When it comes to Robert Walser, I’m only a novitiate. The first thing I read by him was The Tanners back in 2009 when it was released by New Directions (see my thoughts here). Though new to the fold, I easily understand why Walser’s work and life holds so many readers and writers in thrall. There’s a polite yet unrestrained zeal in his work that is mysteriously subverted by melancholy, as if all along he knew that he would one day check himself into a mental institution, never to write again. His work even seems to be haunted by his own death while out for a walk on Christmas Day, 1956.
Because the man and his work is so mysterious, he has been the subject of work by many other writers. Just last year I read and loved Gonçalo M. Tavares’s The Neighborhood (my review here), and my love for that book is due in no small degree to the remarkable section entitled “Mister Walser,” in which Tavares takes on Walser’s style and Walser’s myth. For some time now, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival in the United States of Cahier 18, which is Elfriede Jelinek’s homage and exploration of Robert Walser, Her Not All Her (er nicht als er, 1998; tr. from the German by Damion Searls, 2012).
This is my first experience with Jelinek, famously the Nobel Prize winner whose win cause Knut Ahnlund to leave the Swedish Academy in protest. Whatever caused such outrage (and he wasn’t the only one who felt it) I doubt anyone could find it here. This is a magnificently playful, existential homage, a pleasure to read, difficult to unpack.
The unpacking begins with the title. In the original German, the title — er nicht als er — literally means “he not as he,” referring to Robert Walser. Here your getting Robert Walser, but not as Robert Walser. In English, it’s been translated to extent that playfulness to Jelinek herself, her not all her, and each title keeps the play on Robert Walser’s name. See the syllables: er nicht als er; her not all her. Everything suggests the man (or woman) but in pieces.
Also, the subtitle is “zu, mit Robert Walser” or “on/with Robert Walser.” This piece is a kind of dialogue with the great author, it’s on him and with him, but it’s also from him, as it includes, with no guide, much of his own material (“most of this text, too, is from him,” says Jelinek at the end), but that’s also in pieces.
There’s another step to make before we get to the text itself. This is a performance piece (it was first performed in 1998). But the only stage direction is this:
A number of people to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs, as was once the custom in mental hospitals)
How many people? It doesn’t say. The text itself is broken up in long paragraphs, each taking about a page of this edition; so does that mean one person speaks each paragraph? Maybe, but not necessarily. It could be that four people speak, or two, or eight, or only one. It could also be that various actors speak different lines from within each paragraph; they are fragmented enough to suggest a multitude of voices. Take the following passage, for example; while there could be one speaker, it is easy to see that there could be one speaker for each sentence:
Yes, I am happy to loan out my flame to this spirit! Oh dear, it’s gone out! And so we see that nothing is certain in this world of ours, wracked by storms and afflictions. All, all is weak. All my shame all around, across the landscape! Really the only reason I write is so as not to have to deal with myself! Shadows made real and then made over to others. My silence sounds in their ears.
And even if there is only one speaker, we are, nevertheless, playing with a multitude of voices. Jelinek and Walser, obviously, are here, but we also get various bits and pieces from what others have said about Walser. It plays with one of the fears brought up in the piece (Walser’s line; Jelinek’s, someone else’s?): I “fear the coincidence of another author possibly having found exactly the same thing I did to still the stillness inside him at last.”
So what is this about? I’m still figuring this out myself, but there are some excellent walks to make as we try to figure it out.
As I mentioned earlier, Walser’s writing and Walser’s life are mysterious. It’s hard to find a review of his work that doesn’t include some mention of his dying in the snow on that Christmas Day because his life, his renunciation of writing and his ultimate fate, seem to refract what he wrote when he was younger. At the very least, they add to the myth of the man. A myth that has become so large we may never find the real man underneath it all, even though when we read Robert Walser we feel like we’re reading Robert Walser’s life. In Her Not All Her, this may not be so. In fact, Robert Walser’s life may have been hidden even from him. The first lines suggest this:
Wait, don’t sit down! Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep. That’s how it seems to me at least. Things that peep forth often annoy people who want to be forthright themselves. This soul, then, has a nice stretch inside you, as though what it wanted was to become language but then never have anything to do with itself again.
Much of Her Not All Her is a reflection on how futile it is to seek Robert Walser in his work. But this is just an initial question, perhaps really not very interesting. The piece is interesting because it inquires into how all of this affects the author himself, this futility to find yourself in words that, when you put them out there, “never have anything to do with [the soul] again.”
It’s not just this quest to find oneself in words, though. It’s also a quest to find oneself at all. One may write to discover oneself, but it can be as if putting words out there depletes the self. One speaker says, “Are you looking for me? You won’t find me in me, but if you go down on one knee you’re welcome to look me over!” Another, or the same, speaker says, “No one should try to pour depths into something as shallow as me!”
The Cahiers Series edition is beautiful and they’ve done some amazing things with the physical presentation to complement the themes. For example, the original German text is sometimes, maybe once per page, placed above the English translation, between the lines, showing the multitude of voices and the difficulties of interpretation. Also, on each facing page, there is a painting from Thomas Newbolt’s Finding Faces in the Dark series. At the end of the book is a small explanation of the series. Newbolt painted these faces — which are close-ups so close you can’t see the entire face — as the light faded, so he was forced to work without completely seeing. It was “all about what can be discovered in the oil paint.”
All in all this is a remarkable text, and the Cahiers Series edition is in itself a work of art. Highly recommended.