Magazine article Artforum International

Great Haste: Robert Walser's Writings on Art

Magazine article Artforum International

Great Haste: Robert Walser's Writings on Art

Article excerpt

ONCE A STUDENT at an academy for butlers, and another time employed as an inventor's assistant, Robert Walser (1878-1956) approached writing as a kind of butler or assistant too. "To be small and stay small " was an antiambition Walser shared with Jakob von Gunten, the eponymous hero of his great 1909 autofiction-cwm-bildungsroman about getting ahead in a school for servants. Walser's late microscripts--uncategorizable prose pieces written in a hand so infinitesimal that it was long thought to be meaningless scratching--pack prolixity into the confines of the minuscule; his novel The Robber (1925) was written on a twenty-four page manuscript. Style in Walser is small too, leaving things like ringing gravitas for those born to higher callings, going instead for more declasse pleasures, playing around on the edge of sentimentality, and having fun as a faux-naif who sometimes narrates as if entering a big fancy room he probably doesn't belong in, picking up words like silverware. Walser joins Kafka and Beckett among those literary modernists who countermanded that echt-modernist device, the stream of consciousness, which, however vexed in tone or content, always suggests a profusion that will never stop coming, as if subjectivity is a bottomless well. Reading Walser, you feel that here is writing for an era when consciousness doesn't stream--content does. Language's status as content, something to haphazardly fill a page in the heyday of the broadsheet (or a screen today), is a little secret animating his writing, nowhere more so than in his art writing, where he took on high culture in the context of its mass dissemination.

Translator Susan Bernofsky has already brought several excellent collections of Walser's short prose into English, including The Walk (New Directions, 2012), "Masquerade" and Other Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), and Microscripts (New Directions, 2012). A forthcoming collection from New Directions, Looking at Pictures, with translations by Bernofsky as well as Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton, gathers texts specifically about art--not that an art critic could ever be conjured from the vagabond pencil of Walser, who happily fails to be pinned down vocationwise in flighty, prankish texts such as "A Discussion of a Picture" (1926), "A Picture by Fragonard" (ca. 1927), "Watercolors" (1925), and the early, novella-like "A Painter" (1902). The sort of urbane protosnark that an interwar freelancer might churn out for popular feuilletons is joined by more subjective, unemployable kinds of writing, often within a single text. Written between 1902 and 1930 and, with two exceptions, previously untranslated, the pieces gathered here elaborate a nervous, slapstick sort of hack journalism that set the stage for a fabulously experimental modernist writing situation whose fans included Kafka, Musil, and Benjamin. Micronarratives and fragmentary sketches, "infinitesimally small little essaylet[s]," and dashedoff reports on city life often make a show of writing in humble service to the "Dear Reader" of the mass-produced page, meanwhile returning the speed, anonymity, and disposability of that page as nonstop literary surprises.

In Looking at Pictures, we get literary prose in service to the "cold" and noble art of painting, but performing the situation of its own enthrallment to the point where the chatterbox text always inevitably steals the show: Pictures become opportunities to flamboyantly derail writing. "An Exhibition of Belgian Art" (1926), for example, takes on the job of reviewing a show at a local museum in Bern, but the text is almost immediately diverted by a slanting shaft of sunlight in a nearby cafe, and then the music of coats on coat racks, coffee, flags, and the recollection of a dream about a sharp-featured woman reflected in a mirror, etc. Or, looking at The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, the author begins to ponder the etiquette and psychic boundaries of massage. …

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