A Schoolboy’s Diary
by Robert Walser (1904-1925)
translated from the German by Damion Searls (2013)
NYRB Classics (2013)
This week, NYRB Classics published a new collection of Robert Walser’s short fiction in A Schoolboy’s Diary. It’s very short fiction: approximately 70 pieces in about 180 pages. Those of you who follow this blog don’t need to hear it again, but for those of you who are just dropping by: Robert Walser is one of my greatest personal literary discoveries. At this point in my life, I cannot imagine living without his work. It’s deeply influenced the way that I look at the world. I’m not the only one who feels that way.
The book begins with collection of pieces entitled “Fritz Kocher’s Essays.” In Walser’s introduction, we learn that these essays were written by Kocher at his school as part of a periodic writing assignment. The teacher would write a theme on the board — Man, Friendship, Nature, The Fatherland, Christmas, The Classroom — and the students would write. Kocher’s essays are wandering and filled with clumsy observations, as Walser notes in the introduction. But there are also some striking, remarkable insights, lent more gravity by the tragic early death of Kocher, shortly after these essays were completed.
The essays are cleverly naïve, boyish, and, in many places, a lot of fun. For example, Kocher loves taking digs at the teacher, digs he tries to make up for, kind of:
The teacher is a short, frail, feeble man. I’ve heard it said that men like that are the smartest and most learned.
We see Walser’s comic timing and ability to subvert throughout as well, as exemplified in this passage from “School”:
School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelry indeed. What a burden we would be to our parents, workers, passersby, shop owners, if we didn’t have to go to school!
Of course, Kocher also speaks of the imagination and the life of the mind, of his fascination with the world around him and of pleasures like Christmas, and this is constantly overshadowed by the fact of his death. This life, this ebullient life, is no more.
In some cases, we look at art as an attempt at immortality. Yes, someone has died, but in this work they live forever. For me, Walser’s work is more tragic. It reminds us of the mortality — of the humming mind — that no piece of art can replicate.
And that’s what I love about Walser: there is always a tension between living life and trying to create art out of it because one knows that death is imminent. These pieces contain those pleasantly familiar, though consistently surprising, themes, drawn out in the setting of school days, writing, walking. But we also get some pieces that venture away from this into war, being a soldier, and adultery. In all of it, though, there is a sense of joy, a thrill that a new day is dawning, and a sense of melancholy, for we know nighttime is coming. There’s a push and a pull.
Here is a piece published in May 1920 called, fittingly, “Morning and Night.” For me, it encapsulates Walser’s ornate, exuberant style as the daylight hits, and the sense of unease as nighttime hits:
Morning and Night
Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors!
How different, though, at night — then tiring thoughts came to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you had never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you too were firm of will and strong.
In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Morning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.