Fairy Tales by Robert Walser (trans. by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel). $14.95, 128 pp. New Directions.
If it can accurately be said that Robert Walser is a writer enamored of restriction, one would do well to remember that in his works distillation becomes a form of literary grace. That irreducibility is part and parcel of Fairy Tales, a collection of dramolettes in which Walser’s trademark irony and delightfully playful language belie a pointed deconstruction of traditional dramatic and mythic forms. Far more than a mere enchantment, Fairy Tales—crisply translated from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel—places us squarely in the realm of metatheater. This is not to imply that these small masterpieces are dryly cerebral or emptied of heart; on the contrary, rarely has literary provocation come across with more elegance, magic, and humor. These are still recognizably fairy tales, after all; however, as Walter Benjamin said in 1929, “Walser starts where the fairy tale stops,” and it is this sense of continuity—of the actual life energizing and underpinning the timeless tropes—that transforms Snow White and Cinderella and the various Princes from allegorical set pieces to the messy, fascinating, complex figures we find in Walser’s text.
Curiously for a work so ostensibly theatrical, Walser referred to his Fairy Tales as “entirely poetry”; in fact, they were never meant for the stage in the first place. “Whether they could ever be put on with, for instance, music,” he wrote to his publisher in 1912, “is totally questionable and seems for the present utterly beside the point. They are tempered for speech and language, to a beat and a rhythmic enjoyment.” In his useful preface, Reto Sorg brings in the theatrical Grandgestus, a Brechtian term meaning a “fundamental gesture, attitude, posture.” That these dramolettes would eventually be produced half a century later in the 1970s does not override the fact that Walser was essentially writing for the ethereal stage of literary consciousness. That he inverted this public, communal form to create an intimately private aesthetic experience is perhaps the first clue we’re dealing with much more than a rehashing of Grimm; indeed, as we discover rather quickly, fairy tales are here a synecdoche for the roiling surface of modernity itself.
Walser ingeniously uses aspects of four familiar stories (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Christ Child) to bring about their own metamorphoses. This is most notably manifested in the characters’ awareness of themselves not only as characters caught up in historic and beloved tales but also as individuals capable of questioning and challenging their own fates. They seek, they protest, they confess, they object, they change their minds. If we read fairy tales as an escape or a kind of dreaming, how oddly refreshing it is to stare back at ourselves in these famously fantastical stories: archetypes given flesh and flaw. There is an existential quality to much of the dialogue; when Cinderella questions her Prince, his response is both aware of its already having been written while remaining simultaneously replete with humanity:
Why did you come here then and how?
This the fairy tale tells you last,
when on the dear fairy tale’s lips
this silence lies, when voice and sound,
color and noise, and waterfall
and lake and forest have faded.
When this happens, at once just how
will spring into your eyes. But then
why I am here I do not know.
Or consider the King’s funnily intuitive speech that informs us he is in on the fact of his characterhood, while still holding to the perceived realities of his kingly life and duty:
I fear while I stand here idle
my state totters. Let it sink
into chaos. The fairy tale
draws to an end and tickles
my fancy; afterward will I
be the divine order once more.
Readily apparent, too, is what Susan Sontag refers to as the “creatureliness” of Walser’s work, the feeling that his characters have lives that extend far beyond the enforced framework of a story’s beginning and end. Indeed, the characters of Fairy Tales are often invested with agency to the point of frustrating our well-honed expectations—those expectations, of course, having been created by the very same historically accepted narratives Walser is doing his best to stretch and shatter. In Rose Thorn, the Sleeping Beauty, for instance, we discover the Stranger to be a humorously Walserian hero, absurd, unpretentious, apologetic: “I’m plainly embarrassed to stand before you,” he says to the Royal family, who are angered at having been woken from their “pleasant dream.” No Prince Charming here; rather, a folksy and faintly ridiculous adventurer, self-identified as “somewhat awkward,” though somehow still stolid and confident in his own existence:
. . . something happens as I
just stand here in person, and I do.
There is also the strange verse morality of the final dramolette, The Christ Child, whose focus is not the titular messiah but rather his confused, exasperated, wonderfully human parents. When they are overwhelmed by visitors and Joseph is taken in by their enthusiasm, Mary grounds him (and quickly, at that):
Aren’t you always a child,
this despite your years and many
lessons learned? Do you want your beard
laughing at you and brow’s wrinkles
to be ashamed of you? Don’t talk
They doubt, they listen—and they begin to believe in their own destiny. There are no heroic speeches or transcendent realizations; rather, one is left with a feeling of wonder and a gentle melancholy in the knowledge of their son’s fate. When an Angel comes to watch over the child so that its parents might rest, he closes the play wondering what Yahweh has in store for the babe, a divine echo of the human questioning we’ve just witnessed:
Will He endow it with wisdom
and beauty, prepare him for life’s
journey, which is aglow with great
suffering, and then the heavy test,
to claim for himself his divine,
lofty, eternal dwelling place?
Fairy Tales is, finally, a celebration of the histrionic potential of literature. Within the mythic, the folkloric, the fantastical, Walser discovered his tools for the transformation of a blandly bourgeois reality. That these modernized adaptations still reverberate with us in 2015 speaks to Walser’s trust in both the form and the function of the fairy tale. Rather than narrative collapse or, worse, mere mockery, what emerges from Walser’s complications is a literary synthesis of undeniable power. Leave it to Fairy Tale herself, an anthropomorphic character in Cinderella, to express that power in a flash of self-knowledge:
The people don’t believe in me,
but so what, when just my nearness
makes them think a little again.
Dustin Illingworth writes a monthly column for Full Stop, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Words without Borders, 3:AM Magazine, Review 31, and various other venues. He tweets at @belaborthepoint.
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