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 . . .
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist. . .
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were. . .
In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm. . .