In the most recent translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s work, The Tanners, we are reminded once again why Kafka and Musil were fans—his wit. And like everything in Walser’s writing, it is nuanced and subtle. Instead giving us our melodrama straight with no chaser, he blends it with irony, insouciance and imagination so that it doesn’t make us wince when gulp it down; instead, it smoothly sates our desire for a good story and leaves us wanting more. The Tanners, written in 1907, is the semi-autobiographical tale of the five children—four boys and one girl—of the Tanner family: Klaus, Kaspar, Simon, Hedwig, and a son who resides in a mental institution and merits only a mention in the book. Walser focuses the book around Simon, the young, aimless brother who is a bizarre combination of arrogance, self-entitlement, humility, humor, and love for all of mankind. It’s the words of Simon that at once bold and entertaining. His honesty woos the reader until you become smitten and want to hear anything that he has to say. He simply does not care what he is supposed to do as a young man in society; he cares only for his own happiness that he expresses slyly to the owner of a bookshop:
You have disappointed me. Don’t look so astonished, there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall quit your place of business this very day and ask that you pay me my wages. Please, let me finish. I know perfectly well what I want. During the past week 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, I am capable of performing quite different tasks, esteemed sir, than the ones entrusted to me here. I’d expected to be able to sell books in your shop, wait on elegant individuals, bow and bid adieu to the customers when they’re ready to depart. What’s more, I’d imagined I might be allowed to peer into the mysterious universe of the book trade and glimpse the world’s features in the visage and operation of your enterprise. But I experienced nothing of the sort.
And this is when it becomes impossible to avoid falling in love with Simon, Walser’s cocky romantic bohemian. Seemingly each member of the Tanner family represents an element of society: Klaus, the staid older brother who ensconces himself in a respectful position in academia; Hedwig, the hardworking and generous country teacher who enjoys the simplicities of rural life; Kaspar, the tortured artist who’s vulnerability leave women swooning; Emil, the institutionalized man who had everything the world could offer except sanity; and Simon, the rebellious dreamer who shuns the shackles of modern society. Walser himself shuttled from job to job like Simon and also had mental illness, like the eldest Tanner brother, spending the last 27 years of his life in a mental institution. The Walser family had a long and distinct line of mental illness beginning with Walser’s mother and spreading throughout the family. Though all the members were highly functional, Robert seemed to be the most productive while institutionalized, turning out story after story and developing his “mikrogramme” style of pencil writing that took years for editors to decipher. Regardless of the heavy tone of his personal life, there is a lightness that prevails when his characters confront the existential and practical issues of living life. Simon represents the perfect antidote to personal tragedy and inner demon for Walser. Simon addresses a man in a bar who begins telling the story of Emil without knowing that Simon is his brother. At the end of the story, Simon gracefully responds about the role of insanity in his family:
No, it cannot possibly run in the family. I shall deny this as long as I live. It’s simply misfortune. It can’t have been the women. You’re quite right when you say it wasn’t them. Must these poor women always be at fault when men succumb to misfortune? Why don’t we think a bit more simply about it? Can it not lie in a person’s character, and therefore in the soul? Look, if you will, how I am moving my hand just now: Like this, and in the soul! That’s where it lies. A human being feels something, and when he acts in such-and-such a way, and then collides with various walls and uneven spots, just like that. People are always so quick to think of horrific genetic inheritances and the like. And what cowardice and lack of reverence to insist on holding his parents and his parents’ parents responsible for his misfortune. This shows a lack of both propriety and courage, not to mention the most unseemly soft-heartedness! When misfortune crashes down upon your head, it’s just that you’ve provided all that was needed for fate to produce a misfortune. Do you know what my brother was to me, to me and Kaspar, my older brother, to us younger ones? He taught us on our shared walks to have a sense for the beautiful and the noble, at a time when we were still the most wretched rascals whose only interest was getting up to trick. From his eyes we imbibed the fire that filled them when he spoke to us of art. Can you imagine what a splendid time that was, how ambitious—in the boldest, most beautiful sense of the word—our quest for understanding? Let’s drink one more bottle together, I’m buying, yes that’s right, even though I’m just an unemployed ne’er-do-well.
Simon is a dichotomy—enamored by and ultimately indifferent to humanity. He approaches everyone with patience and tolerance. He exits the situation when he bores of it, but always with a lighthearted diplomacy. Off goes this bohemian, not a goal in sight, welcoming any situation that he stumbles upon with a pleasant air of hope. By the end of the novel, Walser’s style has mesmerized you with his interesting twist on the mundane and the abstract, and you will find it difficult to rouse yourself from his view of the world that captures a time and an essence.
He is a modernist in a true sense and it is a small wonder he is just now coming back in fashion. Thanks to the folks at New Directions as well as to the excellent and fluid translation by Susan Bernofsky, we can delve into his story effortlessly. Be thankful like Kafka and Musil that Walser existed and live to tell about it.2