Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932by Robert Walser, Christopher Middleton (Translator)
The Swiss writer of whom Hermann Hesse famously declared, “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” Robert Walser (1878–1956) is only now finding an audience among English-speaking readers commensurate with his merits—if not with his self-image. After a wandering, precarious life during which he produced
The Swiss writer of whom Hermann Hesse famously declared, “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” Robert Walser (1878–1956) is only now finding an audience among English-speaking readers commensurate with his merits—if not with his self-image. After a wandering, precarious life during which he produced poems, essays, stories, and novels, Walser entered an insane asylum, saying, “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” Many of the unpublished works he left were in fact written in an idiosyncratically abbreviated script that was for years dismissed as an impenetrable private cipher. Fourteen texts from these so-called pencil manuscripts are included in this volume—rich evidence that Walser’s microscripts, rather than the work of incipient madness, were in actuality the product of desperate genius building a last reserve, and as such, a treasure in modern literature.
With a brisk preface and a chronology of Walser’s life and work, this collection of fifty translations of short prose pieces covers the middle to later years of the writer’s oeuvre. It provides unparalleled insight into Walser’s creative process, along with a unique opportunity to experience the unfolding of his rare and eccentric gift. His novels The Robber (Nebraska 2000) and Jakob von Gunten are also available in English translation.
“Journals (and the contemporary malady of journalishness) are full of solitude and feigned humility, as small as personal; Walser's microtexts are the opposite. Or, small script = large human. Smallness makes text liquid, lose-able, ubiquitous. Walser is a scale explosion.”—Trisha Donnelly, Artforum International
“Splendidly translated by the inestimable Christopher Middleton, a poet and champion of Walser’s. . . . They remind us of the pleasure of his keen eye, his alert imagination, and his lyric voice.”—Joseph Dewey, Review of Contemporary Fiction
“A little gem. . . . Christopher Middleton has translated and introduced a selection of Walser’s strange scribbles, including many from his pre-asylum period. . . . What a find.”—George Fetherling, New Brunswick Reader
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Speaking to the Rose
By Robert Walser, Christopher Middleton
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2005 Robert Walser
All rights reserved.
He no longer saw a future before him, and the past, however hard he tried to find some clarity in it, seemed a thing incomprehensible. The justifications crumbled away and desires seemed to vanish forever. Travels and wanderings, once his secret joy, had become strangely repugnant; he was scared to take a single step, and at every change of address he trembled, as if something monstrous confonted him. He was neither honorably homeless nor honestly and naturally at home anywhere in the world. He'd have liked so much to be a hurdy-gurdy man or a beggar or a cripple, then he'd have cause to ask people for sympathy or alms, but even more fervently he wished for death. He was not dead, yet dead he was, not beggarly poor, but such a beggar yet still he didn't beg, he still carried himself with elegance even now, like a tedious machine he still made his bows and spoke empty words, and was dismayed and horrified to be doing so. How tormenting his own life appeared to him, how false his soul, how dead his miserable body, how alien the world, how vacant the motions, things, and events that surrounded him. He'd have liked to drop into an abyss, to climb a glass mountain, be spread-eagled on a rack, with pleasure slowly burned as a heretic. Nature was like an exhibition of paintings, and through the galleries he walked with his eyes closed, feeling no temptation to open them, for with his eyes he had already seen through everything. It was as if he saw clean through people to their miserable entrails, as if he heard them thinking and knowing, only to see them commit errors and follies, stupidity, cowardice, and infidelity, and finally he felt he was himself the most fickle, lustful, and unfaithful of them all, of all things on earth, and he'd have liked to scream, call aloud for help, sink to his knees and weep aloud, sob for days and weeks. But he wasn't capable of it, he was empty, hard, and frosty, and at the hardness that filled him he shuddered. Where had the effusions gone, the enchantments he'd felt, where the love that winged him, the goodness that glowed through him, the endless oceanic confidence he believed in, the God who flashed through him, the life he embraced, the ecstasies and glorifications that embraced him, the forests he wandered in, the green that refreshed his eyes, the sky into whose aspect he lost himself? He didn't know anymore than he knew what he should do and what must become of him. O, his person. To tear it away from the essence in him that was still good, that's what he'd have liked. To kill one half of the self, so that the other might not perish, so that the good in him might not be entirely lost. Everything was still beautiful to him and yet at the same time atrocious, still so dear and good and yet so ravaged, and everything was nocturnal, and deserted, and he was his own desert. Often, hearing a note of music, he thought he could die again back into his old, hot, sensitive fastnesses, into the mobile, rich, warm strength of yesteryear. It was like being skewered on the summit of an iceberg, terrible, terrible. —
Walking, he moved unsteadily, like someone in a fever, or drunk, and he had the feeling that the houses were going to collapse on top of him. The gardens, tended as they were, seemed to lie there sad and sprawling, he believed no longer in any pride, any honor, any pleasure, any true, genuine sorrow, or true and genuine joy. The solid, gorgeous fabric of the world now seemed to him a house of cards; a mere breath, one step, one light touch or movement, and it would collapse, a heap of slips of paper. How silly, and how atrocious. —
He didn't dare go the social rounds, in panicky fear that people could notice what a bad, what a desolate state he was in; to visit friends and talk things out — the mere thought of it pained him worst. Kleist was inaccessible, a sad, grandiose, Johnny-Go-Lightly, out of whom not a word could be got. Kleist was like a mole, a man buried alive. The others were horrors to him, so horribly confident, and the women? Brentano smiled. It was something between the smile of a child and that of a devil. And he made a dismissive, timid gesture. And then his many, many memories, how they mortified him, how they martyred him. The evenings brimming with melody, the blue and dewy mornings, the hot, crazy, steaming, wonderful noon hours, the winter, his most favorite season, the autumn — stop thinking about it. Everything must disperse, like yellow leaves. Nothing must stand, nothing have value, nothing, nothing must remain.
A girl of good family and with a beautiful and clear mind spoke to him as follows: "Brentano, tell me, don't you frighten yourself, living like this, having no higher values, no content to your life? Must it come to this, that a person one could love, respect, and admire, comes to deserve, almost, one's aversion? Can a person whose feelings are so many and so lovely be at the same time so unfeeling, must you always let yourself be carried away, scattering yourself and splitting up your faculties? Get a grip on yourself. You say that you love me? And that through me you'd become happy and true and sincere? Yet, O horror, Brentano, I can't believe what you say. You're a monster, you're a dear person, but a monster, you should detest yourself, and I know that you do so, I know that you detest yourself. That said, I won't waste another word on you. Please go away."
He leaves, and he returns, he pours out his heart to her, in her presence he feels something wonderful welling up in himself, he keeps telling her of his desolation and of his love, but she remains strong and firm and explains that she is his friend, but that's how things will stay, and that she can never be his wife, nor does she want to, nor may she be, and she implores him to stop hoping it could ever happen. He's in despair, but she cannot believe his despair is deep and genuine. She invites him one evening to a gathering of very many refined and respected people, to whom he might read a few of his beautiful poems, he does this and earns loud applause. Everybody is delighted by the harmonious sound and vivid exuberance of these poems.
One year passes, maybe two. He doesn't want to go on living, and so he decides to take, as it were, the life that is such a burden to him, and he goes to the place where he knows there is a deep cavern. Of course he shudders on arriving there, hesitant about going on in, but he reflects, with a kind of delight, that there's no more hope for him, that he has nothing, has no desire for anything now, and he steps through the great dark door and descends, step by step, deeper and deeper, feeling after the first steps taken that he's been on his feet for days and days, and finally he arrives below, at the very bottom, in the quiet, cool, deeply secret crypt. Here a lamp is burning, and Brentano knocks on a door. For a long, long time he has to wait there, until finally, after such a long time of waiting, of fearing, he is spoken to, and he receives the grim command to enter, and in he steps, with a timidity that reminds him of his childhood, and then he's standing before a man, and this man, whose face is covered with a mask, bids him abruptly to follow. "You wish to serve the Catholic Church? Come this way." That is what the dark figure says. And from then on, nothing is heard of Brentano.
1913: Aufsätze. SW 3.CHAPTER 2
Writing Geschwister Tanner
The thrilling brilliance of the capital's somber streets, the illuminations, the people, my brother. Me in my brother's apartment. I'll never forget that simple three-room apartment. A heaven it seemed to me, with stars, moon, and clouds. Wondrous romanticizing, sweet wistfulness! My brother at the theater deep into the night, painting the stage-set. At three or four in the morning he'd come home, and there I still sat, bewitched by all the thoughts, all the lovely images that had been passing through my head; it was as if I no longer needed any sleep, as if my sleep, delicious, fortifying, were writing and being awake, as if writing at my desk were my world, my pleasure, restoration, and repose. The dark-colored desk, so old-fangled, as if it were an ancient wizard. Whenever I drew out its finely worked little drawers, sentences, sayings, and maxims, so I imagined, came leaping out of them. The snow-white curtains, the singing gaslight, the longish somber room, the cat, and all the ocean calm of the long pensive nights. From time to time I'd visit the frisky girls in the girls' tavern, that was part of it all. Regarding the cat, it always sat on the written pages I'd set aside and blinked at me so strangely, so questioningly with its unfathomably yellow eyes. Its presence was like that of a bizarre, taciturn elf. Perhaps I have much to thank that amiable, quiet animal for. Who can tell? I seemed indeed, the further I advanced with the writing, to be sheltered and protected by some kindly being. A veil was weaving itself around me, large, tender, sensitive. Of course, the liqueur in the sideboard ought to be mentioned. I addressed it no more than I might and could. Everything around me had on me a refreshing and invigorating effect. Certain conditions, circumstances, orbits are just there, never to appear again perhaps, or again only when least anticipated. Aren't anticipations and suppositions unholy, pert, and insensitive? The poet must ramble, must audaciously lose himself, must always risk everything, everything, must hope, should do so, should only hope. — I remember that I began to write the book trifling hopelessly with words, with all sorts of thoughtless sketching and scribbling. — I never hoped to be able to compose something that was serious, beautiful, and good. A sounder train of thought, and, along with it, the courage to create, emerged only slowly, but thus all the more rich in secrets, out of the gulfs of self-forgetting and of reckless disbelief. — It was like the sunrise. Evening and morning, past and future time and the exciting present lay as if at my feet, a terrain right there in front of me came to life and I thought that in my hands I could hold human activity, all human life, seeing it as vividly as I did. One image succeeded another and ideas played with each other like happy, graceful, well-behaved children. I clung delighted to the frolicking main idea, and as long as I went on busily writing, everything connected.
1914: Kleine Dichtungen. SW 4.CHAPTER 3
The Back Alley
Probably few people think well of the back alley, but I love it for its quaintness. At least this much is fairly certain: descriptions and accounts of avenues and boulevards do not shake my conviction, my pleasing belief, that in its own way the back alley is beautiful. Of all the streets in this city it has most tenaciously kept, so I think, the character and the stamp of tradition, and if I say that it could almost be a street in Jerusalem, with Jesus Christ, the savior and liberator of the world, riding modestly into it, that is because I'm thinking of certain of Rembrandt's touchingly beautiful representations of the biblical story. Indeed, with its passages and vaults, their half-bright, half-dark penury, the back alley recalls some drawings by the great master aforesaid, who wondrously shaped humble and inconsequential things.
Didn't I recently glance into a bewitchingly lovely little room off the back alley, an old, adorable, actually quite large and spacious room, nice, most adorable, cheerful, friendly, and painted green, and didn't the tailor's wife who lived there for twenty years tell me of her husband's sudden death? I really think I did. And I can say that at any time at all I could choose to occupy such a clean, warm little room as a quiet and respectable lodger.
Haven't I also, even at any time of the day and any season of the year, seen in the back alley, where the Salvation Army, among other institutions, has its place of assembly, something attractive, something worth attending to? I'm convinced that there is, for day after day I hurry along it, my head full of useable and unuseable ideas, and on every occasion, as I hasten onward, I think to cast an attentive eye on the shoemaker's workshops there, on the droll junk shops displaying horror novels like The Vampire or The Countess with the Lion or The Secret of Paris, on apothecary shops, druggists, greengrocers and general groceries, businesses for leather and for butter, butchers and bakers. I speak perhaps of matters entirely commonplace and completely uninteresting when I report that recently three philosophizing workmen, whose simple and firm features and bearing pleased me very well, were standing in front of the rosily picturesque carnal splendors of a butcher shop, in the brilliance of the window's evening illumination, and with astonishment assessing the prices. I saw them with genuinely profound acumen studying the many varieties of meat displayed, such as veal and beef roast, stewing beef, cutlets, kidneys, brain, and liver, and I heard one of the men — they seemed unable to tear themselves away from the splendors — say most earnestly and slowly: "Tongue one franc forty." I was most thrilled to hear the dictum, for I must candidly say that I'm one of those who love the folk tone. To me and perhaps a few others the simple, honest, unadorned folk-saying means much more than anything that might be heard in the domains of distinguished and refined people. In the folk voice there is indeed something significant, like a deep call homeward.
Next I have to do with an apparently doughty warrior, insofar as I met recently in the back alley a young man, slim, very good-looking, walking on crutches, whom I supposed to be, on account of his lameness and of the unusually earnest look he gave me, an officer, one that had been in the war. The handsome young man's austere and earnest expression was something of a reminder to be earnest and high-minded in critical times. The figure he cut was most distinguished and noble. I believed I could at once understand the beautiful language of his eyes, but the young man wasn't perhaps what I supposed, and my speedy assumption might rest on an error. Even then, I'd received a beautiful and good impression, and with that I declared myself contented.
Might now two poor little back-alley boys be too trivial to warrant the gentle reader's attention? I hardly think so, for I consider everyone reading this a friendly, warm-hearted person. Later I'll speak of a lady who is shopping for Christmas in a bookshop. I'll employ poetic license to bring the lady into a certain relation with the boys. Of the two little lads it must be said that they seemed like brothers, that they were busy playing, when at noon I was hurrying along the alley, and that they rolled around like two balls almost, that they were wearing thick winter clothes and thereby resembled, as I just said, round things rolling on the alley, that they were calling, or rather, shrieking to one another, in hoarse, overloud voices, all sorts of apparently most important remarks. When I saw them playing I told myself that life since time immemorial has only been a game and in future will evidently remain so, though a game, of course, that is rich in destinies and coincidences. One of the boys called to the other: "Stay there!" This call was peculiar, insofar as it revealed a high degree, even the highest possible degree, of the joy of life and of youth. "Kings and emperors," I told myself, "their crowns do not shine and shimmer so purely as these poor boys' pleasure at playing. How grand and rich children at play are. All other joys pale beside the joy of childhood." Out of their shrill and actually quite unpleasant and raucous voices there was squeezed a truly delightful tenderness between brothers and children. "How these two lads do love one another. Will they always do so? How will things go for them later?" I thought, and, while I was thinking, I noticed two significant things about the boys: Their wonderful and pure childhood happiness, and along with it their lamentable, pitiful back alley poverty, or, somewhat otherwise expressed, the golden, glittering crown, the lofty jewel, the sunny and wonderful essence of joy, and along with it, in the bare wintery alley, their jarring, poor, half-frozen voices.
When then in the late afternoon I saw the refined, distinguished, well-dressed lady making her Christmas purchase in the elegant and well-lit bookshop, the earth, earthly life, and the play of human society seemed to me puzzling and strange, though not in any bad and wicked sense, rather in a beautiful and good sense. The lovely woman, the pervasive good taste and atmosphere of learning, culture, and instructive diversion made me on impulse attentive to myself, to the two poor back-alley boys, to the approaching night of Christmas, and to the singular dream called the world, and I said to myself: "What gifts will the two boys receive at Christmas? Will there be someone to give them something to enjoy? Will there be a Christmas Tree lit up in their little room? Will there be someone to be a bit kind to them? Will there be someone to speak to them tenderly? And all the other children? Will all the other children have somebody who thinks of them, who brings them, and says to them, something nice?"
December 1916: Der Bund. SW 16.
Excerpted from Speaking to the Rose by Robert Walser, Christopher Middleton. Copyright © 2005 Robert Walser. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Christopher Middleton is David J. Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Modern Languages, Emeritus, at the University of Texas at Austin. Besides being an eminent British poet, translator, and essayist, he was Walser’s first translator into any language in The Walk and Other Stories, Jakob von Gunten, and Selected Stories.
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