More than a century ago, Robert Walser wrote a series of dramolettes that, as Walter Benjamin said when admiring them in 1929, “start where the fairy tale stops,” presenting to us unique visions of some famous stories. New Directions has recently brought four of these to us — Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and the Christ Child — in Fairy Tales (tr. from the German by Daniele Pantano and James Reidel, 2015).
Though written in dramatic form, according to Reto Sorg’s useful preface to the edition pictured below, Walser never intended the mini-plays to be performed. Of course, Walser wrote many things he seemingly never intended to make its way to an audience; he wrote, particularly in his later years when hospitalized in the Waldau sanatorium, many volume’s worth of manuscripts in a shrunken down form, some of which is nicely presented to us in another New Directions volume published in English in 2012: Microscripts. Walser, though in his youth hopeful about his ambitions, seems to have been more interested in the life of literature, even when unread. Of course, these “fairy tales” should not be unread. They are delightfully playful while being sophisticated interrogations into existence, which I’ve also ruminated about when writing about Walser’s Berlin Stories and The Walk (here and here).
In the four pieces presented here, it is the fairy tale characters themselves who — refreshingly — question the world around them and, in particular, how they were fated to be in that fairy tale to begin with.
When we begin the first tale, Snow White, as Benjamin said, we essentially pick up where the tale left off. The Queen approaches Snow White and merely says, “Say, are you sick?” Snow White begins to chastise the Queen, whom she calls Mother, for wanting her death. The Prince, perhaps a bit confused as to how he got involved in this whole thing (the princes have been called Walserian heroes, and I cannot think of a better way to describe their uncertainty), supports Snow White and they walk away:
Just go, broken mast and rigging.
Go newlyweds, married to death.
Go misery, lead weakness away,
and be very dear arm in arm.
Come, fair Hunter, let’s have a talk.
But, while the Prince talks on about how wonderful their life is going to be, he cannot help but notice all is not well with his new companion:
What’s wrong, speak! You look so somber,
so plaintive right down to your toes,
as if you were searching for words
that whisper love. Do not sulk there.
Speak up when something troubles you.
Unroll it just like a carpet
on which we will merrily play.
To dally in heartache does one good.
You see, Snow White was never meant for passion and love. Later, when he spies the Hunter and the Queen embraced lovingly — to say the least — the Prince is troubled by his fate. Snow White is too: “O, how I long for nothing more / than to be smiling and dead, dead.” This leads to an unlikely, but fully felt, reconciliation between Snow White and the Queen.
Similarly, Walser upends the other two classic fairy tales — Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty — and in each case there is every reason to wonder about the prince who comes to the rescue, not because he is secretly evil but because he is entirely human. All of the characters abandon their tropes — even the fairy tale itself pops in now and again to have a word.
Consequently, more than simple revisionism or what-if speculation, which we see so often now, for good and for bad, Walser’s characters look at the world in which they’ve been placed, examine the discrepancies and limitations, and then speak what they feel, not necessarily because they’re emboldened.
Though my admiration for this book comes from Walser’s modernist examinations of fate, my joy comes from Walser’s playfulness. Roaming underneath his stories is a sense of a dark hole, but fighting for prominence is a whimsy, an exuberance (a word I cannot help but include in a review of Walser’s work), that, fully aware of the shadow, shines light and cheerfulness on everything. And so, beyond being a dramolette based on an old and familiar story, the Christ Child fits nicely in this package. In it, Mary and Joseph experience joy at the birth for the same reasons any of us experience joy at the birth of our children. They’re aware that a dark day is coming, but for now they can manage to look at what they have, what they truly sense right in front of them, and the shadow, though frightening, makes it all the more lovely.