To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel

 

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A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories - Robert Walser,  Damion Searls (Translator),  Ben Lerner (Introduction) Reading Robert Walser can be a dizzying experience. The Swiss writer, who was born in 1878 in Bern and died on Christmas day, 1956 in Herisau, Switzerland, lived through a period of intense social, cultural, and political change, during which traditional ways of life in Europe began to give way to modernism, provincialism was increasingly at odds with the development of urban cultures, and respect for authority and obedience gained a sinister aspect. In a series of brilliant novels and short prose pieces, Walser leaves behind a body of work formed in the crucible of these changes. His voice is singular, his style immediately identifiable to anyone who has read even one of his works.

Although Walser lived for decades at the end of his life in asylums, withdrawn from the world, in his earlier life he lived right at the fault lines of these changes. He served as an apprentice in a bank and later left that safe existence to live as a wandering writer. He experienced life as a successful writer in Berlin, but later left the flurry of urban life behind him, secluding himself and writing a string of novels, one of which, [b:Jakob von Gunten|513275|Jakob von Gunten|Robert Walser|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320554619s/513275.jpg|2004083], remains the best starting point to explore his work. In 1913, Walser left Berlin to return to a quiet provincial life in Switzerland. He continued to write briefly, but he had difficulty adjusting to cultural and social changes which were accelerating after World War I. Although he continued to write sporadically, his transient lifestyle and inability to find the equilibrium to carve out a life for himself led him to be committed to a sanatorium in Waldau. He was transferred from Waldau to another asylum in Herisau in 1933, where he lived until his death. (See the wonderful review by J.M. Coetzee, "The Genius of Robert Walser" in the New York Review of Books for more details about his life and work: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/nov/02/the-genius-of-robert-walser/?pagination=false)

NYRB has played an instrumental role in the Walser renaissance, which continues in their upcoming release of this collection, A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories (release date September 3, 2013). In it, editor and translator Damion Searls brings together short prose pieces and stories that cover most of Walser's writing career. Some pieces are short sketches. Others are stories. And some are written in the form of brief essays by schoolboys. The selections are well-chosen, and provide an extraordinary perspective on some of the elements that make Walser a unique, important, and beloved writer.

Some of the elements of Walser's style and approach that I appreciate the most are visible in this collection. One of his favorite themes is that of unquestioning obedience by schoolboys and apprentices. In a pure, simple style Walser shows through sudden mood swings and contradictory assertions the irrationality of an authoritarian social and educational system. In the schoolboy essays of Fritz Kocher, Walser gives full, and often humorous, voice to a cultural system that celebrates obedience and punishment. In the essay "Poverty," Kochler writes: "Someone is poor when he comes to school in a torn jacket. Who would deny that? We have several poor boys in our class. They wear tattered clothes, their hands freeze, they have unbeautiful dirty faces and unclean behavior. The teacher treats them more roughly than us, and he is right to. Teachers know what they're doing." In the essay "Man," Kocher follows a stream of consciousness trail that leads him to ask to be punished: "Secretly, I love art. But it's not a secret anymore, not since right now, because now I've been careless and blabbed it. Let me be punished for that and made an example of." In the essay "School," Kochler abrogates all responsibility for certain topics to authority figures:

"In fact I'm surprised we were even given this topic at all. Schoolboys cannot actually talk about the value of school and need for school when they're still stuck in it themselves. Older people should write about things like that. The teacher himself, for instance, or my father, who I think is a wise man. The present time, surrounding you, singling and making noise, cannot be put down in writing in any satisfactory way. You can blabber all kinds of nonsense, but it's a real question whether the mishmash you write (I allow myself the bad manners of describing my work in this way) actually says and means anything. I like school. Anything forced on me, whose necessity has been mutely insisted upon by every side, I try to approach obligingly, and like it. School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelry indeed!"

In addition to his focus on obedience, Walser also writes beautiful prose describing country scenes, some of which seem to relate to a fairy tale past that is more and more difficult to see with the onset of modernity and urbanization. In "Ascent by Night" (1914), Walser writes: "I was taking the train through the mountains. It was twilight and the sun was so beautiful. The mountains seemed so big and so powerful to me, and they were too. Hills and valleys make a country rich and great, they win it space. The mountainous nature struck me as extravagant, with its towering rock formations and beautiful dark forests soaring upward. I saw the narrow paths snaking around the mountains, so graceful, so rich in poetry. The sky was clear and high, and men and women were walking along the paths. The houses sat so still, so lovely, on the hillsides. The whole thing seemed to me like a poem, a majestic old poem, passed down to posterity eternally new." As he continues on foot, the narrator keeps banging his head on trees in the dark forest, but he laughs at the pain.

In the story "Hans" (1919), Walser conveys the clash between the freedom of a wandering life, and the looming call of Duty in the form of military service. Hans has lived the free life of a wanderer, rambling through the countryside, in his view living just as well as a baron because he can swim, he can walk where he chooses, he has the freedom to enjoy the beauty of nature and the goodness of others. Hans' response to a military mobilization represents, in a few short paragraphs, the profound ways that world War I transformed life in Central Europe. The story is beautifully written, with a jarring ending that brings home the irreversible changes of life in Europe after WWI.

For the quality of the writing, the temporal scope of the pieces, and the themes it presents, this collection is highly recommended to fans of Robert Walser, new and old alike.

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