Robert Walser

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated from the Ger­man by Su­san Ber­nof­sky

I wrote:

“Do per­mit me to ad­dress a let­ter to you. I’ve seen you sev­eral times now at your win­dow; some­thing about you pleases me, I be­lieve my­self con­vinced that you in­spire my trust, and now sud­denly I find my­self think­ing of a woman I saw at the theater, where I ob­served her quite closely, per­haps even some­what too at­ten­tively, dis­cov­er­ing that she no longer looked so very good. One should al­ways re­frain from mak­ing ob­ser­va­tions, don’t you agree? Yet why do we make them nonethe­less? It’s cu­ri­ous how in­ca­pable we are of es­cap­ing a com­pul­sion con­stantly to judge one another. What a weak­ness this is! You have a very beau­ti­ful, large room, but this sounds al­ready per­haps a tad in­dis­creet, and if it is, I shall re­tract the re­mark and act as though it had never crossed my lips. How pret­tily you dress! Surely your thoughts and feel­ings are ex­ceed­ingly el­e­gant. Re­cently I was sit­ting in a cof­fee house— in a re­fresh­ment hall for all— and sud­denly felt I was be­ing ob­served, that is, that some­one was tak­ing note of me from a par­tic­u­lar an­gle, that I was be­ing ac­corded a cer­tain re­gard. Im­me­di­ately I felt this to be im­proper and shifted my gaze to take in some peo­ple sit­ting there with a quiet- dis­in­ter­ested air. No one likes to pay homage to those who in­sist on be­ing found note­wor­thy. Per­haps I ought in gen­eral to speak more, I in­cline to tac­i­tur­nity, but pos­si­bly be­cause of this I sleep well at night. Now don’t go think­ing of me as a slu­gabed! That would be dis­as­trous, but lis­ten, there’s a woman, one I run into now and again and might con­sider beau­ti­ful if only she were taller. In any case, she has a face that de­serves to be raised high aloft by an im­pos­ing body. If what I say seems in­deco­rous to you, I would re­gret this. I am a sort of poet who at times is a very sober per­son but has al­most some­thing like a beloved, which ob­vi­ously means a great deal to me. In honor of this girl, I wrote a book full of bull­head­ed­nesses; but I would never dare to pre­sume she might un­der­stand this vol­ume, which— it goes with­out say­ing— I never placed in her hands. I wrote the book be­cause she would not per­mit me to spend my days in her com­pany, de­vot­ing my­self to her, which I would have done with gen­uine plea­sure. To you as well I would scarcely ven­ture to present the work, though if you did or­der me to let you read it, noth­ing would pre­vent my obey­ing. I am the love of free­dom in­car­nate, yet at the same time I yearn to have some­one telling me what to do and how to re­late to those around me, whom I know but at the same time per­haps mis­un­der­stand com­pletely. It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that I do not treat and view even my­self cor­rectly. Many, by the way, would per­haps do well to pon­der sim­i­lar ques­tions.

“I am a per­son who reads a great deal with­out hav­ing the abil­ity to be pow­er­fully inf lu­enced by what I read. Books have not changed me in the slight­est, which might as easily be a fail­ing as an as­set. I re­vere Mozart and Stend­hal, and do not con­sider you as happy a woman as you are clever, but what poor man­ners I dis­play! Why should you not gather in­tel­lect and en­joy­ments around you in equal mea­sure, and how could we ever be as happy as we might wish? If our na­tures ex­actly matched our long­ings, long­ing would cease to ex­ist, and it’s so lovely to have de­sires. Why is the sky never be­neath our feet but al­ways high above, and why does it give us plea­sure to be al­lowed to gaze up into it? Upon the con­sole ta­ble in your room stands a Chi­nese vase, do for­give my eyes their truly in­del­i­cate per­cep­tive­ness— although this ob­ser­va­tion is self- ev­i­dent and in any case sig­ni­fies lit­tle— and to doubt the ex­tent to which read­ing these lines will take you aback, even if the shock is min­i­mal, would be a dis­cour­tesy of which I know my­self in­no­cent. What’s more, I have given a bit of thought— ap­prox­i­mately a quar­ter of an hour’s thought, to be pre­cise— to whether there might be per­sons be­sides your­self to whom I might turn with my re­quest to be in­vited to supper, which would pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for me to speak my mind, and I then came to the opin­ion that the chill­i­est of women would be the best suited to this pur­pose— the most re­served the most de­serv­ing of my trust. You have

Our as­sign­ment con­sisted above all in be­com­ing and re­main­ing so strong that noth­ing could shake our com­po­sure. There is some­thing al­most mag­nif­i­cent about re­duced sen­si­tiv­ity.

no doubt al­ready dis­pensed with all fear that I might be in­tend­ing to flat­ter you. To sit across from you at a ta­ble at any time of day, pro­vid­ing re­sponses to ques­tions of all sorts, would re­lieve rather than op­press me; I feel as though I owe in­for­ma­tion to a per­son who, I pre­dict, thinks nei­ther highly nor poorly of me. How can I, for ex­am­ple, have lived so long in this city— a city where you your­self oc­cupy a re­spect-in­spir­ing po­si­tion— with­out pur­su­ing any ac­tiv­ity other than stand­ing still now and then in front of an art bookshop to study the re­pro­duc­tion of a fa­mous Old Master, and then hur­ry­ing to my room to write some­thing about the im­pres­sion it has made on me?”

As I wrote these words, the most beau­ti­ful maiden, ap­plauded by her own al­abas­trine hues, lay in the shim­mer­ing rai­ment of the most en­chant­ing un­dress upon the sofa in my study.

“You seem so im­mersed in your vo­ca­tion,” she said, and I nod­ded. When she saw me pause in my writ­ing, she said: “Tell me a story!” I went up to the mir­ror, checked my ap­pear­ance, and then be­gan as fol­lows:

“A writer took a wife— af­ter al­ready hav­ing been mar­ried once and com­ing to the con­clu­sion that he should de­clare it bet­ter for him­self to re­main un­wed— for a sec­ond time, ty­ing the knot with a girl from a good fam­ily who planned to train to be a singer, to which end she spent her hours like a lit­tle song­bird, trilling away all day long. How I laughed when her predilec­tion be­gan to ham­per his writ­ing.”

“Do you know any­thing else?” asked Olympia, for this was her name. I went on, say­ing: “Not long ago, a lu­mi­nary in the field of novel-writ­ing died, a sort of trail­blazer who got across above all to kitchen maids. He was so suc­cess­ful at mak­ing an im­pres­sion on them that they all felt moved to march be­hind his cof­fin, which they did in high style. How I laughed when I saw them.”

“That was very nice of those girls,” the mistress of my will was pleased to say, not bat­ting an eyelash at what I had re­counted but in­stead gaz­ing upon me with god­desslike im­mac­u­lacy. Once more I be­gan, re­lat­ing:

“Once there was a young fel­low, as hand­some as he could be. His lack of in­tel­li­gence was al­most more de­lec­ta­ble than his charm­ing ap­pear­ance: it might have vied with a church tower in its mag­ni­tude. Many a girl would have liked to kiss him. His mouth ap­peared to them to have been made for kiss­ing, but it would never have oc­curred to this fel­low to imag­ine him­self at­trac­tive. How that never- once- kissed mouth of his made me laugh.”

“He was no doubt very mod­est,” said Olympia. Leav­ing her re­mark unan­swered, I be­gan to ex­pound on an un­usual man­ner of spend­ing one’s life.

“There was of­ten some­thing to buckle on or buckle off, we spent most of the time wear­ing some­thing or other. Daily I wound up dirty and had to scrub my­self down. Af­ter I bathed, peo­ple would praise my rosy ap­pear­ance. Each evening we gath­ered be­neath trees to hear what was be­ing com­mu­ni­cated to us. There were some­times more of us, some­times fewer, we dis­persed and then were re­united. From time to time I would be in­structed to stand still un­til I was re­lieved and some­one else came to stand in my place. They all con­sid­ered me quite re­fined and took plea­sure in this cir­cum­stance, which I my­self found fairly ris­i­ble. They were stronger than me, and bet­ter na­tured. All of us, by the way, made ter­ri­ble fun of our­selves on oc­ca­sion. Our ex­er­cises some­times struck us as droll. Each of us bore a sort of in­signia upon his shoul­der. The fruits of au­tumn tum­bled into our hands, some­times al­most into our mouths. Nag­ging would have struck us as point­less— our tran­quil­ity was im­per­vi­ous to all dis­sent re­gard­ing our man­ner of be­ing. Daily we grew weary, but these weari­nesses con­tained new elas­tic­i­ties. At night, we all slept side by side. Our as­sign­ment con­sisted above all in be­com­ing and re­main­ing so strong that noth­ing could shake our com­po­sure. There is some­thing al­most mag­nif­i­cent about re­duced sen­si­tiv­ity. Sen­si­bil­ity makes us small. So- called higher sen­ti­ments would have been a bur­den to us. I dwelt as my cir­cum­stances war­ranted and al­lowed, but also re­ceived many gifts in the form of all sorts of en­joy­ments. Con­stantly I had some­thing tasty in my mouth and some­thing ca­jol­ing in my head— in my thoughts, I mean— and this is what mat­ters in the end. I am called ego­tis­ti­cal by those who wish to em­u­late me but can­not man­age it. But why was I most of­ten seen as con­tented when I was look­ing well-to- do? A great deal of em­pha­sis was placed upon see­ing me happy. Only oc­ca­sion­ally was my ap­pear­ance such as to dis­please them. Once we ar­rived at a sort of in­sti­tu­tion. As we were en­ter­ing, I saw a gen­tle­man speak­ing with a lady. Both seemed to me quite el­e­gant.”

“Didn’t you have to laugh at that also?” Olympia asked.

“No! Laugh­ter was not cus­tom­ary among us. We were, in a man­ner of speak­ing— lowly as we might oth­er­wise have been— too well-brought-up for this. A faint pride suf­fused us, by which I do not mean to claim we were ex­em­plary. Be­ing quiet sig­ni­fied for us some­thing like a feast, and then we were al­most al­ways oc­cu­pied with some­thing or other.”

“Beau­ti­ful souls,” that gen­tle­man said to the lady at the por­tal over whose thresh­old we stepped, “look ap­prov­ingly but also dis­re­gard­fully upon all these thoughts that fly so swiftly past them.” First pub­lished Novem­ber 1925 in the news­pa­per Prager Presse. Su­san Ber­nof­sky di­rects the literary trans­la­tion pro­gram in the School of the Arts MFA Pro­gram in Writ­ing at Columbia Univer­sity. She has trans­lated over twenty books, in­clud­ing seven by the great Swiss- Ger­man mod­ernist au­thor Robert Walser, Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis, Hesse’s Sid­dhartha and, most re­cently, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. Her many prizes and awards in­clude a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship this year, as well as the He­len and Kurt Wolff Trans­la­tion Prize and the Her­mann Hesse Trans­la­tion Prize. She blogs about trans­la­tion at www.trans­la­tion­ista.net.

Born in Switzer­land in 1878, Robert Walser worked as a bank clerk, a but­ler in a castle, and an in­ven­tor’s as­sis­tant while be­gin­ning what was to be­come a prodi­gious literary ca­reer. Be­tween 1899 and his forced hos­pi­tal­iza­tion in 1933 with a now much- dis­puted di­ag­no­sis of schizophre­nia, Walser pro­duced as many as seven nov­els and more than a thou­sand short sto­ries and prose pieces. Though he en­joyed lim­ited pop­u­lar suc­cess dur­ing his life­time, his con­tem­po­rary ad­mir­ers in­cluded Franz Kafka, Her­mann Hesse, Robert Musil, and Wal­ter Ben­jamin. To­day he is ac­knowl­edged as one of the most im­por­tant and orig­i­nal literary voices of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

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