When I Read Robert Walser

When I read Robert Walser I have the feeling that something has gone the way it should in the universe, and I confront my Hubris. For I can no more justify my right to suppose how the universe should go than deny my feelings. In my version of the universe an artist like Robert Walser is not forgotten. For sure, a man can fall face-first into a snowy ditch and die all alone, it happens all the time, and the natural order of things would seem to be, if that man was Robert Walser, he would be utterly forgotten. And so, something went right in the universe, for I was able to send out an electric communiqué authorizing the release of a small sum of money and, like magic, one of Walser’s books appeared on my doorstep. Or wrong, say something went wrong with the universe, something so wonderfully, perfectly wrong. I’ll have it either way.

When I read this book by Robert Walser, I have the feeling that either way—subjectively right or objectively wrong—both options meet in the middle, that even though I will die alone facedown in a ditch, a remnant may be saved, if I can learn to use my resources wisely, and I feel very wise skipping my chores, flouting my commitments and ignoring my studies to read this book by Walser, for there is the possibility (if it happened once it could happen again) that this remnant will be the Golden One, out of the incalculable knot that is a human life.

Reading this book I don’t escape, via illusions cheap or illustrious, the festering sores that will one day do me in. If they are not my friends then neither, on a grey day in November, are they my enemies. They are me, and that is all.

Halfway into Walser’s Jakob von Gunten I understand what Hesse meant when he said, “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.” And yet the world for me is already a better place because it was big enough to allow this incredible accident to slip through: Jakob von Gunten was published in Germany in 1909. A hundred-plus years, major wars, untold death and suffering later, and the book is still here. ‘How ineffective!’ you say. I say, ‘How amazing that it even exists!’ Like a wildflower. They’re just weeds, you know.

I’m glad I’m reading Walser a day before the American election for president; it helps me fuse the discordant voices.

In the dream I had become a very bad man indeed…. I was crude, from top to toe, a dressed-up, crass, and cruel bit of human flesh…. Things were going splendidly well for me…. I felt so completely that I could give commands and let fly with moods. Beside me, on a table richly spread, shone the objects of an insatiable appetite for food and drink, bottles of wine and liqueurs, and the most exquisite cold dishes. I had only to reach out a hand, and from time to time I did so. To the knives and forks clung the tears of enemies I destroyed, and the glasses sang with the sighs of many poor people, but the tear-stains only made me want to laugh, while the hopeless sighs sounded to me like music…. Oh, oh, how I reveled in the knowledge of having pulled the ground from under the feet of a few fellowmen! And I reached for the bell and rang. An old man walked in, no, excuse me, crawled in, it was Wisdom, and the fellow crawled up to my boots, to kiss them…. That’s what I call being rich…. I rang again and in came Seriousness, a handsome, slim, but poor young man. He was one of my lackeys, and I ordered him…. Soon after this, in came Zeal…. Then Virtue…. I took her on my knee and fooled around with her…. and then I whistled and God himself appeared. I shouted: “What? You too?

-Robert Walser, from Jakob von Gunten, translation by Christopher Middleton

What will we dream, and, come Wednesday morning, regardless of the outcome, how will we find our way?

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5 Responses to When I Read Robert Walser

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: How did you come across Walser, not to mention Wolfert Brederode and Martin Fondse? An interesting pairing–would you say a bit what made you choose it? I have never heard of any of them, so of course want to know more. I raced straight over to Spotify, too, on hearing Mould. I couldn’t find Key Figures, but did find another album, Testimoni, and I’m playing it now. (If you want to quickly find it, I’ve made a public playlist Wolfert Brederode and Martin Fondse. Hard to categorize, though I would say more jazz than classical. Yet the line isn’t bright, and who cares anyway. It’s lovely stuff.

    This reminds me, remember when you mentioned the Ahn Trio to me? I liked them a lot, and they also featured the work of a composer that caught my eye: Kenji Bunch. He has a new CD out (Boiling Point, and I’ve made that Spotify list public, too. Find it under Kenji Bunch). I like it quite a lot. Also spotted that he was performing at Juilliard last weekend, so I’ve actually now seen him play (viola) live, including three of his own compositions. He’s remarkable.

    Well, I know I’ve digressed a bit, so let me come back. As for your, “I feel very wise skipping my chores, flouting my commitments and ignoring my studies to read this book by Walser,” I endorse that completely.

    • First, I’m listening to the Brederode track you sent. It gets really interesting when he takes his solo (good drums too). He and Fondse are great musicians. Fondse is also a great composer and band leader. I recommend visiting the videos on his website

      http://www.martinfondse.com/category/video/

      Fondse is a Dutch artist not nearly as known here as he should be. I bought his album ‘Fragrant Moondrops’ from iTunes but, incredibly, they’ve misspelled his name (“Fondske”). Years ago I happened to hear a feature on him on NPR. They played a piece called ‘Desert Sequence’ – loved it so much I wrote down the names, but I’ve never been able to find anything on the desert composition. Fondse is a unique composer with jazz influences. The closest thing I can compare him to is Metheny. I picked this video just because it matched my mood and seemed to suit Walser (needless to say I’m in a different mood today!) Unfortunately ‘Key Figures’, great as it sounds, seems to be available only in these youtube videos.

      Yes, Kenji Bunch seems really interesting – got to see a live performance from his ‘Swing Shift’ composition. (I need to visit some of the playlists you’ve posted.)

      I knew Robert Walser’s name because he is often mentioned, along with Kleist, as one of Kafka’s favorite writers. One day a few years ago in my favorite used bookstore I came across a collection of his short fiction – loved it immediately. There’s a sweetness and sadness in his work, but also a calmness, a meditative quality, and above all a powerful artistic discipline – all qualities I find in this recording by Fondse and Brederode.

  2. angela says:

    Shall we say that your mood is less melancholy after the outcome? This YouTube, however, is quite lovely and Does fit Walser’s writing IMHO. Rather sad on my part for I thought…Walser, why, why does that sound familiar? Duh! I read a wonderful review last winter on his short stories and had them delivered to My doorstep. As I type this, I remember sitting in a local coffee shop with his words in hand, wandering his Berlin, smelling the cafes and grass in parks now gone. I was transported by his unique writing that I deem economical but sensory. It’s interesting, here he again writes of the table setting and food (it is something that resonated with me with the Berlin Stories)… I remember I wrote a piece highly influenced by this while at the cafe, noting the food, the coffee, and the tables around me. I couldn’t help it, his writing style is infectious, do you not agree? ~ a

    • Yes on mood and yes, it is infectious. I wrote a story that incorporates “quotations” from a fictitious late novel by Walser (trying to see if it can be published). I don’t have the ‘Berlin Stories’ yet (wonder if maybe some of them are in the collection I do have).

      I’m reading his poems now just published in English translation – truly uniquely beautiful. I’ll probably be writing a review of this book soon.

  3. Pingback: Best Reads of 2013 | The Mockingbird Sings

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