Swiss author Robert Walser’s prolific writing career (four novels and ten collections of short fiction) came to an abrupt end in 1933, the year he was forcibly transferred from the Waldau mental hospital in Berne, where Walser, a schizophrenic, had voluntarily committed himself four years earlier, to Herisau, where he remained until his death in 1956. The twenty-three years of literary silence at Herisau have, for the most part, been followed by an equally long period of posthumous and undeserved neglect (the pioneering work of Christopher Middleton, Walser’s translator, being the most notable exception). The causes of this literary neglect are not difficult to determine: Walser’s self-imposed silence, his being overshadowed by writers such as Franz Kafka (whom he seems to have influenced), and the protean oddity of his comic and anecdotal yet deeply disturbing prose. Although his stories are distinctly “Walserian,” they encompass a broad range of narrative modes. There is the wayward realism of “The Walk,” the patent fantasy of “Two Strange Stories,” the brilliantly exaggerated satire of “The Monkey” (something of a cross between Richard Harding Davis and Donald Barthelme), as well as imaginative reconstructions of actual events, as in “Kleist in Thun” (based on the life of the German writer Heinrich von Kleist), which anticipate Guy Davenport’s recent “assemblages of fact and necessary fiction” in Tatlin! (1974) and Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), in the latter of which Walser appears as a character. In fact, the forty-two works collected in Selected Stories are not really “stories” at all. One is a job application, another is “A Response to a Request.” There is a diary, a “scientific treatise,” “A Contribution to the Celebration of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer,” “Thoughts on Cézanne,” and “A Sort of Speech.” Some are essays, others are sketches, several are itineraries (“Balloon Journey,” “A Little Ramble,” “The Walk”), and one is a personal letter Walser wrote to a young admirer. There are a number of works that can only be described, anachronistically, as post-Modern; “A Village Tale,” for example, is about the writing of a village tale, and “The Boat” is a Robert Coover-like metafiction in which the narrator questions himself, his narrative, its meaning, and his control over them.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Walser’s style is his fondness for lists. Instead of using plot, Walser concatenates events, transforming everything and anything into an art best described as a kind of domesticated Surrealism. Dreamlike juxtapositions and non sequiturs abound to suggest the discontinuity of both the character’s and the author’s personality and world. Even when some connection other than chance does exist between the narrative elements, the effect is often disconcerting: “The contents of Dostoevsky’s Idiot pursue me. Lapdogs interest me greatly.” The piling up of phrases in individual sentences creates a similar effect, a narrative overkill suggestive of mental instability as well as of a world spinning out of control. What holds these stories together is neither plot nor ostensible content but a mood that is light yet disturbing and a voice at once amiable yet maniacally obsessive. Clearly in the oral tradition, the stories are impersonations, garrulous monologues. Had Herman Melville’s Bartleby “preferred” to speak, these are the tales he would have told. In each story, Walser perfectly adapts voice to subject. “Nervous,” which echoes Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” begins, “I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes. Mortars have mortared me to bits. I am a little crumbly, decaying, yes, yes.” In “The Little Berliner,” Walser adopts the voice of a precocious as well as snobbish twelve-year-old in order to reveal the girl, her father (a powerful and egotistical art dealer who “deals with names”), their social class, and their nation. More than just a comic version of Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew,” Walser’s mock diary reveals his distaste for German pretentiousness (especially in art and literature), and, more darkly, his understanding of the psychology of a Fascist state in the making.
Although Walser’s style is, at first glance, comic, even farcical, his comedy serves a double purpose. It lightens the satirical thrust of his fiction and protects, in art if not in real life, his all too vulnerable characters from a world they perceive as a threat. These characters are, like the stories themselves, an odd and distinctly modern lot. They are comical in a Chaplinesque way (and thus deserving of the reader’s sympathy) yet frighteningly inhuman as well. They...
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