, since thinking, as everyone knows, does cause headaches. How attractive, delightful, and magical it sometimes seems to me not to think.
Is this really a zen-like praise of intellectual vacuum, or a pointed criticism of how war cannot be fought without brainwashing its fighters? Perhaps both, simultaneously, a dual perspective typical of these pieces.
What’s in Walser’s style for the contemporary reader? He makes you feel better about the gaps. This is an author remarkably talented at investing meaning into the small, the repetitive, the quotidian, so that the largeness of life doesn’t overpower and overwhelm. “I love things in one color,” says Fritz, “monotonous things.” In another story, “Greifen Lake,” a wanderer takes us along on his walk, even though he “encounter[s] nothing but everything an ordinary person can encounter on his ordinary way.” While an author of a different temperament might suffer an existential crisis at how life circles the same ground until it ends, in Walser, years cycle and nothing is more beautiful. The narrator of “Spring” “never tire[s] 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?” Indeed, why should beauty feel compelled to change? And why should a poet do anything other than “play upon the lute of memory … a minor instrument, which always only makes one and the same sound”?
The only trouble with this collection is that, since many of the pieces are so short, it’s difficult to read them all in one go. You feel thrown around too quickly. It’s best to keep the book on the bedside table, and browse a few stories every day. Since it only takes Walser a sentence or two to place you in his sweet, tragicomical world, the infrequency of reading doesn’t fracture its experience. And if you, like this reader, have many gaps, you’ll want to fill them in a few at a time.
Y. Greyman is a freelance writer living in New York, working on a PhD in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaching composition at Brooklyn College. Last month she wrote for Open Letters about Caleb Crain’s novel Necessary Errors.