A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories, p.1Robert Walser
ROBERT WALSER (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Berlin Stories and Jakob von Gunten (both available as NYRB classics), Thirty Poems, The Walk, The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.
DAMION SEARLS has translated many classic twentieth-century writers, including Proust, Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Hans Keilson, and Hermann Hesse. For NYRB Classics, he edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861, translated Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, and will retranslate André Gide’s Marshlands. He has received Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Cullman Center fellowships and is currently writing a book about Hermann Rorschach and the cultural history of the Rorschach test.
BEN LERNER is the author of three books of poetry and a novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and a fellow of the Howard and Guggenheim Foundations.
A SCHOOLBOY’S DIARY
And Other Stories
Selected and translated from the German by
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
THIS IS A NEW YORK REVIEW BOOK
PUBLISHED BY THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
The translator would like to thank Reto Sorg, director of the Robert Walser Center in Bern, Switzerland, for his generous assistance.
Stories copyright © by the Robert Walser Center, Bern and Suhrkamp Verlag, Zürich
This selection copyright © 2013 by NYREV, Inc.
Translation copyright © 2013 by Damion Searls
Introduction copyright © 2013 by Ben Lerner
All rights reserved.
Some of the pieces in this book have previously appeared, in slightly different form, in Gigantic Magazine, Harper’s, n+1 (online), The Paris Review, and Vice.
Cover image: Karl Walser, detail of illustration from Gedichte by Robert Walser, 1909
Cover design: Katy Homans
With the support of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia
The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:
Walser, Robert, 1878–1956.
[Short stories. Selections. English]
A schoolboy’s diary and other stories / by Robert Walser ; illustrations by Karl Walser ; selected and translated by Damion Searls ; introduction by Ben Lerner.
pages cm. — (New York Review Books classics)
A new selection of stories, not translated from any existing collection.
ISBN 978-1-59017-672-6 (alk. paper)
1. Walser, Robert, 1878–1956—Translations into English. I. Walser, Karl, 1877–1943, illustrator. II. Searls, Damion, translator. III. Title.
For a complete list of books in the NYRB Classics series, visit www.nyrb.com or write to:
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Copyright and More Information
Fritz Kocher’s Essays
Introduction · Man · Autumn · The Fire · Friendship
Poverty · School · Politeness · Nature · Open Topic
From the Imagination · Careers · The Fatherland
My Mountain · Our City · Christmas · Instead of an Essay
The Fair · Music · The Essay · The Classroom
Six Little Stories
1. About a Poet · 2. Lute · 3. Piano · 4. · 5. · 6. The Beautiful Place
Letter from a Poet to a Gentleman
A Curious City
[Untitled, Crossed Out]
Two Little Things
By the Lake
A Schoolboy’s Diary
Ascent by Night
Adventure on a Train
Apollo and Diana
The New Novel
The Italian Novella
Caseman and Houseman
The Great Talent
The Wicked Woman
A Son and His Mother
Student and Teacher
A Model Student
The Tale of the Four Happy Fellows
Summer in the Country
Swift and Sluggish
From My Youth
All Right Then
A Devil of a Story
Something About Soldiers
In the Military
The German Language
Morning and Night
The Little Tree
The Last Prose Piece
“SECRETLY, I love art,” declares the young Fritz Kocher in one of his school essays. “But it’s not a secret anymore . . . because now I’ve been careless and blabbed it. Let me be punished for that and made an example of.” Robert Walser’s narrators are always praising obedience and punishment: “I want to be industrious and obey whoever deserves to be obeyed”; “A firm command and silent obedience—that would really be much better”; “Anything forced on me, whose necessity has been mutely insisted upon from every side, I try to approach obligingly, and like it”; “We are cowards; we deserve an Inquisitor to discipline us”; and so on. At the same time, however, Walser’s narrators—especially his schoolboys, and there is something of the schoolboy in all of his narrators—are possessed by a levity that borders on giddiness. Walser’s writing has an energy that exceeds or undercuts or otherwise complicates its own demand to be disciplined.
The associational flights of Fritz’s class assignments escape the teacher’s authority even as they appeal to it:
Colors fill up your mind too much with all sorts of muddled stuff. Colors are too sweet a muddle, nothing more. I love things in one color, monotonous things. Snow is such a monotonous song. Why shouldn’t a color be able to make the same impression as singing? White is like a murmuring, whispering, praying. Fiery colors, like for instance Autumn colors, are a shriek. Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes. Is that true? I don’t know if that’s right. Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it.
No teacher is in a position to say whether midsummer green is a many-voiced song, at least not without assuming a position of absurd literality, and so Fritz’s evocation of the teacher’s corrective power is a way of revealing its limits. Still, it would be wrong to say this passage only mocks or ironizes submissiveness. There
How can a writer refuse even the power of refusal, preserve his freedom while falling all over himself to give it away? Maybe the answer has to do with how Walser’s singular sentences themselves “step aside”: one of the most notable effects of his prose is how it seems to evaporate as you read. Walter Benjamin said of Walser’s “garlands of language” that “each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten.” This is not to say there aren’t depths of meaning and memorable passages, but Walser’s genius often involves a kind of disappearing act. W. G. Sebald has remarked that Walser’s writing “has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke . . . Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air.” The content of Walser’s sentences can vanish, I think, because Walser is often less concerned with recording the finished thought than with capturing the movement of a mind in the act of thinking; it’s the motion that stays with you, not a stable set of meanings.
Perhaps this is why Walser was drawn to the conceit of schoolroom essays for his first book: Kocher is always worrying about managing his time, or running out of it, or having to force himself to write in the absence of an idea, allowing Walser to emphasize the present tense of composition. But even outside the schoolroom, Walser’s other narrators frequently break off, interrupt themselves, or explode the fictional frame altogether: “In the bright, hot midday sun I would stop for a moment to rest under a fir, beech, or oak tree, stretching out on the moss or grass . . . But where am I? Am I actually on a hike right now? How is that possible?” Walser’s digressive immediacy is as important as what his words denote. “The present time, surrounding you, singing and making noise, cannot,” Fritz claims, “be put down in writing in any satisfactory way”—and yet that’s precisely what Walser repeatedly accomplishes, registering the rhythms of the present in the action of his sentences. Fritz again: “It is as though you could hear Thought itself softly whispering, softly stirring. It’s like the scurrying of little white mice.” Walser’s sentences might declare the need for obedience, order, subservience, but those declarations are dissolved in the agitations of his syntax. If it’s true, as Fritz says, that “Style is a sense of order,” then we could say that a style that evaporates is a method of escape. The meanings of Walser’s meandering sentences scurry away—right under the nose of the teacher or Inquisitor. The schoolchild is at that critical juncture where indoctrination intensifies, where pedagogy shades into penality, but the child nevertheless possesses unconquered territories of freedom and feeling whose topography Walser’s sentences describe so beautifully even as they disappear.
It is often remarked that, although he wrote his greatest novels in the period leading up to the First World War, Walser’s writing says very little about the disasters of his time. Nonetheless I find it impossible to separate the interplay of independence and conformity in Walser’s work from the surpassing catastrophes of the twentieth century. (The last piece in this volume—“Hans”—was published in 1920, just four years before the world was introduced to Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. At the end of Walser’s story and Mann’s novel, the two mercurial Hanses enlist.) In the short piece “In the Military”—Walser served in the Swiss National Guard—we again encounter a struggle between the values of refusal and obedience. “I am certainly a proponent of the slackard’s life, laziness, happiness, and peace; but alas,” writes the confused narrator, “I am also for the military. I think peace is nice and I think the military is nice.” The military is nice, he explains, because it frees you from the obligation to think, and yet to “imagine a million-strong crowd of . . . individuals who dispense with the thinking of any halfway or entirely reasonable thoughts. Is this not a picture to instill horror?” However, the narrator declares, “I myself am one of those fellows who find it nice not to think. Also, I hold the principle of service in immensely high esteem.” The schoolboy’s mixture of flightiness and obsequiousness is also typical of Walser’s soldiers: “Soldiers are a kind of children”—as is the narrator who thinks of war and peace in terms of niceness. It isn’t glory or patriotic heroism that appeals to him: “Where else but in the military and as a simple, ready-and-rough soldier could one ever dare and take the liberty to devour an apple or, say, plum tart around eight at night, in lovely evening light, on a public small-town street, with unbounded delight and complete peace of mind?” It’s both disturbing and funny to find a young man open to a military life because it might grant him permission to eat a cake at an odd hour in the open air—a young man who desires extreme regimentation only to recover a furtive liberty. One imagines Walser’s narrator having his dessert and then deserting. The quick shifts between ebullience and subjugation, between desiring a master and eluding his grasp—no matter how childish or parodic the temperament—inevitably evoke the imminent cataclysms of European fascism. Against this backdrop, Walser’s evasive maneuvers, his Bartleby-like refusal of ambition, take on acute political significance: Walser’s narrators humble themselves so thoroughly before authority that it can take the authoritarian a while to realize they’ve escaped.
THE PROSE in this book spans most of Robert Walser’s career, from his first published story, “Greifen Lake” (1899), to “A Model Student” from the last book he published, The Rose (1925). I have drawn freely from the vast body of Walser’s still-untranslated work, loosely guided by themes of beginnings and writing (schoolboys and diaries).
The collection is bookended with two longer pieces: first, the entire title sequence from Walser’s first book, Fritz Kocher’s Essays (1904). It was a stroke of genius for Walser to launch himself at the reading public in the guise of an “impish schoolboy soliloquist,” in Christopher Middleton’s fine phrase: Fritz Kocher, a fictional fellow in an old-fashioned frame narrative, dead in his youth and leaving to posterity only a collection of schoolboy writing exercises. Fritz turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Walser’s unique energy, inventions, and oscillant ambiguities. The illustrations included here are the original drawings for the Fritz Kocher sequence by Walser’s brother, Karl, a successful artist who often collaborated with Robert.
At the other end of A Schoolboy’s Diary is “Hans,” the story Walser put at the end of probably his most thoroughly worked and carefully composed collection, Seeland (Lake Country, published in 1920). He wrote to his publisher that he had “labored hard for a month
The surprise ending of “Hans” raises the issue of Walser’s relationship to the political events of his time. Hermann Hesse’s praise for Walser is famous—“If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place”—but much less well known are Hesse’s previous sentence—“If writers such as Robert Walser were among the ‘leading minds of our time,’ there would be no war”—and the fact that these comments date from the height of World War I. It was in the same year, 1917, that Walser went to work on Lake Country, moved in part by what seems to be an almost utopian impulse: as he wrote to his publisher, “The title is sensuous and simple and, I would say, pan-European or indeed global. ‘Lake Country’ can be in Switzerland [Walser was from that region] or anywhere—in Australia, in Holland, or wherever else . . . . I consider the title appropriate in every way because it sounds as simple and unassuming as it is sensuously vivid and vitally earthy. It seems to me both objective and also colorful and charming. In short, it describes what the book is about: a region. And there is something magical in the sound of the word, ‘Seeland.’”
In “Hans,” this dream of a common landscape comes to an abrupt end. Walser’s relationship to war and peace was complex, as is also clear in the three autobiographical pieces about his military service and the numerous other stories included here containing glimpses of schoolboy violence. He was never as innocent as his narrative personas can often seem.
He was also by no means a naïve or accidental writer, an inexhaustible scribbler for the newspapers discovered as a real writer only after his death, much less the quasi–outsider artist he is sometimes presented as. He published ten collections of short prose during his active career (along with three novels, a book of poems, and a book of short plays), and quite consciously selected and shaped these ten volumes himself, with specific intentions that differed from book to book; he often revised pieces for book publication from their earlier newspaper versions. In short, he was a professional, and whether or not he chose to collect a piece into one of his books should make a difference in how we read it. In this collection, stories dated by years without months are the ones Walser published in book form, while dates with months refer to the publication date in a journal or newspaper. Both dates are given only when the book publication was significantly later than an earlier newspaper publication (for example, “July 1899; 1914” for “Greifen Lake,” not collected in book form until 1914).
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