DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky, Christopher Middleton, and Tom Whalen) . New Directions. 170pp, $35.00.
Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls). Sylph Editions. 40pp, $19.00.
What is “a writer’s writer”? Although the phrase is often used both haphazardly and problematically, there is something inherently useful about it when discussing the enduring legacy of certain authors. The OED attributes the first use of the term “a writer’s writer” to Orwell, who uses this description when writing about Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is particularly fitting, perhaps, as Julian Barnes—in his London Review of Books review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—brings Davis’s own discussion of Hopkins’s work to bear on what Barnes refers to as Davis’s status as “a writer’s writer’s writer.”
Recently, too, J. M. Coetzee’s assessment of Gerald Murnane’s work in The New York Review of Books raises this question of inspiration and influence: as Coetzee himself is often described as “a writer’s writer,” does his praise of Murnane’s literary output cast Murnane into the realm of “a writer’s writer’s writer”? To be sure, while the term “a writer’s writer” is often ascribed to “difficult” prose, such as Proust’s and Beckett’s, it’s usually used to emphasize their influence on other writers and artists.
Swiss-born modernist Robert Walser is perhaps the most unsung of these influential “writer’s writers,” and two recent collaborative texts underscore his ability to speak across artistic mediums. A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser, to be published in April by New Directions, includes short microscript pieces by Walser himself, as well as essays, creative writing, and art objects ranging from installation pieces to etchings, all of which speak to Walser’s own microscripts. This collection stems from a series of exhibitions curated by the late Donald Young in Chicago from December 2011 to October 2012, who, in his introduction, explains how he “became more and more interested in the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists.” Another text, Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s dramatic monologue Her Not All Her, with intercalated images by Thomas Newbolt, is collaborative in that Jelinek asserts in her subtitle that she is writing the piece “On/With Robert Walser.” In his afterward, Reto Sorg notes how Jelinek’s own text mixes with those of Walser: “It is almost impossible to tell when any given utterance has Jelinek speaking directly or when she is quoting texts by or about Walser, since the voices and languages intertwine, overlap, and blend together.” Indeed, the very title of Jelinek’s piece (in German, er nicht als er) is itself “formed out of the sounds of Robert Walser’s name.”
Texts like these demonstrate not only Walser’s effect on the literary and aesthetic work in world literature half a century after his death but also his status as a niche author, a seeming prerequisite for any “writer’s writer.” Although Hermann Hesse has famously remarked that if Walser “had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” his continued status as a marginal “writer’s writer” also causes a sense of protection and adoration to be aroused in his admirers; as one of Walser’s major English-language translators, Christopher Middleton, puts it: “Robert Walser was known only to a happy few, and his writing has a resistant purity which will keep any larger public, I hope, at bay forever.” Similar strains of idolizing homage and protective insulation are found in both A Little Ramble and Her Not All Her.
* * * *
Walser’s writings in A Little Ramble showcase his predilection for how small, everyday moments and observations can lend insight into more pressing issues affecting humanity and the world at large—themes apparent in all of his short writings, like those collected in Berlin Stories, Selected Stories, Speaking to the Rose, Microscripts, and Masquerade. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary,” he writes in A Little Ramble’s title piece. “We already see so much.” Walser’s considerations of town and country, of walks and parks, of artists like Cézanne and van Gogh, and of the aesthetic world of Russian ballet and the cabarets of Berlin are paradoxically of no consequence and yet contain all the wisdom in the world. W. G. Sebald has called Walser “a clairvoyant of the small,” noting how he “almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself”: his “prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which he spoke.”
Many of the contemporary artists engaging with the microscripts in A Little Ramble display a warm, glowing regard for this “writer’s writer.” Rodney Graham’s piece is a painted aluminum lightbox with chromogenic transparency depicting a genderless person reading in bed, eclipsed by the cover page of a 1937 edition of The Sunday Sun so that all the viewer can see are sets of fingers holding the newspaper at its edges, a coverlet, and the knobs at the top of the bedpost. In addition, Graham takes Walser’s microscripts and makes them even more microscopic, creating a series of pantoums dedicated to curator Donald Young, a self-reflexive move not out of step with Walser’s own metafictional insertions of self. Here, Walser’s “On the Russian Ballet” is metamorphosed textually, the opening sentence (“How ravishing, the Russian ballerinas from the Imperial Theatre in Petersburg”) becoming in Graham’s pantoum:
In ice arenas
Another collaborative pairing juxtaposes Walser’s profound “The Park” with stills from Mark Wallinger’s video installation, Shadow Walker, which shows the shadow of a man against an exterior setting, his body morphed and transfigured due to the angle of the camera. This feels especially suitable to “The Park” which exclaims “it’s always Sunday in a park” and yet contains the lament: “What has become of us as a people that we can possess the beautiful only in dreams.”
A Little Ramble also includes excerpts from friend Carl Seelig’s Walks with Robert Walser, diaristic recollections of Walser’s comments on various walks during and after World War II, when he took refuge at Herisau Clinic. Famously, when asked why he no longer wrote after 1933, he replied with: “I am here to be mad, not to write.” Seelig quotes Walser as saying the following on 16 May 1943:
I was so glad this morning . . . to see the clouds instead of a clear blue sky! I have no use for grand vistas and majestic scenery. When such distant things recede—
that’s when all that is nearby comes gently into view. What more do we need to feel content than a meadow, a forest, and a few quiet houses?
Later, on 28 December 1944, Walser remarks: “The war at least has one benefit in that it forces a return to simplicity.” Despite his primary focus on what is ostensibly simple and mundane, Walser’s work always bemoans the modernization of the world, particularly how it separates the individual from these Arcadian meadows, forests, and “a few quiet houses.”
For Walser, nature and individual work together to create a collective mood; in “The Teacher,” for example, a woman who “showed herself unwilling to be the doormat or dishrag of her most excellent husband” is eventually freed: “Liberated, overjoyed, she breathed a sigh of relief. In the sky, smiling little clouds were out for a stroll.” Similarly, in “Tiergarten,” Walser writes: “Everyone is displaying the same appropriate, mild solemnity. Is not the sky doing the same with its expression that appears to be saying: ‘How marvelous I feel’?” While these microscripts are celebratory, one thinks, too, of the claustrophobic setting of the Benjamenta Institute where the titular character in Jakob von Gunten enrolls himself to learn the secrets of being of service; in that novel, Walser’s childish, perverse, and lovable narrator represents a liminal character who exists in a temporal zone of uncertainty—somewhere between the idyllic beauty of the past and the capitalistic nightmare of the modern city, a tension that is also felt quite resoundingly in The Walk. While the external world moves toward war and anxiety, Walser’s writings echo these concerns while also taking internal refuge in the simple pleasures yet to be found in everyday moments and interactions.
In “The Job Application,” Walser directly evokes the oppositional elements noted above with a narrative voice that uncannily speaks in the register of an older Jakob von Gunten:
Large and difficult tasks I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I do not like to strain my intelligence overmuch. I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp. Assuredly there exists in your institution, which I imagine to be overflowing with main and subsidiary functions and offices, work of the kind that one can do in a dream?
In another writer’s hands, this might well descend into naiveté; however, Walser’s narrators are always extensions of himself as writer and observer, well aware of the cultural function of the artist as well as the artist’s task of critiquing society through deft observations (e.g., “The Job Application’s” juxtapositon of the oppressive and stifling nature of the modern workplace with dreaming and individual existence). As Seelig writes: “Robert is compelled to talk of the relationship between the poet and society. In his view, it is necessarily one of torment.” This is related to what Walser calls “sluggardizing” in his piece “Berlin and the Artist,” which Tacita Dean takes up in her visual response to that text, a collage of drawings, photographs, and cultural artifacts from Walser’s time, which she collected at flea markets around Berlin. As Dean interprets it:
Sluggardizing . . . is the artist’s way: thinking, equivocating, waiting, delaying—indolence without intent. I like the word, which he wrote in German as Faulpelzerei—lazy under pelts, and I like that he has named this most maligned of behaviors, namely, this passive and recumbent state of incipient inspiration.
It is no wonder that Walser has been so influential to artists and writers whose work is similarly charged with social criticism, examinations of the individual in relation to the world, and the attempt to fathom artistic inspiration.
* * * *
Jelinek’s Her Not All Her is a monologue that considers inspiration via Walser’s personal mythology and thematic concerns: where does inspiration come from, and what is at stake when the artist translates this moment of inspiration into a piece of art? For Jelinek, walking on/with Walser is the best way to consider such questions, and, despite the fact that the narrative voice in Her Not All Her is meant to be “[a] number of people [speaking] to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs. as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” the voice also shifts from muse to artist, from connoisseur to creator, as if suggesting their interrelation. Indeed, Newbolt’s facing images stress this swapping of roles in creating and consuming art through figures who are so obscured by brushstrokes that the viewer must decipher them.
Central to Jelinek’s analysis of the creative process is the identity of the writer: “Now who does the writer mean by himself?” Whether inspired by “a goddess” or a “soul . . . peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you . . . wanting to get out,” the writer “can only bring someone else to life, never revive himself.” This is especially interesting given the “I” in Walser’s writings, a persona that always causes the reader to question how much of Walser is encaged within this “I,” and also how much is poetic license (er nicht als er); as much as artistry is rooted in the artist, Jelinek also observes that “it’s from inside that you have to slide back the bolt so that you can finally get entirely out of yourself.” Jelinek continues:
This Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.” It is true that he never stops saying “I,” but it’s not him. Like the music of late Schubert, or Schumann: mouldering away without really meaning it. Walser sees what everyone sees. And he shows us his tools for taking up what he sees.
This tension between self and other maps neatly on to Walser’s “sluggardizing” wherein the writer strolls and observes life as a kind of flâneur, taking from everyday experiences the inspiration for a written piece and thus injecting into the mundane the flavor of poetry and philosophy.
Tied into this are those people whom the writer encounters and houses in a work of art, a work that many of them would sadly fail to appreciate:
Today, once again, no one has let me depict them with syllables, words, and lines. Once again, no one has welcomed me with open hands and arms. Maybe I go right past people too fast with all my requests. It must be almost unpleasant for them at times, to know that they possess such and such value, since they would then have to grant me almost exactly the same value too!
This is the artist as a marginalized figure, existing on the outskirts of society while at the same time requiring social interactions in order to fuel the creative process. There is always the sense of witnessing and not being actively engaged with others: “I enter into every circle and then again none.”
This outer antipathy between artist and society is joined by the inner struggle: how to represent in any artistic medium what strikes the artist in a sudden jolt of inspiration. This is also a problem of translation: of translating the “divine” material into language—the writer here is caught in the trappings of the limitations of language itself. As Jelinek writes: “the disadvantage of language is that it can all too quickly seem familiar and so you throw it off, horrified, as though you touched something disgusting. . . . Language is worth as little as life itself, for it is life itself.”
It is with such limitations that the artist must work, and, as Jelinek journeys with Walser in reflecting on these moments of profound insight and the despair of creation, nothing is elucidated, yet everything is invoked: art’s intrinsic futility (and how it causes the artist to see the world differently) eventually leads to an oeuvre that inspires others. There is both the depth and the struggle to bring what one locates there to the level of discourse and representation: “And I speak of deep things. . . . No, my depth doesn’t reach its limits. No one should try to pour depths into something as shallow as me!”
Walser’s legacy for Jelinek, then, in her walk with him, is a legacy that places the artistic journey above the actual creation: “All the lines are now stowed away safe and silent inside you like dead bodies. Even now there is life enough in most of us if only we give ourselves time to find ourselves!” For those who wish to follow in Walser’s footsteps, to take a little ramble with him, the task is to experience each moment and sensory perception to its fullest and to make oneself as humble and small as possible, an endeavor more about process than any teleological endpoint: “Everyone should make himself as small as he possibly can. That should certainly apply to me too, no question about it. I am not making fun of the somnolent. But I myself am always wide awake.” In this way the artist can translate to the best of his or her ability; as Walser observes in “Thoughts on Cézanne”: the artist’s function is “to make mountainous . . . the frame of things” and to depict things “which are as ordinary as they are remarkable.”
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Music and Literature Magazine, Bookslut, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, and other venues. He is the curator of @proustitute.
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