"The Tanners" by Robert Walser [BTBA 2010 Fiction Longlist]
The Tanners by Robert Walser. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)
Thanks to New York Review Books, University of Nebraska Press, and New Directions, Robert Walser is experiencing something of a renaissance. Jakob von Gunten was one of the first books NYRB brought out, and a couple years later they did a volume of selected stories. Around the same time, UNP published The Robber. And in addition to The Tanners, ND recently brought out Susan Bernofsky’s translation of The Assistant, and next year will be doing some of his “Microscripts.” (If you’re not familiar with the “microscripts,” it’s a pretty fascinating subject for another post, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of one of his almost indecipherable microscript pages.)
What’s especially nice is the amount of attention these publications have been getting. One of the best PEN World Voices events I ever attended was a special tribute to Robert Walser featuring Michael Kruger, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Bernofsky. It was almost magical—Kruger gave a great introduction, and each of the other panelists read an excerpt from Walser’s oeuvre. (Recordings of all of these should be on the PEN America website, but for some reason, most of the links are broken . . . The only one currently available is Jeffrey Eugenides’s reading of “Trousers.”)
In terms of print coverage, although it’s almost a decade old now, J.M. Coetzee’s The Genius of Robert Walser article in the New York Review of Books is fantastic, and more recently, Benjamin Kunkel wrote a great piece for the _New Yorker.
Kunkel’s piece gets right at the heart of what makes Walser’s books so damn good and so damn addicting—the idiosyncratic voice of his characters:
The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.
In Walser’s case, this means that he achieved a remarkable tone, in which perfect assurance and perfect ambiguity combine. His narrators are all ostensibly humble, courteous, and cheerful; the puzzle lies in deciding where they are speaking in earnest and where ironically.
A perfect example of this can be found in Monica Carter’s review of The Tanners when she quotes Simon’s farewell speech from the bookstore that he briefly worked at:
“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.”
A semi-autobiographical novel, Simon is Walser’s stand-in: a young man without a clear purpose drifting from job to meaningless job, pontificating, convincing bosses to hire him without any personal recommendations (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose would it serve!”), before moving on after being disappointed by one thing or another.
Even though Simon might be the most charming in all of his oddness, all of the characters in The Tanners are pretty wonderful. They tend to speak in paragraphs that allow their strange paths of thought to twist, turn, and entertain.
One of the wonderful things about Walser’s writing (I believe Sebald mentions this in his introduction, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now), is how it sort of erases itself as it goes. How as a reader, every page, every paragraph is charming and charged with meaning, only to sort of dissolve, become more foggy, less specific, the minute you put the book down.
Echoing the Kunkel quote from above, there’s no one else who writes like Walser did. He’s a special case, and this novel is one of the most well-crafted and immediately enjoyable books on the fiction longlist.
I think I’ll close this off with one of my favorite quotes from the novel. It’s from the very end, but really, this is a book that’s more mood than plot, so I’m really not giving away much of anything:
“No,” she said, “you won’t sink. If such a think were to happen, what a shame it would be—a shame for you. You must never again condemn yourself so criminally, so sinfully. You respect yourself too little, and others too much. I wish to shield you against judging yourself so harshly. Do you know what it is you need? You need things to go well for you again for a little while. You must learn to whisper into an ear and reciprocate expressions of tenderness. Otherwise you’ll become too delicate. I shall teach you; I wish to teach you all the things you’re lacking. Come with me. We shall go out into the winter night. Into the blustery forest. There’s so much I must say to you. Do you know that I’m your poor, happy prisoner? Not another word, not one word more. Just come—”