In Person

PEN World Voices Report: A Tribute to Robert Walser

By posted at 4:16 am on May 5, 2008 0

After four World Voices events in as many days (scaled down from a perhaps overly ambitious six), I was about ready to hang up my spurs. Nonetheless, I dragged myself back into midtown’s London-style drizzle for Saturday afternoon’s “Tribute to Robert Walser” – and was glad I did. Twentieth century German-language literature produced some of my favorite novelists (Mann, Musil, Broch), but I’ve never read either the Swiss Walser (1878 – 1956) or the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, the subject of another World Voices panel. (German-language cultural institutions like The Goethe-Institut, the Austrian Cultural Forum, and Deutsches Haus seem to have poured resources into this year’s festival.) I attended both events hoping to discover what the Wirbel was about, and though “Bernhard: The Art of Failure” struck me as uneven, the Walser tribute delivered.

Instead of a straight panel discussion of Walser’s work, the Morgan Library arranged for a set of short readings by writers who admire it. This may have been more risky than it sounds; even listening to authors read their own work (I was learning) demands a certain level of stamina. Walser, then, is lucky to have had novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, translator Susan Bernofsky, and especially polymath Wayne Koestenbaum and short story writer Deborah Eisenberg give voice to his fiction.

The sumptuous auditorium – an ideal space for this event – was packed with at least 100 audience members. Edwin Frank, the editorial director of NYRB Classics, introduced the readers – plus the German novelist Michel Krüger – and then Krüger took over. The author, most recently, of The Executor, Krüger is to German publishing roughly what George Plimpton was to American letters (or would have been, if Plimpton had run Random House in addition to his other activities)… and it was easy to see why. Working entirely without notes, in limpid English, he delivered a rigorous yet accessible introduction to Walser’s life and work.

coverThen Bernofsky, who has translated Walser’s novels for New Directions, read excerpts from The Assistant and the forthcoming The Tanners. Her delivery was crisp, and I was impressed by the way her translations captured the delicacy (to borrow one of Walser’s favorite terms) of his prose. The second excerpt was a bit long for my taste, but toward the end, it opened out into a radiant vision of the urban everyday, in which I caught a glimpse of a familiar-feeling, yet completely original, sensibility.

(Susan Sontag attempted to sketch that sensibility in her introduction to Walser’s Selected Stories: “Anyone seeking to bring Walser to a public that has yet to discover him has at hand a whole arsenal of glorious comparisons.” Hers include Paul Klee, Robert Musil, Leopardi, and Kafka (natürlich); I would add Frank O’Hara, Peter Altenberg, and Italo Svevo to the list. “But any true lover of Walser,” Sontag continued, “will want to disregard the net of comparisons that one can throw over his work.”)

coverDeborah Eisenberg read next, weaving together three pieces from Jakob von Gunten. “I adore this novel,” she said, and it showed. As at Thursday’s “Something to Hide” event, Eisenberg proved to be as remarkable an interpreter of other writers’ work as she is of her own. She managed, with her idiosyncratic delivery, to capture the quality of dreamy bemusement in Jakob’s account of life at the Benjamenta Institute for Boys:

For me our classes in dancing, propriety, gymnastics, seem like public life itself, large, important, and then before my eyes the schoolroom is transformed into a splendid drawing room, into a street full of people, into a castle with old long corridors, into an official chamber, into a scholar’s study, into a lady’s reception room, it just depends, it can be anything. We must enter, make formal greeting, bow, speak, deal with imaginary business matters or tasks, carry out orders, then suddenly we’re at table and dining in a metropolitan manner and servants are waiting on us.

By this point, the audience was palpably spellbound.

Eugenides followed, tackling a short, feuilleton-style piece called “Trousers” with amusing mock-seriousness. (“I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers.”) And Koestenbaum, who in both his passion and his urbanity seems like an ideal dinner guest, rounded off the reading. He began with a list of six reasons why he loves Walser, and then treated us to three more feuilletons. Like Eisenberg, he seemed harmonically attuned to Walser’s temperament.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Bernofsky talked about the “microscript” – millimeter-high writing – Walser perfected, and about his eventual institutionalization. Eight and a half volumes of his work have been translated into English, she said, and nine and a half more remain. She suggested that the evening’s readings had demonstrated the diversity of Walser’s output, but I found exactly the opposite: I had been immersed, throughout, in a consciousness I found intoxicating. Twenty-four hours later, I’m halfway through Jakob von Gunten, and, grateful to PEN for introducing me to this most wonderful writer, I look forward to 17 more volumes.

Bonus links: For more on Walser, try Ben Kunkel’s intelligent essay in last year’s New Yorker, or J.M. Coetzee’s NYRB piece from 2000.





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