The TannersRobert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 360pp, $15.95.
It is the mark of a novel’s necessity when it hangs so strongly together, feels so absolutely essential in every last, smallest chunk, despite the fact that it offers the reader very little of what is generally construed as novelistic. In Search of Lost Time is perhaps the best example of this: it is a novel that is seven times as long as any novel should be, a heavily digressive work packed with belabored extended metaphors and absent all but the slowest plot momentum. Nonetheless, this bulky, misshapen beast continually takes flight before our unbelieving eyes, we have scarcely sat down with Proust than we have grown immersed, not so much for the ever-widening world or the vivid characters as for the singular logic of the prose.
So it is with Robert Walser’s first novel, The Tanners. The book is nothing more than the tale of a ne’er-do-well, idealistic young man who bounces from job to job, home to home, person to person, his life less a tidy arc than an oscillation gently tightening around what might be peace, albeit surely temporary. The book breaks rule after rule of novelistic writing: Walser takes it as his right to introduce major plot points on the flimsiest of pretexts, and he abandons them pages later once his attention has been diverted elsewhere; there is always the sense that Walser has his characters do certain things just for the excuse to muse for pages on end upon the nature and pleasures of, say, ballet, or walking; and his characters are scarcely capable of saying “pass the salt” without erupting into pages-long, quasi-philosophical speeches that espouse their meditations on life.
The novel should collapse under its own weight, it should fail for at least five different reasons. It doesn’t. It glides by like clouds escorted by sunbeams, and it leaves in its wake a series of jaw-dropping scenes, indelible images, sentences and phrases that will stop you cold. Whatever world The Tanners takes place in it is clearly not our own, and yet the book speaks to so much that is plainly human, and it does so in such a soft, solemn voice that reaches right out from the page.
The Tanners comes to us in the midst of a miniature Walser renaissance, the kind of thing that can occasionally happen with literature in translation when there is a happy confluence between savvy marketing, journalistic interest, and popular imagination. Walser’s bona fides were perhaps assured as far back as the 1920s, when Kakfa, Walter Benjamin, Musil, and Hesse all registered their admiration. (Per John Taylor in Context, Kafka was even once called “a special case of the Walser type” by Musil.) More recently, the esteemed Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas has enshrined Walser in his modernist pantheon, and J.M. Coetzee has frequently written admiringly of Walser’s work. The publication of The Tanners means that now all four of Walser’s surviving novels are simultaneously in print in English (with plenty more miscellaneous works to go), and if Walser has not attained the altitude of W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, the two other phenoms in translation to which he bears comparison, his achievement is possibly more remarkable for the fact that his books are not only translated but also rescued form the dustbin of history.
The Tanners is the story of Simon, whom we meet on the novel’s first page as he applies for a job at a bookstore. It is easy to relish the unconscious irony in the naïve Simon’s words as he declares to the store’s owner that, though he has failed to stay in any job longer than a week, and moreover, though he can’t bother with references (in any case they’d all speak poorly of him), he has nonetheless resolved himself to a bookseller’s career and will be the store’s most devout employee, if only given a chance. Such is Walser’s skill at communicating between the lines that there can be no doubt as to what will happen: the kindhearted owner will take the bait, and just a week later Simon will renounce his job with appropriate brio and caprice:
I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly if it must entail standing at one’s desk from early morning till late at night while out of doors the gentlest winter sun is gleaming, and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own.
Simon’s resignation, which rattles on for two pages, is typical of the long-winded but nonetheless somehow elegant speechifying that all of Walser’s characters adopt as the preferred mode of discourse. As Simon does here, throughout The Tanners Walser’s creations are capable of having entire conversations with themselves yet never quite forgetting that they are ostensibly speaking to someone else. Thus it is that Simon’s simple resignation ranges over such themes as the squandering of one’s youth, the relative superiority of American desks to German ones, and a renunciation of bourgeois materialism. Yet the speech is so circumspect in what it reveals and so generous in what it implies that at the end of it all Simon can say, without a trace of irony, “So be it, I shall hold my tongue.”
After quitting the book trade Simon bounces into another job (he’ll soon grow tired of it) and happens upon a lovely apartment at the edge of a wood that he comes to share with his brother Kaspar, a painter. Eventually they’re joined by their older brother, Klaus, the family’s hardest worker and best material success, and their only sister, Hedwig, a naturally empathetic schoolteacher who understands Simon best of all the siblings, but who lives behind a veil of repression. For a time the family is somewhat happy together, but then they are again dispersed: Kaspar and Simon are dismissed from the apartment (which has been sold out from under them), and Simon again wanders, eventually coming to live in the country with Hedwig.
The Tanners continues in this effortless mode for the whole of its 350 pages, Walser’s prose maintaining a lightness and simplicity such a reader is pulled right though the text, as though bouncing along a cushion of air. The book doesn’t so much follow a path as continually blossom outward, expanding to encompass ever more experiences, thoughts, and points of view without ever quite attaining a sense of forward momentum—fitting, since it is more in the nature of The Tanners to accrete than to order. What holds it all together is Simon’s consciousness, which is privileged throughout and with which we are clearly meant to sympathize. The young romantic’s lust for experience and his capacity to quantify these experiences in beautiful sentiments seems boundless—in truth this is the only propulsive force behind the novel—although it would be absolutely wrong to say that Simon remains a cipher, or even to say that he doesn’t develop as a character. Quite the contrary: what is arguably most pleasing about this exhaustively pleasing novel is Simon’s simple humanity, his ability to convey his love for “the gentlest winter sun,” and Walser’s ability to make us understand the equally gentle soul that makes such a love possible. Though he rarely profits from it, Simon at times seems to have a certain amount of insight into this soul (“The forest has, for the time being, lost its appeal for me, and I don’t wish to be tempted by it”); yet he mostly exists in a tenuous dialog with it, following its dictates when he must, occasionally warring with it, always, we sense, wanting to understand it but never quite managing to.
Simon’s gentle soul is the proverbial gift and the curse, the thing that makes his life art but that also brings him within a breath of starvation in the cold winter night. Indeed, by novel’s end Simon has surely exhausted every job open to him, the only alternative remaining the same one the Walser himself succumbed to: the Kafkaesque-named Copyists Office for the Unemployed. Walser’s description of this office shows The Tanners at its closest approach to Kafka, from the office’s “formerly unemployed” monarch (“for whom the post had been created to give him a suitable occupation for his old days”) to the copyists themselves, always fighting tooth and claw over “the pettiest advantages.” The highest victory the copyist strive for is to be recruited to short-term employment outside of the office, where they can leave their hateful surroundings and receive a pittance more in payment. Walser’s description of the men’s competition for these coveted spots makes them at once pitiful, vicious, and barely human:
And so there was always a certain competition for such positions and an ogling of the one selected. Many believed they were always unjustly overlooked, while others, on the other hand, thought it advantageous to court and flatter the administrator and his under-official to attain what they so yearned for. It was approximately like a pack of trained dogs leaping up to snatch at a sausage that was constantly being jerked out of reach on a string, each dog firmly convinced that the others had no business going after the sausage, though without, of course, being able to substantiate that belief.
Eventually Simon flees the Copyists Office just as he does all other jobs and structured environments, and for a time it looks as though The Tanners will end with his untimely demise. Not quite—Simon escapes by the luckiest of breaks, allowing Walser to end The Tanners enigmatically, yet satisfyingly. After Simon throws himself out of the Copyists Office, he meets up with one final alternative, an alternative that, in retrospect, is the one thing that Simon has been in search of for the entire novel. Has Simon found peace and an end to his wanderings? Of course not—this is no more in Simon’s nature than long-term employment—but he has found a novel new doorway to pass through, and with it a way to replenish himself and begin his oscillations anew in the future. It is hard to imagine that Simon could ask for anything more.
A bird’s-eye description of The Tanners‘ general shape and textures can convey something of the romantic, multifaceted spirit that governs this novel, but the book’s subtly bizarre logic is best seen up close. It is a logic most often synonymous with Simon’s personality, as it almost always comes to us either filtered through his mind or in response to something he has said or done. (Thus, although The Tanners has been called polyphonic because of the multiple philosophies that it continually introduces, I would argue that it does not fit Bakhtin’s definition.) For instance, when Walser does something as innocuous as describe the moon that rises above The Tanners‘ Germany, it is quite clearly the moon as Simon sees it:
Often it seemed to him that a large fiery-red ball went whistling up into the air from the dark bushes beside him, from the sleeping earth, and when he looked, it was the moon dancing up into the sky, floating ponderously against its backdrop, the universe. How his eye then clung to the pale weightless shape of this loveliest of heavenly bodies. That this far-distant world appeared to be tucked away just behind the bushes seemed so strange to him, close enough to be fingered and grasped. Everything appeared to him near at hand. What was the concept of distance in the face of such withdrawal and drawing near. The infinite suddenly appeared to him infinitely close.
These musings on the moon are typical of Simon’s youthful manner: though they are never presented as anything more than the straightforward, unpretentious thoughts of a young romantic, they clearly carry with them a second skin (a skin, one imagines, that Simon is scarcely aware of), and they are capable of the oddest, most entrancing leaps of logic. Thus when Simon sees the moon, a mere optical illusion leads him to experience a sort of vertigo in which he feels the entire universe pull into him, even the farthest objects suddenly becoming “infinitely close.” It all begins with a more or less believable, if irregular, vision of moon (a “fiery-red ball”) moving as the moon never does (“whistling up into the air”), but then Simon suddenly leaps to the fanciful idea that the moon has come out the bushes and might be clutched like any conventional object. From here we are suddenly propelled into the twisted, paradoxical land of infinities, a difficult enough concept that is hopelessly complicated by performing the perplexing feat of drawing “infinitely close,” whatever precisely that means.
The thing about The Tanners is that such odd pronouncements can be found on almost every page: “I was born to be a gift,” Simon declares; later he tells an artist “I’d like to be a little bit of nature and be loved by you the way you love every bit of nature”; and at another point he muses “One must get to know all things, and one makes a thing’s acquaintance only by touching it courageously.” An argument can be made for appreciating such fine sentences for their own sake, for simply luxuriating in the innovative sentiments and structures they present a reader with, but this is not what Walser is after in The Tanners. Simon’s remarks are never merely aphorisms or just bits of apt description—they always rebound back like a boomerang to zero in on Simon’s character and his circumstances, communicating the genuine thoughts of this young man who knows much more than he realizes.
In the end, Simon provides a very human link that makes comprehensible these ideas that can scarcely be called common. Kafka is said to have been a great admirer of Walser, and though the airy, dreamlike pleasantness of the latter’s fiction can scarcely be a greater contrast to Kafka’s steadily tightening nightmares, the two authors share an ability to create a highly skewed world that still feels very close to our own, even though it clearly is not ours. I would say that this is something each achieves via the humanity of his protagonist. In the case of The Tanners, Walser’s impressionistic view of our common human reality is always rooted in Simon’s spirit of romanticism, and his intent to embrace the world in the present moment. The importance of the latter point to Walser’s vision cannot be stressed enough, for few books outside of tracts on Buddhist thought are as filled with paeans to present-living as is The Tanners. The pleasures of nostalgia—though hardly ignored or even necessarily looked down upon in The Tanners—are always secondary to the pleasures of life as experience. Under Walser’s pen, nostalgia becomes a sort of rest home for those who lack the strength of character to live as Simon does: strictly in the moment, without fear of the future nor a softness for the past. Joined by a few kindred souls, Simon is always at a forward march into the future, and if this future may be extremely ill-defined and haphazardly encountered, that only adds to the beauty of this way of life. Always it is the spirit of forward momentum that counts, the lightness of being, a jouissance that comes when living itself attains the status of art.
Thus, in The Tanners it is never the world itself that troubles humans or causes them misery but rather the fact that they succumb to undue seriousness. Simon’s brother Kaspar, an artist who believes that a life of spontaneity and present-mindedness is the only happy one possible, relates this moral in a story about a fellow painter named Erwin who “allows himself to be made a fool of by any one thing, tormented and tricked for so long.” In a story within The Tanners that excerpting can only vulgarize, Kaspar tells of how Erwin, fed up with his “godawful” paintings, grows more and more serious about art, even as he grows more and more puzzled by Kaspar’s own “lighthearted” approach. As Erwin becomes entrenched in rigor, his art becomes ever more stultified. Then one day he and Kaspar decide to set off on a long walk together. Though Kaspar finds walking “an easily grasped pleasure,” Erwin finds that he “could barely move forward: In truth, his strength had been sapped by the excess of his artistic longings.” Erwin reaches a catharsis in the midst of the journey when he cries out at the beauty of a vista (one of many instances where Walser celebrates the rehabilitative power of nature), but he quickly returns to his old self: at journey’s end the two men stay in the house of Kaspar’s sister, Hedwig, and Erwin, taken with her, is barely able to utter a word. He soon leaves defeated and alone, utterly pitied and disdained by Kaspar.
Against these individuals who live life with such unbearable weightiness of purpose Walser contrasts the happy few with a romantic sensibility, of course led by the irascible Simon. Walser’s accomplishment in The Tanners is to honestly convey the utter whimsicality that guides Simon’s life—and all the practical problems that it entails—while still making Simon into a sympathetic, even admirable being. This is not a simple task: frequently in literature romantics become the sacrificial lambs offered up to the full brutality of a ruthless world; even when they are fortunate enough to survive unscathed they tend to be condescended to, forced to exist as a foil or a counterexample, a cipher that retains mysterious, and largely ill-defined, knowledge. Simon is none of these. By the end of The Tanners his way of life has become intimately embodied, and even if we choose not to partake in his lifestyle it is difficult not to respect Simon and to grant him a certain nobility. Walser achieves this in part by his willingness to see the life of a romantic in a holistic way: though the spirit of romanticism is celebrated in The Tanners, the life of a flaneur is never pandered to. Simon certainly knows the deprivations and insults—petty and grand—of a world that has no use for him, yet his idealism is never sullied by bitterness or irony. His singleminded dedication to a life that even he knows is untenable is what at once makes him worthy of our sympathy and our attention. Walser’s sober, knowing portrait of the romantic life is probably the only that could have been justly written when The Tanners was originally published in 1907, and yet the book is all the more powerful, the image of forthright Simon all the more compelling, for the acknowledgement of romanticism’s inherent incompatibility with the modern world.
In the final consideration, it might be that Simon’s nobility is conferred by the fact that on some level he comprehends his lifestyle as a duty that he must live up to (the only duty he lives up to, it should be added). This complicated relationship is captured in an exchange between Simon and his serious, industrious, and utterly well-meaning older brother, Klaus. At one point Klaus, who has always watched over the wayward Simon with the best of intentions, decides to sit down for a heart-to-heart talk. Klaus becomes “delighted” when he realizes Simon is not so dumb as he assumed; he sees “how comprehending Simon was regarding various things he’d at first assumed his brother, given his circumstances, would simply make fun of and laugh.” Klaus goes on: “I didn’t think you half so serious as you are proving to be!”
Simon’s response bespeaks the great depths that lie beneath his seemingly simple persona: “I don’t make a habit of displaying my reverence for a great many things. I tend to keep matters like this to myself, for I believe: What’s the point of wearing a serious expression if one’s been earmarked by fate—I mean, if a person has perhaps been chosen—to play the fool.”
It would seem that Simon here acknowledges a great seriousness within him, a seriousness he is at such pains to hide that even his brother did not know it was there. Paradoxically, Simon brings this seriousness to his decidedly lighthearted lifestyle: as he says, it is the life he has been chosen to live, and so he will do his best to live up to it. It is this paradoxical sense of duty to whimsy that makes The Tanners possible, for it makes us understand why our protagonist might be so obsessed with examining a life devoted to living without consequence—and also why a novelist would choose to write a novel that attempts to parse on the page something as ineffable as the romantic spirit.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation. His introduction to the Dalkey Archive Press’s edition of The Buenos Aires Affair by Manuel Puig will be published next year.
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