Little Snow Landscape
by Robert Walser
translated from the German by Tom Whalen (2021)
NYRB Classics (2021)
Forgive me for feeling a slight — oh so slight, but still present — sense of concern when I sat down to read Robert Walser’s Little Snow Landscape. I adore Walser’s work. It’s affected my soul. But that tiny part of me was worried that this new collection would be the bottom of the barrel. I mean, if these pieces were not included in, say, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, or Berlin Stories, then perhaps the ones in Little Snow Landscape were the remainders. Well, if that’s the case, these remainders are extraordinary. It may be my favorite collection of Walser’s work to date, and I’ve mentioned several times before just how much I feel his work has impacted me.
Similar to the other Walser collections that NYRB Classics has published, Little Snow Landscape is a collection of dozens of brief bursts of prose (this one has 69 in 181 pages). Some are tiny essays; others are little stories or thoughts from fictional characters like Don Juan to real characters like the last sultan of Turkey. Most of the pieces are a page or two, and the longest are only a handful of pages. The pieces are arranged chronologically and span 1905 to 1933.
I find joy and beauty in the little pieces, one by one, and I find joy and beauty in the book as a whole, working together to present the uniquely boisterous melancholy Walser was capable of.
The collection starts with a sentimental yet beautiful tiny homage Walser wrote in 1905, simply titled “My Home.” In this piece Walser perfectly encapsulates something that can be glorious: I’ll call it the springtime of the soul.
It is Sunday and on Sunday it is morning and in the morning the wind is blowing and in the wind all my cares fly away like shy birds.
For me, that sentence is perfection in sentiment and execution.
I was delighted to find several musings on the passage of time, or even the way that time can sit still in our memory. This is often rendered in the form of an idyll where eternal peace and rest is encapsulated in a brief time. Here is a passage from his 1913 piece, “The Hermitage”:
In the hermit’s hut, day and night are likewise brother and sister. The week flows there like a quiet, small, deep stream, the months know and greet and love one another like old, dear friends, and the year is a long and brief dream.
Walser’s pieces here are not always so filled with peace and sun, though he often still manages to explore the beauty in “the grayness.” Here is one such passage from a 1914 piece, “The Landscape (I)”:
Everything was so eerie. No sky anywhere, and the earth was drenched. I was walking, and as I was walking I put the question before myself if it wouldn’t be better to turn around and head back home. But an indefinite something beckoned me on, and I followed my path farther through the gloomy mist. I took pleasure in the infinite sorrow that prevailed all around. In the fog, in the grayness, my heart and imagination opened wide. Everything was so gray. I stood still, enthralled by the beauty in the unloveliness, bewitched by hope in the midst of this hopelessness.
Again, Walser is working in many different modes in this compilation of his brief pieces, but I’m going to continue to look at the ones that to me underline his boisterous prose that covers up a deep awareness of sadness. His explosion of sunlight seems to be an insistence that we look at it and allow people that kind of happiness, even if doesn’t appear to be set in reality. The following few sentences from another 1914 piece, “Walking,” shows some of that insistence, I think:
Someone went walking. He could have taken a train and traveled into the distance, but he only wanted to ramble about nearby. Things near seemed to him more significant than significant and important distant things. Thus to him insignificance was significance. We don’t wish to deny him this.
At times, though, it seems that insistence can itself be exhausting and frustrating, as people around you question it. Do they think it shows a simple mind? One unable to cope? One that doesn’t comprehend tragedy or the possibility of personal failure? Perhaps “Children and Small Houses” from 1925 offers a glimpse at a possible frustrated outburst directed to those people. The piece begins by describing a day of blue sky and falling snow, something the speaker (I don’t know if this is Walser exploring his own perspective or not) allows is strange, but we shouldn’t question it. As he goes on his walk he admires the houses and the small children who play among them:
Then along the way came another child; I gave it a coin, and it went happily into a shop to purchase a little bar of chocolate. How dear are small human hands — I almost said: How sweet! Some time ago a woman asked me: “Tell me, what really pleases you? Is there anything that ruffles your cool composure and customary way of thinking?” What kind of a question was that! I was astonished at her manner of trying to intrude on someone’s inmost life, and the answer I gave consisted entirely of a smile. Don’t I love some things? But am I always predisposed to love? I believe I have the right, from time to time, to be sullen just like anybody. That happens to us all. Had I never hated something, would I have been able to love anything? Joy never ceases; nor does sorrow; I could say more about this, but I don’t want to exceed the frame of my little essay that treats of children and small houses, a question in too much of a hurry, the blue sky and the snow. Have you ever caused disappointment in someone and taken pleasure in it? Can we do that? Oh, we can do a lot of things. Yes, many strange things are possible. What lies between this and simple things I’ll set aside for now. Nothing of significance shall be said here. Goodbye. Kindness is stupid, but all the same you’re likely to have that instance within you.
That is sobering after many stories of enthusiasm and peace. But Walser’s stories and short pieces have always shown someone who tears open the curtains on a sunny morning, welcoming the warm light with infectious delight, while later that same person might lose himself in thought on a gloomy walk in the cold darkness after twilight. For me, Walser’s work shows an absolute awareness of pain and sorrow and melancholy while finding healing significance in the insignificant. I have no idea how much more of Walser’s stories are out there, waiting to be translated or collected. I hope there are more. If not, honestly the ones we have are rich enough for many many more readings as the days and nights turn with the seasons.