A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories


This new collection of more than seventy stories by the iconic modern writer Robert Walser, includes stories that have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, n+1 online, Vice, and elsewhere. Also included is the complete “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” the “collected works,” so to speak, of a boy who died young, consisting entirely of classroom writing assignments on themes such as “Music,” “Christmas,” and “The Fatherland.” As the opening title sequence of Walser’s first book, this was a brilliant way to frame and introduce ...

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A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories

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This new collection of more than seventy stories by the iconic modern writer Robert Walser, includes stories that have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, n+1 online, Vice, and elsewhere. Also included is the complete “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” the “collected works,” so to speak, of a boy who died young, consisting entirely of classroom writing assignments on themes such as “Music,” “Christmas,” and “The Fatherland.” As the opening title sequence of Walser’s first book, this was a brilliant way to frame and introduce his unique voice, oscillating wildly as it does between naïveté (the ludicrous teacher wearing “high boots, as though just returning from the Battle of Austerlitz”), faux-naïveté, and faux-faux-naïveté (“Factories and the areas around them do not look nice. I don’t understand how anyone can be around such unclean things. All the poor people work in the factories, maybe to punish them for being so poor”).
Fritz Kocher’s Essays and Other Stories is centered around schoolboy life—the subject of his greatest novel, Jakob von Gunten—and dispatches from the edge of the writer’s life, as Walser’s modest, extravagant, careening narrators lash out at uncomprehending editors, overly solicitous publishers, and disdainers of Odol mouthwash. There are vignettes that swoon over the innocent beauties of the Swiss landscape, but from sexual adventures on a train, to dissecting an adulterous love triangle by “wading knee-deep into what is generally called the Danish or psychological novel,” to three stories about Walser’s service in the Swiss military during World War I, the collection has an unexpected range of subject matter.
Because Walser’s stories have been translated into English in the form of selected volumes, and because of his reputation as a quasi–outsider artist, it has been all but impossible for English-language readers to appreciate that he was a professional writer publishing ten books of stories during his active career. By giving tables of contents for all ten books and indexing the stories’ appearances in the various English collections, the afterword provides a valuable resource for Walser’s many English-language readers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The most striking aspect of Swiss author Walser’s stories is how modern they seem, both in form and content, given that they were written nearly 100 years ago. Most are very short, fitting comfortably into the flash fiction genre, though distinct in their directness and lack of irony. The writer/narrator, who emerges as the main character in every story, even when he is writing about something else, feels very young; energy and the joys of discovery and sharing passionate views runs through every piece. The book is divided into three parts, each offering subtle structural differences (yet the three sections are similar in tone and content). As assembled by Searls, the first part, “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” is from Walser’s first published collection; it strings together short reflections on the natural world and intellectual riffs on subjects like “Poverty,” “Politeness,” and “The Fatherland.” An introduction to this section from the fictional publisher explains that the author, young Fritz, died soon after leaving school. The second part includes dozens of stand-alone stories (“Greifen Lake,” from 1898, was Walser’s first published work; “A Model Student” was one of Walser’s last), more wide-ranging but similarly buoyant, describing a mountain, an adventure on a train, a loutish local scoundrel, etc. “Hans,” the single long story that comprises the third part, originally published in 1919 in Lake Country, reads like a looser version of the other sections. Hans’s odyssey resembles a pleasant ramble, and Walser provides joie de vivre in small, ingenuous doses. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“Everyone who reads Walser falls in love with him.” —Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

“A Paul Klee in prose, a good-humored, sweet Beckett, Walser is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer. In Walser’s fictions one is always inside a head, but this universe— and this despair—is anything but solipsistic. It is charged with compassion: awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.” —Susan Sontag

“ Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness.” —J. M. Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

“Robert Walser moves me more and more. . . . He is truthful without making a frontal attack on the truth, he becomes truth by walking around it.” —Elias Canetti

“To his eye, everything is equal; to his heart, everything is fresh and astonishing; to his mind, everything presents a pleasant puzzle. Diversion is his principal direction, whim his master, the serendipitous substance of his daily routine.” —William Gass
“If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.” —Hermann Hesse
“The magnificently humble. The enormously small. The meaningfully ridiculous. Robert Walser’s work often reads like a dazzling answer to the question, How immense can modesty be? If Emily Dickinson made cathedrals of em dashes and capital letters and the angle of winter light, Walser accomplishes the feat with, well, ladies’ feet and trousers, and little emotive words like joy, uncapitalized.” —Rivka Galchen, Harper’s Magazine
“A writer of considerable wit, talent and originality...recognized by such impressive contemporaries as Kafka, Brod, Hesse and Musil...[and] primarily known to German literary scholars and to English readers lucky enough to have discovered [his work]...[Walser’s tales] are to be read slowly and savored...[and] are filled with lovely and disturbing moments that will stay with the reader for some time to come.” —Ronald De Feo, The New York Times
“A clairvoyant of the small.” —W. G. Sebald
“The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.” —Benjamin Kunkel, The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590176726
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 9/3/2013
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 781,879
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Jakob von Gunten (available as an NYRB Classic), The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.

Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry—The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path—and the novel Leaving the Atocha Station, which was named one of the best books of 2011 by The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, New York Magazine, and many others. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.
Damion Searls is a writer and a translator of many classic twentieth-century authors, including Proust, Rilke, Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Thomas Bernhard. His translation of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He also edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861 and translated Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, both available as NYRB Classics.

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