Selected Stories by Robert Walser
Rita Bullwinkel + Liza St. James
March 9, 2019
I write to you from the land of Walser’s Selected Stories. The edition with the Susan Sontag forward, and the man-standing-alone-with-umbrella bad cover. Everybody, including Sontag, says Walser’s at his best with his stories. I reread Jakob Von Gunten, Walser’s most famous novel, just to be sure, and have found that everybody is correct. The stories are the masterpieces. My theory for why I like Walser’s stories best is because I adore his endings. They curve in very strange and satisfying ways. And, with the stories, we get so many more endings! In the novels, sadly, we get just one per book. There are no chapters in Jakob Von Gunten.
The story endings also steer his work more directly into the realm of comedy. They often end in absurd images, overly dramatic exclamations, or rhetorical questions about happiness, that have a laugh out loud, depressed/drunk-person-laughing-till-they-fall-on-the-floor-and-cry kind of tone.
One of my favorite endings is from “Response to a Request,” which depicts a character (an actor, a mime, a collection of stage makeup? Who knows!) ending a theater scene by being buried in the rubble of a collapsed set, a single grasping hand poking up out of the fallen stones and clutching for air. The whole narrative has a broken circus music pallor to it. I imagine the people in it are not real people, but two dimensional cartoons that swap faces and costumes, and for whom death is a performance that will be re-lived in the next matinee.
Do you have a particular ending you like? Or maybe you like the beginnings? Or maybe you’re a Walser novel lady? Or a microscipt lady? I like the microscripts fine, but think they are more like paintings.
March 10, 2019
It’s a rainy Daylight Savings Day morning on this side of Walser land. I would take the umbrella from the man on the cover if I were a person who believed in umbrellas. (I think they are for fashion more than for function. Is this a particularly Bay Area mentality, do you think?)
Your description of the tone of his endings is perfect, and I think it’s that philosophical humor that keeps me coming back to the stories. They are so short and moody and interior that they make dark thoughts seem funny, which is nice when the dread creeps in. I think the main reason I so treasure them is for their dedication to meandering. I enjoy opening to those 1917 ones—“So! I’ve Got You,” “Nothing at All,” “Kienast”—because they bloom from a simple conceit in such a pleasurable way. It’s like how Walser used to retell the stories of pulp novels, writing unrecognizable versions of the same narratives (in his tiny script) on the torn off backs of their covers. I love that. The focus less on the development or the originality of a plot than on being inside the story.
The other day while talking to a friend on the phone, I ended up reading aloud the Walser quote used as an epigraph for the Selected: “If I am well-disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines the content of which people understand at once. If you liked, you could call me a writer who goes to work with a lathe…” He goes on to describe the stories as parts of the same novel—a book of himself—and I appreciate this way of thinking about a life’s work as in continual progress, with all the scraps amounting to…something. (I do love the microscripts, too!)
Before this, I hadn’t read these stories all together—I’d read one here, one there—and it wasn’t until reading Sontag’s intro that I realized I don’t know much about Walser’s life. A former teacher of mine is one of his translators, and she’s currently writing a biography of him, so what little I do know has come in the form of snippets she shares when I ask how the book is going. She answers by telling me how old Walser is in her rendering, marking progress by how much of his life she’s gotten up to. Maybe this is how many biographers work, but I’m always charmed by it. As if a life retold could be so systematic, so linear—as if we don’t get younger, lose years along the way sometimes, before re-collecting them. (And any reader of Walser knows that for him age isn’t so linear…In fact, she sent me his story “The Child,” about a child who is forty years old!) It wasn’t until after the most recent time I cat-sat for her, working at her desk, surrounded by her Walser books that I began reading him more purposefully. The bookshelf behind her desk is filled with more Walser than I even knew there was to read. Most in German, many in her own translation—worn, yellowed pastel colored box sets, pamphlets, books I imagined to be rare. Her cat is a baby lion of a cat with long orange hair and a regalness about him. Like many among us, he spends much of the day grooming and playing with imaginary friends.
March 15, 2019
I am jealous of this professor-friend’s desk with all the rare Walser texts and the cat. I’m a grand voyeur, and love peeping in to well-lit windows at night, or staying in other people’s apartments. I like pretending I am the people I see in the windows, and I like pretending that I am the people in whose apartments I vacation. Perhaps, if I had access to this desk, I could pretend that I was Walser’s biographer and that I spoke German?
Until last week, everyone in my family thought “Bullwinkel” was German, but it has been dramatically revealed, with absolute certainty, that the name is in fact Dutch and that it means “corner (bull) store (winkel).” If you speak Dutch and you disagree with this translation please write me immediately. These past several days I have come to heavily identify as a corner store of a person.
I, too, love everything Walser wrote about his own writing. The fact that he thinks of all of his work as different bits of the same wallpaper pattern, or as different excerpts of the same novel, resonates with me greatly. I think we human beings cannot help circling the same things deep down in the dark sea of our unconscious minds—that dank, gummy territory where artists spend so much of their time.
I also agree that umbrellas are fashion items. They do next to nothing compared to the work of a good coat. I think umbrellas are foolish, and I think Walser would have also thought that umbrellas are foolish. I think he would have hated umbrellas, and I think it is a great insult that the book designer of this reissue of his collected stories (his masterpieces) has donned his work in the image of such a stupid, useless tool.
Yours in arms, and a well-constructed raincoat,
March 15, 2019
Dear corner store Rita,
What a discovery! I would love to have your store on my corner. And how fitting this revelation seems in the context of our subject.
I also think Walser would have thought umbrellas a silly extravagance, but then there are so many photos of him carrying an umbrella! In one photo he appears to be getting snowed on while still holding but not using the umbrella…maybe he carried an umbrella exclusively for photoshoots? Or for use as a walking stick?
I read “The Walk” yesterday when I hadn’t been out of my house in a couple days. I was getting over being sick and reading “The Walk” made me imagine the walk I’ve dreamt of taking ever since I first moved to New York. I used to live at the very top of Manhattan, and I’d imagine one day walking the length of the island—from my apartment in Inwood, through Washington Heights, Midtown, the Financial District, down to the edge of land, all on Broadway. It’s only thirteen miles, but I think I’ve been waiting for that ideal day off to do it. Not raining or snowing, warmer than it is now. Anyway, I was thinking about that as I read Walser’s narrator encountering dogs, children, a bookseller, a banker, a giant, his tailor. As he walks through a forest I felt I might go up to Inwood Hill Park, where I used to walk in Manhattan’s only forest, and begin a ramble of my own. I might have.
When I went out today to run errands, “The Walk” still on my mind, I found myself entering the post office, thinking, “To hop into a mailing institute, just in passing.” Though of course it was hardly in passing that I waited in the abyss of a Brooklyn post office on a Friday afternoon, and I sure could have borrowed some lines from Walser’s rather flippant narrator while inside…
I have been known to espouse the importance of a quality impermeable! Today, though, it’s sunny and dry here. “How nice it is that spring follows winter, every time.”
Yours roving about the dank gum,