28 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Marketplace of Ideas features an hour-long interview with super-translator Susan Bernofsky about Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Kobo Abe, and “the uses of literary hybridity.”

Definitely worth listening to (and subscribing to on iTunes—this is a consistently good podcast), and Susan’s write up of the experience is interesting as well.

*

Digressing here for a minute, but Kobo Abe doesn’t get near the attention that he deserves. The Box Man is nothing short of fucking brilliant and absolutely deserves to be included in conversations about Beckett or other Beckett-esque authors. Vintage reissued The Ark Sakura, a more straightforward, but incredibly fun novel a couple years back, but unfortunately I don’t think many people noticed . . . It’s true that some of his books are less than amazing, but I still think he’s an author ripe for rediscovery by the fans of Bolano and Aira and Sebald and that set. Just saying.

1 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seeing that we already referenced Amanda DeMarco once today, it seems like the perfect time to mention Readux the new Berlin-based online literary magazine that she’s running.

Here’s how they describe the magazine on their about page:

Readux is a Berlin-based literary website with reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.

For you, reader, Readux is a precious source of English-language information by people engaged in local book culture. For us, Readux is a chance to talk about the things we find most interesting or troubling in our reading lives, literary therapy for the lingually displaced. Hopefully, everyone walks away entertained.

Better than that though, is Amanda’s personal statement on why she started this site:

I lead my literary life in Berlin, so I wanted a platform where I could write about the fascinating (sometimes, to an American eye, profoundly weird) book culture I’m immersed in, much of which is otherwise completely inaccessible in English. And I knew other people who were interested in doing the same. Voilà Readux. Context is often what brings books to life; we do reviews, but we also give a lot of space to critical reception, interpretations, events, etc. Readux’s goal is to provide vivid impressions of books and their organic connection to society, written by people who are deeply engaged in local literary discussions.

This hasn’t been up all that long, but already they’ve kicked off a tour of French Moroccan literature (which includes pieces on Moroccan newspapers, and the amazing bookstores of Radat), and reviews of a couple German books, including Robert Walser’s Answer to an Inquiry.

Speaking of the Walser book—they’re currently running a contest to giveaway a copy of Answer to an Inquiry. Click that link to see all the details and enter your name in the drawing.

Worth checking out on a regular basis.

17 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: New Directions/Christine Burgin
Pages: 160

Why This Book Should Win: Most beautifully designed book on the longlist; beyond being an interesting text, it has a fascinating backstory; Walser has been in the running for several years with The Assistant and The Tanners, but has yet to win; Susan Bernofsky (who has multiple titles on the longlist) is amazing and deserves to win.

Today, one of our BTBA judges looks at Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

This is not a book to simply be read. It is a collection of secrets, devised by the author, only to be initially dismissed as gibberish, sorted by a caretaker sometime later, taken in by an amateur who thought otherwise, transcribed into German by a team of two over a decade, then finally, expertly translated into English and re-ordered and edited in book form.

The stories and fragments are for the most part without titles, rendered in a defunct miniature script, never meant to meet the reader’s eyes. They rely upon a portrait before each translation begins, the first sentence sometimes dictating a makeshift title.

With Walser’s writing, there is a silent step back, a gathering of thoughts before each move is made, so as to disarm the unknown future. There is no pretense, no absolutes and little residue. Not much to grab onto in the form of a sure-footed narrative here, no plot-driven whirlwind tales or any reliance upon full-blown characters.

The rhythms of language and syntax devise paths of their own device. An image of a conversation that’s taking place forces your gaze upon a singular object. The entirety of a description ultimately pays tribute to the subject of the story. Walser’s words can leave you directionless. They carry you along, adrift in his language, unsure of both the author’s intention and your path upon reading his words.

I remember someone at New Directions telling me about the existence of the Microscripts while the English translation was still in the works. I had built up images in my head accordingly, filed them away, and waited for the true object to be revealed sometime later. Then I was given a sample facsimile of one of “texts” at a book fair. I was intrigued and puzzled, as one would be without the aid of a proper translation. I regarded the image simply as an objet d’art, putting the oversized loose sheet on the bookshelf and waited for an answer.

This volume of well-ordered scraps is anything but. The transparent design echoes the ordering of a puzzling archive, allowing the reader to flitter between image, original text and translation freely. An afterword by Walter Benjamin gives credence to his contemporary and provides needed context.

Ultimately, the book functions as an unintended collaborative artwork made by many, celebrating the work of an unrivalled master of the minuscule and perhaps, unintentionally functioning as a guide of how to unlock secrets slowly over time.

23 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all of you within driving distances of Rochester, you really should come out tonight for our first Reading the World Conversation Series Event of the season. Barbara Epler (publisher of New Directions) will be talking with Susan Bernofsky (translator of a number of German authors) about Robert Walser’s Microscripts, which recently came out from ND in Susan’s stellar (as always, as expected) translation.

Here’s a bit of background about Walser and the event:

Robert Walser was one of the most interesting writers of the twentieth century. His exacting, hilarious prose (see Jakob von Gunten, The Tanners, Selected Stores, etc.) has influenced a host of writers and acquired a large following.

Walser’s life story is also very intriguing, especially the fact that he was institutionalized for the last third of his life, during which time he wrote a series of “microscripts”—short stories written on scraps of paper in a script about a millimeter high. After extensive research these pieces have finally been deciphered and have recently been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky—Walser’s primary translator and one of the most prestigious German translators working today—and published by the admirable New Directions. New Directions’ publisher, Barbara Epler, will be here to talk with Susan Bernofsky about Walser, the literary passion he inspires, and his microscripts.

There’s even going to be a PowerPoint with images of the actual microscripts . . . Knowing Barbara and Susan, this is going to be an amazing and fascinating evening . . . (Followed by good food, wine, and salsa, but that’s a different sort of post.) And for those of you who can’t make it, we’ll be recording this and posting it online as soon as possible. (The event that is, not the salsa dancing. That’s an embarrassment that need not be saved for posterity’s sake.)

3 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Center for the Art of Translation recently redesigned its website, which provides a perfect opportunity to reiterate just how awesome CAT is. Lots of amazing stuff on here, including a killer list of upcoming events, an interview with Susan Bernofsky about translating Robert Walser, and information about Two Lines.

So if you haven’t been to the CAT site—or haven’t been in a while—I highly recommend checking it out . . . Especially since the new layout is really pretty . . .

18 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just so happened that a copy of Walser’s Microscripts arrived in the mail this morning from the wonderful people at New Directions, so I thought I’d follow up on the last post with a bit more info about the first event in the fall RTWCS.

On September 23rd, Barbara Epler of New Directions will talk with Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, and others) about Walser, his “microscripts,” and the art and practice of translation.

I suspect that most everyone reading this site is familiar with Robert Walser (we’ve written about his work enough times, and here’s an interesting piece by J. M. Coetzee from the New York Review Books), but in case not, he was one of the most important and interesting writers of the twentieth century, author of The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob von Gunten, The Robber, and tons of short stories. He also worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant—all jobs that greatly informed his writing. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Walser was hospitalized in 1933 and was institutionalized for the last twenty-three years of his life, during which time he wrote tons of “microscripts,” which were considered “undecipherable” until rather recently.

Here’s some info from Susan Bernofsky’s introduction:

Robert Walser, one of high modernism’s quirkiest, most mischievous storytellers, wrote many of his manuscripts in a shrunken-down form that remains enigmatic even a century later. These narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging from one to two millimeters, came to light only after their author’s death in 1956. At first his literary executor, Carl Seelig, assumed that Walser had been writing secret code, a corollary of the schizophrenia with which he’d been diagnosed in 1929. Unsure what to make of these tiny texts, Seelig published a handful of them as enlarged facsimiles int he magazine Du with a note describing them as “undecipherable,” and then put them away for safekeeping.

Naturally, these turned out to be decipherable, and Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte spent a decade analyzing the texts, using a technique more like guesswork than reading:

It isn’t possible to just sit down and read a microscript. Morlang and Echte report that one doesn’t so much read these tiny words as guess at what they might psay and then verify the accuracy of the hypothesis.

Part of this is based on the size of the script, but there’s also the interesting nature of the script itself:

The writing that looked like secret code in Carl Seelig’s eyes turned out to be a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English. Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity—an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash—means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.

All of this is fascinating, making me anxious to dive into the writings themselves. And to speed up time so that it can suddenly be September 23rd . . . Barbara and Susan are both absolutely amazing, and it will be a real treat to see them on stage together.

18 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I feel like it’s been ages since I last posted anything new here . . . In my defense, it’s kind of tricky finding the time to come up with good material during a ten-day trip to Abu Dhabi, two panels (including the 2010 BTBA announcement), and an extended trip to New York. Two-and-a-half weeks of traveling is mentally exhausting.

I’m back in Rochester though, feeling more and more energized every sunny day that I can ride my bike to work, and ready to get back into all of this. Well, sort of. With the NCAA tournament starting in two hours, and a million-and-one things to catch up on, I think I need another day or so to get sorted. So instead of a number of thoughtful, well-put-together posts (as if that ever happens anyway), here’s a smattering of things:

  • The Australian Association for Literary Translation just launched the AALITRA Review, to publish translations with commentary and essays on the art&craft of translation. You can download the entire first issue (in pdf format) by clicking the link above. Number of interesting pieces in here, including a translation by Peter Hodges of “Don’t Trust the Band” by Boris Vian.
  • PEN America’s 2010 In Translation feature is now available online, and, as expected, is fricking loaded with material. Just look at the list of conversations: Anthea Bell & Doris Orgel (e-mail exchange), Nahid Mozaffari and Sara Khalili (audio), Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, and Michael F. Moore (!!!!!!!). There’s also a number of good excerpts, including a piece from Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a few prologues from Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (everyone should read this), and a bit from Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees. And that’s just scratching the surface . . .
  • Next week we’re going to giveaway copies of Macedonio’s book to our Facebook fans, so if you’re not already one, you need to be. Clicking here to become a fan and have a chance to win.
  • Recently I had heard from a bunch of translators about a crazy new program that Dalkey/U of I had launched through which translators can pay $5,000 to get their first full-length book translation published. Which everyone I heard from thought this was a total scam. In Dalkey’s defense, there is a lot a translator could learn from working closely with an editor on a particular manuscript . . . but to be honest, the publication aspect changes this—in my mind, and all the translators who forwarded this announcement to me complete with their witty remarks (thanks!)—from a low-residency MFA sort of set-up, to something more vanity and seedy. (But seriously, wtf is going on here? It’s like being punched in the brain! Or a way induce seizures in kids? Although there are a billion things to make fun of here—like the fact that it may well be the most unreadable website ever—I’m not going to do it. Or at least I’m going to stop right now. Right. Now.)

In addition to a series of posts about the always interesting Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, we also have a few reviews coming up, including pieces on the new Peter Handke and Dubravka Ugresic titles.

11 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



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—”

7 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at the New Directions blog there’s a fascinating interview with translator Susan Bernofsky (one of my favorite translators) on Robert Walser (one of my favorite authors). Number of interesting comments on the process and art of translation, but this bit about Walser’s Microscripts was what caught my eye:

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

After running a review of The Tanners last week, I started reading the book myself and instantly re-fell in love with Walser’s style and quirky sense of humor. I can’t repeat enough how everyone should read this book, and as an attempt to sway any doubters out there, here’s the opening paragraph in all its hilarious glory:

One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop and asked to be introduced to the proprietor. His request was granted. The bookseller, an old man of quite venerable appearance, gave a sharp glance at the one standing rather shyly before him and instructed him to speak. “I want to become a bookseller,” said the youthful novice, “I yearn to become one, and I don’t know what might prevent me from carrying out my intentions. I’ve always imagined the trade in books must be an enchanting activity, and I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest—and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to those wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with all their money. Although I’m still young, I believe myself in possession of a certain knowledge of human nature—besides which, I love people, of every variety, so I would never employ my insight into their characters in the service of swindling—and I am equally determined never to harm your esteemed business through any exaggerated solicitousness toward certain underfinanced poor devils. In a word: My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality on the scales of salesmanship, a rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love: I shall practice a most lovely moderation, please be assured of this in advance—”

And it just keeps getting better, as Simon dismisses the request for personal references (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose could it serve?”) and quits just a few pages later (“During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . .”).

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Monica Carter on Robert Walser’s The Tanners, which was recently released by New Directions in Susan Bernofsky’s translation. (This is overly personal, but this review is a confluence of four of my favorite people, publishers, and authors. Monica + Susan + Walser + New Directions = Good Shit.)

Monica’s been reviewing for us for a while. She’s on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee, and she runs Salonica World Lit while also working at Skylight Books.

As is mentioned on the jacket copy of The Tanners, this is one of the year’s most anticipated books (at least among the literati, or everyone not currently reading Dan Brown) and was chosen by Time Out New York as its Top Summer Fiction Pick of 2009 and by the Village Voice as “a contender for Funniest Book of the Year.”

Based on the opening of Monica’s review, it sounds like both statements are absolutely true:

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.”

Click here for the full review.

30 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

10 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Very interesting interview with Susan Bernofsky (“widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today,” who has translated Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Yoko Tawada, among others) in The Brooklyn Rail.

Theoretically, this interview is supposed to be about her forthcoming translation of The Tanners (releasing from New Directions this fall, and yes, another BTB2010 nominee), but it gets really interesting (it’s always interesting, but you know) when she starts talking more generally about translation, language, and culture:

Rail: In an introductory note to Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, you say that as she wrote the book certain sentences occurred to her in German and others in Japanese, so that she eventually wound up writing two versions of the same book. Do you have a sense of why this happened?

Bernofsky: Yoko Tawada’s very interested in the way our lives look the moment you start talking about them in a foreign language. And she’s right—words and experiences in different cultural contexts tend to have a different weight, different implications, and so walking on the border between two cultures as she does means constantly being confronted with one’s own experience as the experience of an other. I think that’s fascinating, and it’s very true to my own experience of living in Germany and traveling to yet other countries. I wish I could read The Naked Eye in Japanese to see how it differs from the German version I read, but I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I hope someone translates it into English someday.

Rail: You’ve written a lot about translation, often drawing connections between current translation theory and ideas in Romantic philosophy. How are the two related?

Bernofsky: The German Romantic translation theorists—above all Friedrich Schleiermacher, but also Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—were deeply concerned with the connection between a language and a nation or people, and so to them translating in such a way as to respect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the language you’re translating from is an important first step in getting to know another culture and its people in a respectful way. A lot of translation theorists and cultural critics today are interested in the dichotomy between translation as assimilation and as an avenue for approaching the foreign with genuine openness and curiosity.

And for all Walser fans out there who are waiting for a solid biography:

Rail: How difficult has it been to write a biography of Walser, considering not very much is known about his life?

Bernofsky: My book about Walser is a book of gaps, and not only because I still have quite a way to go before arriving at a finished draft. I’ve been thinking about and planning this book for several years now, and it’s getting written in little thematic chunks. The fact remains that there are vast stretches of Walser’s life about which very little is known, periods when we don’t have much of his correspondence and no one else is talking much about what he was up to—particularly in the nineteen-teens. But I’m fascinated by the overlaps between his fiction and his life, the way he actually lived out some of the themes that interested him. He really did attend a training school for servants, for example, though it bears very little resemblance to the school depicted in Jakob von Gunten. And then he went to work as an assistant butler in a castle in Silesia, which he didn’t write about until many years later, in the story “Tobold (II),” which I translated for Masquerade. I don’t think he was doing research for his writing when he took that job. I think he really was interested in the possibility of supporting himself with such a position. He didn’t want anyone at the castle to know he was a published author, either. He had his publisher write to him only using plain envelopes without the firm’s insignia, which would have blown his cover. I’m not sure he was such a good servant either, if the account of this episode he wrote in fictional form years later is any indication.

10 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In my opinion at least, was the “Tribute to Robert Walser,” the audiofile of which is now available online

A number of audiofiles from this year’s festival—including the Town Hall Readings, the Mia Farrow and Bernard-Henri Levy discussion on Darfur, and the Celebration of New Voices from China now available at the PEN website.

17 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks back, I mentioned the Reading the World/Words Without Borders Book Club featuring Robert Walser’s The Assistant. At the time the discussion was just getting underway, and all that was available online was Sam Jones’s excellent introduction and Susan Bernofsky’s translator’s afterword to the book.

Recently, the Translator’s Roundtable went live, including pieces by Tom Whalen, Mark Harman, Millay Hyatt, and Damion Searls.

This is one of the features of the new book club revamp that I really enjoy. Each of the four translators respond to the same set of questions (how did you first encounter Walser?, what are your favorite Walser pieces, etc.), making for an interesting series of vantage points. In particular, I really enjoy the responses to “Are there unique challenges that Walser presents, and how do you resolve them?”

From Tom Whalen:

Rhymes and puns, of course, are especially difficult. For her translation of “Letter to Edith” I had tried to help Susan Bernofsky with the following: “Ich wankte in eine Konditorei, und trank im Wanken sogar noch Kognak. Zwei Musiker spielten mir zuliebe Grieg, aber der Chef des Hauses erklärte mir den Krieg. . . .” What we came up with was “I swayed now into a pastry shop café and, reeling, if I may, put away some cognac. For my benefit two musicians played Grieg, but the proprietor declared war on me….” A few years later, after Masquerade and Other Stories had appeared, Susan made the following welcome improvement: “I swayed now into a pastry shop café and, reeling, if I may, put some cognac away. To please me, Grieg was played by two musicians, but the proprietor brought out his munitions . . .”

From Mark Harman:

I have translated—among other German-language authors—two novels by Franz Kafka with whom Walser has, of course, been linked. We know that Kafka read Jakob von Gunten, which he praised, and that he also read some of Walser’s short prose. While I found little trace of Walser while rendering The Castle, I could overhear certain Walserian tones in Amerika: The Missing Person (forthcoming in November from Schocken Books). Kafka himself spoke of his conscious use of “blurry” Walserian metaphors, and I could sense, especially in the first “Stoker” chapter, parallels between the attentive but naïve voice of Kafka’s young hero Karl Rossmann and that of Walser’s clerks. Having said that, though, Robert Musil was surely right to insist that Walser was an unique case and best not imitated. What is unique about Walser is that virtually all of his writing is composed in the same voice. While this observation may sound limiting, it is not, since his voice is capable of endless modulation. The chief task of the Walser translator is to capture that flux. [Ed. Note: Can’t wait to read this new translation of Amerika.]

From Millay Hyatt:

Walser’s wily neologisms, making full use of the elasticity of the German language that allows words to be strung together ad infinitum, are delicious in the original and something is always sacrificed in translation. Compounding the nouns or the adjectives in his unexpected, even startling way creates a whole slew of meanings the translator has to disentangle and, sadly, sift—there are never as many left when they’re put back together in the second language, speaking for myself anyway. I tried to spell out as many of the intimations as possible so that I had plenty to choose from when I made my choice, doing my best to preserve as many as I could.

And from Damion Searls:

I find Walser quite easy to translate: I read and re-read him until I get into his voice and then sit down and write it out in English. The specific tics of his German style—the neologisms, the Swissisms—are far less important than the overall wide-eyed battiness of his point of view (an outsider observing the world from such strange angles; intervening in society from such strange positions). And you can’t capture dialect in translation anyway. Translating other writers is a much more plodding and scrupulous process for me, but Walser invites free translations. I don’t mean “free” in the sense of distant— as with all great stylists, I’ve found, with Walser you always improve the translation in the revision stage by bringing it closer to the weirdness of the original—but in the positive sense that words like “free” and “loose” have in contexts other than translation.

All of their responses are interesting (the section on their favorite Walser pieces is a good starting point for someone interested in reading Walser), and I hope more people post responses at the Discussion Board. We need some legit readers to run people like “Emma,” with her 5000 poems and short stories (like “Prisoner of Love,” which begins “Sure I’m a prisoner, but I don’t mind / I’m the happiest jailbird you’ll ever find!”) off the message boards . . .

16 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the third entry in our series covering all twenty-five Reading the World 2008 titles. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

After waxing rhapsodic about the PEN Walser Event, I don’t think I have much to add as to why one should read Robert Walser. He was an amazing writer who had a huge influence on European literature.

Cobbling together a bio of Walser from the NYRB, New Directions, and Univ. of Nebraska books in front of me is pretty fun:

Robert Walser (1878-1956) left school at fourteen and wrote numerous short pieces, essays, and a few novels. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Walter Benjamin, and W. G. Sebald. In fact, Robert Musil, reviewing Franz Kafka’s first book of stories, described Kafka as “a special case of the Walser type.” And Hermann Hesse stated, “if [Walser] has a hundred thousand reader, the world would be a better place.” In 1933, Walser entered an insane asylum and supposed abandoned writing, claiming “I am not here to write, but to be mad.”

The Assistant is Walser’s second novel, and the third to appear in print. (Jakob von Gunten and The Robber are available from NYRB and Univ. of Nebraska, respectively, and The Tanners is forthcoming from New Directions.) It’s the story of an inventor’s new assistant and his experiences with the Tobler family as it slides towards ruin.

The novel is charming and funny, and written with a really captivating tone. (Captured perfectly by Susan Bernofsky, who has translated a number of Walser works.)

Here’s a short sample:

The morning after the night of celebration, Joseph had a look at the “Marksman’s Vending Machine” down in the office, since this invention, after all, merited his attention. To this end he took up a sheet of paper upon which one could read and see the detailed description of this machine with its sketches and the instructions for its production. So what was the story of this second Tobler brainchild? [ . . . ]

The Marksman’s Vending Machine proved to be a thing simular to the vending machines for candy that travelers encounter in train stations and all sorts of public gathering spots, except that the Marksman’s Vending Machine dispensed not a little slab of chocolate, peppermint or the like, but rather a pack of live ammunition. The idea itself, then, was not entirely new: it was a concept that had been honed and refined, and cleverly translated to a quite different realm. In addition, Tobler’s “Marksman” was significantly larger than most vending machines, it was a tall, sturdy structure of one meter eighty in height, and three-quarters of a meter across. The girth of the machine was that of perhaps hundred year old tree. [. . .] The entire thing was practical and simple. [. . .] But there was more! This vending machine had the additional virtue of being connected to the sphere of advertising, in that a circular opening located on the upper part of the machine displayed a new segment of a neatly painted advertising disk each time a coin was introduced or the handle of the lever pulled.

I’m particularly excited that next month, The Assistant will be the first featured title in the Words Without Borders/Reading the World online book clubs. These book clubs have been slightly revised from past years and will include more regular participation of the translator, and a more complete “reading guide” featuring author bios, interviews, online resources, and the like. There will still be a monthly discussion, led in this case by Sam “Golden Rule” Jones, who, among other things, runs the fantastic Wandering with Robert Walser website. If you’re interested in Walser, this is a great opportunity . . .

20 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

There’s a great fiction chronicle Sunday’s New York Times Book Review by Alison McCulloch. A few international writers are featured, including two of my favorites: Jean Echenoz and Robert Walser.

Ravel by Jean Echenoz has been getting some decent praise, and Ms. McCulloch calls it a “beautifully musical little novel.”

The Assistant by Robert Walser has already gotten some play here at Three Percent, and it’s great to see it get some deserved attention in the Times.

Benjamin Weissman reviewed the Walser for the L.A. Times this past weekend, and has this to say:

The Assistant has, at times, the rambling feel of a journal. Perhaps it could have benefited from a rigorous edit, but Walser fans will appreciate the loose approach. Not since Laurence Sterne has the digression been taken on such lovely excursions, in the form of a mental walkabout that occurs in nearly every scene.

Which makes me even more interested in reading this.

31 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s New Yorker contains a substantial, informed review by Benjamin Kunkel of Robert Walser’s The Assistant.

It’s a very interesting piece, from someone who obviously knows a lot about Walser’s life and writing. Great to see this book getting such good attention, especially in a place like the New Yorker. And Kunkel’s dead-on with his comment about Walser, providing one of the most compelling reasons to read his works:

[He] 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.

30 July 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I have to admit that I’m hesitant to post anything about the Village Voice on Three Percent, since I’m still pissed about what they did to Ed Park and the books section, and I think that David Blum set the Voice back a decade through his general, overwhelming incompetence. (I mean, really. Check out this article from this past May.)

The Voice did recently review The Assistant by Robert Walser though, which is saying something.

Sure, Giles Harvey does poke a bit of fun at the jacket copy (which includes the line, “if one read one 20th-century novel, there is a case to be made for it being The Assistant,” but hell, overblown is what jacket copy is) and brings home the criticism with an overwritten statement of his own—“Indeed, from one perspective, Walser’s prose is a tepid slurry of solecism, platitude, and tautology force-fed to the reader in large, grim spoonfuls.”

Solecism. Nice.

Anyway, Harvey ends up liking the book:

The Assistant is a marvelous book, and I would be surprised if 2007 sees the appearance of a stranger, more inexplicably compelling piece of fiction. If it isn’t already clear, Walser belongs not just to the history of literature, but to literature itself.

So conflicted. . . . Silly review from someone who relies on the tried and true, and tired comparisons to Kafka and Beckett in talking about Walser’s aesthetic—but still, it is a review of Walser.

17 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

N+1 just posted The New Novel a short story by Robert Walser, translated by Damion Searls.

As a fan of Walser’s this is great, and reminds me that I should pick up The Assistant, which recently came out from New Directions.

2 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

Well, before I even had a chance to hunt down all of the “What To Read This Summer” posts on Critical Mass, someone got wise and applied my suggestion and added a “What To Read” tag to all of these posts.

Which is an awesome coincidence. And definitely a coincidence, since only six people have access to this blog right now. . . .

Anyway, it’s cool that this list is accessible in one place now, and that it’s continuing into July.

Taking Eliot Weinberger’s suggestion, I’m looking forward to reading Robert Walser’s The Assistant, which is just out from New Directions. Hopefully I’ll have a review up here in the next week or two.

....
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