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 . . .
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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