The Tanners
by Robert Walser (1907)
translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2009)
New Directions (2009)
350 pp

Robert Walser The TannersIt’s a great time for English readers. After years of neglect, Robert Walser’s novels have now all been translated into English, the last being his first: The Tanners. The others are The Robber, The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten. We can finally know what those famous German writers — including Kafka, Hesse, Benjamin, Sebald, and Handke — have been talking about and admiring. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do: these novels represent only a small fraction of Walser’s output. He mostly wrote short stories. I’m excited for the work to continue — this was only my introduction to Robert Walser!

Well, my real introduction to Walser was in the wonderful W.G. Sebald essay, which New Directions packaged with the novel. Of course, the essay includes fantastic insights as Sebald traces his personal connection to Walser as well as Walser’s achievements in prose. And there are a few pictures. It’s a treasure, alone worth the price of the book. Walser’s biography, which Sebald touches on, is fascinating and tragic — as exciting as most books I’ve read lately.

That’s not to say the novel The Tanners isn’t worth the price of the book. It’s worth buying two! What we have here is the first novel written by someone who must be one of the best writers of the twentieth century. I had read of Walser’s reputation before I read this book, and I armed myself with what I thought to be an appropriate amount of scepticism — to avoid disappointment — but I was blown away by the light sentences. The precision with which Walser captures the seasons and the times of day makes the experience of reading these impressions almost surreal. Truly, Susan Bernofsky did a fantastic job translating this book.

On its face, the book is an account of the five Tanner siblings: Klaus, Kaspar, Hedwig, Emil, and Simon. Simon, “the youngest and the one who occasions the fewest hopes,” is the principal character; we follow him throughout the book as he seeks for jobs and encounters his siblings. The siblings come into the narrative only now and again, though all are masterfully real, even Emil whom we hear about in only a couple of small passages late in the book. Simon is a wanderer, a loafer, he cannot submit to working for anyone for very long. He’s funny, and yet we never forget there is a lot of sadness under the light prose.

At the beginning of the book Simon is seeking a job with a small book shop. He seems to be forthright: “to be perfectly truthful, any inquiries concerning my person you might make will only result in your hearing bad reports.” This chapter seems to be a nice introduction to a lengthy book about Simon’s struggles in a bookshop. The owner is, as are most all characters, alive in the prose — at least, alive enough I expected his relationship with Simon to continue. But within just a few pages, Simon has quit this job. When the indignant owner asks what Simon could possibly be thinking, Simon launches into a long monologue about how the job is below him. Just as he charmed the owner into giving him the job in the first place, Simon now thoroughly offends him for giving Simon a job beneath his dignity — but it’s still rather charming to us readers. And that is the last we hear from the owner; Simon moves on. Similar episodes occur frequently throughout the novel. Here is a later example:

When I found myself running late today, I merely felt angry and annoyed, I was by no means filled with honest conscientious concern, nor did I reproach myself, or if I did so, it was only for still being such a cowardly fool that I leap to my feet at the stroke of eight and start running like a wind-up clock that runs whenever it’s wound. I thank you for having the energy to dismiss me and request that you think of me however you please. You are surely an admirable, commendable, great man, but, you see, I too wish to be one, and that’s why it’s good you’re sending me away, why it was so advantageous for me to comport myself today in a manner one might call unseemly.

A few sentences later, this boss discusses Simon’s reference letter. Here is Simon’s telling response:

I am glad to be leaving you without a letter in hand, for a reference from you would only remind me of my own cowardice and fear, a condition of sluggishness and relinquished strength, of days spent in idleness, afternoons filled with furious attempts at escape, evenings dedicated to sweet but pointless longings.

We quickly learn that Simon often launches into such rambling though pointed and beguiling monologues (“But it’s my habit to say anything and everything that comes to my mind, even if it should happen to be, for example, self-praise.”). The length of these monologues is the only gripe I have about the book, and it’s not a true gripe; they were just some of the more difficult and slower passages for me. Some paragraphs run on for pages, and Simon, though eloquent, is also frustratingly contradictory — we never know when he’s being honest and when he’s just saying something to please himself with his cleverness. So this cause for a gripe, it turns out, is instead a strength in the story. Walser, very aware of Simon’s preponderance to speak at length, comically inserts at one point, “At just this moment when he was preparing to launch into a monologue, a scream rang out in the corridor, followed immediately by the loud crash of crockery falling to the ground.”

Despite his flippancy and fickleness, Simon is a likeable — even admirable — character. He has an attractive joie de vivrethat at once is the cause and excuse of his failings. He wakes in the morning and finds the new day beautiful and promising (and Walser describes these moments with his own joie de vivre). Simon wants to live for the present. He has no interest in the future or in the past. Walser’s prose — the diction and syntax — seems to emphasize this in a very strange way. In his introduction, Sebald says that Walser writes each sentence to make us forget the preceding sentence. I found this hard to comprehend (I still do), yet it was very much my experience when reading The Tanners. Walser’s writing is so potent and vivacious, it is consistently trampling over itself with new delights and moments of lucidity. As the prose moves one, characters also come and go with little fanfare, frequently upsetting the readers’ expectations since the characters become so real and tragic. Yet for all of this forgetting, it makes the novel hold an impression of the weight of living — without ever becoming impressionistic! In the following example we meet Rosa, one of Simon’s friends. Simon is about to leave her, but I expected him to return to her after only a few pages.

Rosa held out her little hand to her young friend, who kissed it, said good night and departed. When he was gone, little Rosa sat there for a long time crying quietly to herself. She was weeping over her beloved, a young man with curls on his head, an elegant gait, an aristocratic mouth, but a dissolute lifestyle. “And so you love the one who doesn’t deserve it,” she said to herself, “and yet should I love out of reason, out of wishing to assign value? How laughable. What do I care about what is valuable — all I want is what I love.” Then she went to bed.

Except for a few brief scenes, Rosa, who has now gained the reader’s sympathy, leaves the narrative. We almost forget about her and her unrequited love for the unworthy Simon. When she does return, we again sense how pathetic her feelings are: “She was delighted to see him again after such a long time, but called him wicked and disloyal for having abandoned her like that, saying these things more in a pouting than an aggrieved tone of voice, and she would not be dissuaded from giving Simon a glass of red wine to drink, saying it would strengthen him for his nocturnal journey. She also quickly fried a sausage for him on her gas stove . . .” (By the way, that nocturnal journey Rosa refers to is fantastic.)

Simon’s lust for life, as can be seen in the brief encounters with Rosa (whom he leaves again quickly after she has fed him), forms part of the book’s tragedy. The other Tanner siblings (Emil excepted, presumably), worry about Simon. They all have professions of some sort, and they hope Simon will get his feet on the ground and anchor himself to some fulfilling profession. However, the siblings, particularly Hedwig, also find Simon’s lifestyle attractive. One winter, after ignoring his sister for years, Simon moves in with Hedwig. She works as a school teacher in the country and makes little money, but together they are happy passing away the evenings talking. Nevertheless, Hedwig feels unfulfilled herself. One evening (she’ll see things differently in the morning) Hedwig says:

I almost have the impression there’s something like a thin but opaque wall cutting me off from life. I can’t even manage to feel sad about it, just pensive. . . .

Though she is established in a country community, Hedwig longs for some change. Simon becomes more than just a brother to her; he becomes a life-filled companion with whom she longs to remain, though she knows he’s a usurper: “What a pity you can’t be more to me: This too you’d do willingly; for I see you nodding your head.” In the end, Hedwig sends him on his way, saying, “Neglect me, just as you used to neglect me.” Comforting herself, she says some lines that echo in the novel: “You haven’t the slightest talent for leaving behind memories. You don’t leave behind anything at all.” Their relationship, the subject of only a fraction of this novel, is touching, twisted, comic, sad, and tragic.

In this review I’ve managed to touch on only a scintilla of what this plotless, meandering book offers. Emil, “who is unfortunate and nothing more,” for example, adds a whole new dimension to the story in his brief, late introduction. He’s the mad brother, and it is suggested that “perhaps madness just ran in the family.” There are many other wonderful characters that leave behind ghosts of themselves when the leave the narrative. Their vague feelings make them all the more realistic.

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