Robert Walser: The Schoolboy’s Diary (NYREV, 2013)

A poet is bent over his poems, of which he has assembled twenty. He turns one page after another and find that every poem awakens a very particular feeling inside him. He racks and racks his brain to try to figure out what kind of something it is hovering over or around his poeticizings. He presses hard but nothing comes out, he strikes with the ball of his hand but nothing comes out, he pulls but everything stays exactly as it is, namely shrouded in darkness. He lays his head down on his crossed arms and completely covers the open book with the body and cries.

From “The Poet” (first half)

I got off to a very bad start with this book, entirely due to my own careless reading process. In my (weak) defense, it’s a reconstructed collection, a compilation of work from throughout Walser’s writing career, which spanned the first quarter of the 20th century. This was, however, one of the reasons I chose to read the book when a neighbor, wildly enthusiastic about it, recommended it to me: I felt it would be a good idea to get out of my fixation with immediately contemporaneous works for a bit. I’d never heard of Walser – I strained to recall any other Swiss writers, in fact, and came up blank, but in fact Herman Hesse and Rousseau were both Swiss, so I wonder if I just never recognized them as such – but discovered, in Ben Lerner’s effusive Introduction to this edition, high praise from such literary heavyweights as Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and W. G . Sebald, not to mention Hesse himself. I like uncovering previously unknown lacunae in my knowledge of the world.

The collection comprises three sections. First, we have “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, twenty short prose pieces published as Walser’s first novel. And here is where I went astray: I was confused, ungrounded. What am I reading? These schoolboy essays, probably from a young teen, seemed fairly typical, and I could not find a story, a theme, or much of anything. I buttonholed my neighbor on a street corner (the up- and down-side of trading book recs with neighbors) and he mentioned the boy’s isolation in space and time. We talked about Calvinism (Calvin was Swiss) and the connection of material prosperity and Godliness (the boy at one point is quite dismissive of the poor, though he seems ambivalent shading into sympathetic overall), but I was still uncertain.

I went googling, and discovered Trevor Berret, who runs the excellent the Mookse and the Gripes website, is a Walser fan (how have I never heard of this writer?), and the unique site Schlemiel Theory (where Comparative Literature scholar, Jewish Studies professor, and Berfrois editor Menachem Feuer analyzes “real-life-schlemiels and fictional ones”) had further insights into Kocher. Both mentioned that the boy had died shortly after writing these essays. Now I was really confused: how did they know this? Was it subtly mentioned in the pieces, so subtly I’d overlooked it completely?

Not really. I had, however, skipped the Introduction to the section. Again in my defense (very defensive today, aren’t we, Karen – that’s how it is when I’m out of my element), I’d read the Lerner intro to the edition, and skimmed, quickly, the Translator’s Introduction by Damion Searle, and by the time I got to the third Introduction, I was just sick of intros, so I skipped over it. Turns out that was a big mistake, as it is part and parcel of the novel that is “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, and a very important part at that:

The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school. I had some difficulty convincing his mother, a dear and honorable lady, to allow me to publish them. She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son. Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree. The essays may seem unboyish in many places, and all too boyish in others. But please keep in mind that my hand has not altered them anywhere. A boy can speak words of great wisdom and words of great stupidity at practically the same moment: that is how these essays are, too.

From “Introduction”

This intro created a foundation, a context in which the essays made far more sense, and indeed acquired a distinct poignancy. I’d found the story I was looking for.

Each essay is on an assigned topic, but it’s clear the boy has trouble with some topics so wanders into more fruitful areas as soon as possible. One of my former English professors used to say, “The art of being an English major is to write about whatever you want while still fulfilling the assignment.” Fritz is a natural.

He also has an adolescent inconsistency that allows him to go from judgmental to transcendent to uncertain in the span of a few sentences. His essay on Poverty is a case in point: he despises poor men because they beg, he likes poor women because they ask for money beautifully, “asking someone you love for forgiveness” is a kind of beautiful request, he doesn’t respect the poor boys in class because “they see me as an enemy for no reason”. The “Careers” essay shows a kind of unfocused energy that, read in the knowledge that he will not embark on any career at all, feels quietly tragic. And his comments on colors and music show a kind of sensitivity that, if it had time to mature and unfold, would have been glorious:

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 it true? I don’t know if that’s right. Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it.

From “Autumn”

I would like to be dying while listening to a piece of music. I imagine it as so easy, so natural, but of course it’s impossible. Sounds stab too sweetly. The wounds hurt but they don’t fester. Melancholy and suffering trickle out instead of blood.

From “Music”

The second section of the collection includes very short prose pieces from Walser’s entire writing career, some of which have not been previously published in English. So much for the claim that flash fiction was invented in the 90s and is linked to the digital generation’s shrinking attention span; it was Walser’s primary mode of writing.

Some of these pieces are fantastical; some are realism-based; some are more like essays than stories, some are letters, others are little episodes. Many of them feature authorial intrusion, primarily explanations and observations to the reader. Some are pure lyric expression. Favorite themes include nature and writing.

Remember our Poet from the lead quote in this post? The writer who couldn’t figure out his own poems? In the second half of that story, we see from another angle:

I, on the other hand, the wag of a writer, am bent over his work and can solve with infinite ease the riddle of his volume. Very simply, it contains twenty poems, one of which is simple, one pompous, one enchanting, one boring, one moving, one divine, one childish, one very bad, one animalistic, one awkward, one impermissible, one incomprehensible, one repulsive, one charming, one reticent, one magnificent, one tasteful, one worthless, one poor, one unspeakable, and one more cannot be because there are only twenty different poems, each of which has received from my lips perhaps not exactly a just but at least a quick judgment, which always takes the least trouble on my part. One thing is certain, though, the poet who wrote them is still crying, bent over the book , the sun is shining over him, and my laughter is the wind that violently, coldly musses his hair.

From “The Poet” (second half)

Had I started here, I would have been on far more solid ground; this is the flash, and the artistic temperament, I can parse. On the one hand, what writer hasn’t been too close to his work to see the simplicity; and on the other, what writer hasn’t been afraid a reader will casually riff on months, years of intricate work, and render it ordinary. What poet wouldn’t be delighted that a reader could see so clearly, yet devastated that it was so clear to all but himself?

(I also toyed with the idea of applying these twenty adjectives to the twenty Fritz Kocher essays, but I’m not sure if those were selected from the original publication and represent a larger group, or if there were indeed twenty to begin with. In any case, I couldn’t seem to line them up.)

Many of these stories are wonderful. A poet, having received a request from a gentleman to meet, writes back to refuse because he doesn’t want to bother with the civility that would require; yet, the letter itself, far longer than necessary to say “no”, bespeaks an urge to establish genuine contact. In the more personal but no less loneliness-assuaging “Ascent by Night”, a traveler climbs a mountain first by train, then by foot, and arrives at a door: “I was recognized, oh how beautiful it was, it was so beautiful – “. The pain of the writing life becomes almost absurdly humorous in “The New Novel” – or, perhaps I only read it as humorous because it’s such a cliché – with a novelist constantly asked how his new project is coming along. My understanding is that PhD students have the same problem with their dissertation.

One story describes a schoolboy game of Hat-Chitti, involving revenge and retaliation for humiliation which is expanded to a situation particularly relevant to the year in which it was published, 1915: “That is how wars arise between nations that could have a wonderful friendship with each other if only the one nation could get over the humiliation it has received and the other refrain from reminding the first of the wound, humiliation, and insult it has been given.” Indeed.

In reading this section, I was acutely aware that Walser, his family peppered with mental illness, spent the last twenty years of his life in sanitariums and taking long, solitary walks. I try to resist the urge to project biography onto story, but I was unable to resist. Even the illustration that adorns the cover of the book – the work is illustrated throughout by his brother Karl, a highly esteemed artist and stage designer – echoes a kind of loneliness, someone walking away and disappearing, leaving only footprints behind, footprints that fade as the snow falls.

The third section is a single work titled “Hans”. Rather a slacker, Hans is quite happy making rather ethereal observations until war breaks out, at which point: “All at once there rose up before Hans a tall and imperious figure: Duty.” Again, I can’t avoid imposing Walser’s bio on top of this: although he had been in the military, as were all Swiss, earlier, he was again brought in during WWI. Did the war affect him? How could it not?

I’m glad I read this, struggle though it may have started out. I still don’t quite understand what so many people see here, but I’m no Susan Sontag. Maybe I just need to keep expanding my view to incorporate more so that I can better recognize genius when I read it.