Bernofsky & Walser
–Clairvoyant of the Small–
The Life of Robert Walser
By Susan Bernofsky
Susan Bernofsky’s biography beautifully captures the sweep of Walser’s crazy life, despite gaps with scant records of his movements.
Fritz Kocher’s Essays is Walser’s first novel. They are imaginings of a young person’s essays. Or perhaps they are typical little Walser essays that Walser gathers through this fictional student, suggesting something like a Bildungsroman? They are not yet translated.
Susan Bernofsky records a moment when a copy of Goethe’s great Bildungsroman about Wilhelm Meister was lying open; Robert Walser was consulting it. The Bildungsroman touches on the development of young people. Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry is another example. Sifter’s wonderful Nachsommer.
This Prosastückligeschäfter looks for musical resonances —
Compare *Fritz Kocher’s Essays* with –Sebastian Currier’s–
And compare with –Anna Weesner’s–
“Eight Lost Songs of Orlando Underground”
I am tempted to propose that the Bildungsroman resists romantic impulses because of its focus on young people rather than grandiose heroes, like Ivanhoe or Goetz von Berlichingen, or Ossian.
That aside, Walser is clearly uncomfortable with the grandiose. He celebrated the small. He might remind us of Adalbert Stifter in his famous introduction to his short stories. I think also of Dewey.
Do we not see a real anti-Romantic tendency in Walser? Something very similar to the attitude of Satie? How can one itching to create overcome their great reverence for predecessors?
There is also talk about the *puer aeternus* problem around this period of time. In this connection I think of Walser along with Gombrowicz, maybe Bruno Schulz as well as Satie. But for the moment, I consider the advantages of Walser’s approach. Susan Bernofsky argues convincingly in favor of the position that Walser is a serious writer, worthy of our highest esteem. Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Herman Hesse concurred.
Most of Walser’s work is small and smaller, culminating in the notorious microscripts, written by hand in a script so small that many failed to realize they were meant to be read. See Susan Bernofsky’s translations of the microscripts. (My hardcover copy is now going for over $150 on Amazon.)
We learn, reading Bernofsky’s biography, that Walser’s father was a shopkeeper. The shop flourished for a time. When Robert was a teenager the family business floundered sadly and tragically and Robert was set up with an apprenticeship at a bank.
Like Melville on Gansvoort Street and like Kafka, Walser was a bookkeeper, a clerk, a scrivener. This biography sheds light on the office space shared by these three.
On page 43 we see RW’s letter asking for a job with a socialist, feeling for the moment that socialism was a more meaningful cause than bankig or insurance.
“At present I am working here at an insurance firm, but I don’t like it, I feel a powerful urge to leave. Please understand, this work simply does not interest me, it leaves me cold; I have no idea what I am working for, but I do have a fairly clear notion that I am of little, terribly little use here.”
From his frustrating situation in the office, Walser develops something interesting, something positive. He develops a theme that runs throughout his creative work.
Perhaps there are many of us who learned of Robert Walser through Walter Benjamin. Benjamin mentions Walser as an important influence on Kafka in connection with a type of character, the assistant.
The assistant in Walser’s novel enjoys a moonlit landscape, a glass of wine, while his master (a failed inventor) is far too stressed with keeping his enterprise afloat. Benjamin points out that Kafka’s stories are peopled with minor characters like this. The protagonists are caught in various webs, but the assistants go along merrily. Benjamin draws us to a comment Kafka made: “There is hope, just not for us”.
He means, *not for innovative creative writers hoping to be understood*. This is the world of Milton Babbitt & Elliott Carter.
Over the last forty or fifty years have we not seen a remarkable transformation in the US? And does it seem that this transformation has met some resistance in the EU?
Allen Blustine, once known as Anand Devendra, is a fabulous clarinetist, a champion of New York’s high modernists. When Cygnus was in residence at Sarah Lawrence Devendra complained about some of the students reinventing the wheel. That comment was made perhaps 15 years ago. Devendra was a member of Speculum Musicae, the new music ensemble that championed the high modernists to the bitter end.
I’ve gone around and around about this whell. I now consider reinventing the wheel a healthy enterprise. Let every next generation reinvent that wheel. Each wheel will be marked with unique fingerprints. Fritz Kocher’s Essays and Theo’s Notebooks take that and wrap it up in an envelope.
Another funny anecdote. A true story, but vaguely described here to honor confidences. A minimalist or post-minimalist interviews a modernist before the modernist begins a teaching stint at a glorious Northeastern US academic institution.
Post-minimalist to the modernist:
I understand you are modernist, that’s great. We’re open minded here. That said, please don’t be judgmental.
A modernist’s discourse is highly directed. Perhaps mostly toward technical issues felt to be innovative. Modernists, fearful of reinventing the wheel, fall into the neuroses that I vaguely remember being best elaborated by –Norman O. Brown–. Through fear of death and fear of irrelevance, there is an excessive drive toward originality and grandiosity. I see composers in the US getting over this through the leaderhsip of the minimalists and hipsters. God Bless them, especially the Bang on a Can bunch. Does this neurosis seem alive in well in the EU and UK?
No doubt it still exists here in the US. I plead guilty. I still strive to be original. I think of myself as an inventor. I remain loyal to a failed revolution, perhaps more than one failed revolution (see Terry Eagleton’s definition of postmodernism in *The Illusions of Postmodernism*). Call me a small “m” modernist, the chastened. Do I belong to a swelling number? Am I enlisting additions to the ranks?
One response to this neurosis is to think of oneself as an honest craftsman like Haydn or Hindemith. I like that response. We can try to be *professionals*.
Walser and Sebastian Currier and David Lang suggest a different response. Countering in mirror image the grandiosity of the neurotic impulse toward the Christ-like epoch-maker, are these are anti-grandiose, equally vociferous *as such*?
David Lang and Sebastican Currier strike me as crafty (craftmanly). Not sure about Walser. It’s like this: if one avoids neurosis, one is likely a craftsman. I’d call Currier and Lang craftsmen.
There is hope, but not for modernists. Walser was enough of a modernist to be doomed.
Let’s leave it there for now.
Elserwhere, I’d like to delve into Walser, the master of enantiodromia–effusion distilling into the death impulse. Here he has much in common with Christian Morgenstern. We learn from Susan Bernofsky’s biorgraphy that Morgenstern was a great champion of Robert Walser’s work and helped him get published by Cassirer.
Effusion bubbling off into the the death impulse–see Greifensee:
It’s chilly this morning, and I set out at a march from this large city with its large, famous lake for a small lake known almost to no one. On the road I find nothing any ordinary man might not find on any ordinary road. I wish “Good morning” to a few hard-working reapers, that’s all; I glance attentively at the lovely flowers, again that’s all; I cosily start chatting to myself, once more that’s all. None of the landscape’s special features draws my gaze, for, walking, I’m convinced there’s nothing special here for me any longer. So I go on, striding along at such a pace that the first village is already behind me with it tall, wide houses, its gardens that invite you in to rest and forget, its splashing fountains, its beautiful trees, farms, inns and other things that, in the forgetful moment, I can no longer recall. I keep on walking, and the next time I look up, it’s to see the shimmer of the lake above green foliage and silent fir-tips; this is my lake, I think, I must go to it, I feel drawn there. You, too, dear reader, will see how and why I feel drawn should it interest you to keep pursuing my description, which takes the liberty of skipping over roads, meadows, forest, stream, and field, thus arriving on the banks of the little lake itself where the two of us, I and it, stop short and cannot get over the lake’s unexpected beauty, of which we had only a secret inkling. But let’s give the description itself, in its traditional effusiveness, a chance to speak: a wide, white stillness it is, ringed in turn by an ethereal, green stillness; it is lake and encircling forest it is sky, such a light blue, half overcast sky; it is water, water so like the sky it can only be sky, and the sky only blue water; sweet, blue, warm stillness it is, and morning; a lovely, lovely morning. I cannot find the words, yet I’m afraid I’ve already been too wordy. I don’t know what I should speak of, for it is, all of it, so beautiful, only there for the sake of beauty. The sun blazes down from the sky into the lake, which itself takes on the appearance of sun, the sleepy shadows of the life all around it swaying softly within. Not the slightest disturbance; everything is lovely in the closest proximity, the most indefinite distance; all the world’s colors harmonize into an enchanted, enchanting morning world. Modestly the high Appenzeller mountains tower up far away, but not as a coldly discordant note, no, they seem nothing more than a high, distant, hazy green, a part of the green that is so splendid, so gentle throughout the whole region. Oh, how gentle, how still, how unspoiled this region is, marking this small, almost nameless lake also so still, so gentle, so unspoiled.—This is truly the way the description speaks: a thrilled, enthralled description. And what else should I say? If I had to begin again, I’d speak as it does, **for it is really my heart speaking there**. On the whole lake I see only a single duck swimming to and fro. I swiftly strip off my clothes and follow the duck’s example; I swim far out with the greatest joy until my chest begins to heave, my arms tire, my legs stiffen. What a delight, working oneself to exhaustion for sheer joy! The sky just described, described with far too little warmth, is above me, and below lie the sweet, silent depths; and with a fearful, apprehensive breast I struggle over the depths back to shore, where I shiver and laugh and cannot breathe, can barely breathe. From the opposite bank, old Greifen Castle salutes me, but historical memories concern me little at present; I am looking forward to an evening, a night I will pass here, in the very place, and I wonder what it will be like beside the tiny lake when the last daylight hovers over its surface, or what it will be like here when innumerable stars hover above—and I swim out again.––
– used here with grateful thanks for permission from translator Susan Bernofsky