How artless or artful he is is a judgment that each reader can make for him- or herself, and I suspect that much depends on the serenity of one’s own disposition. Sontag called him an ‘anti-gravity’ writer, both in that he is against seriousness as well as being unbound to the ground. And in this unbelievably delightful and timeless collection of short pieces, we can recover the delight of ordinary, uncondescending appreciation, places where the vacant-minded stroller can take ‘peculiar pleasure’. The tram, the theatre, the train station, the park … (‘Beautiful park, I think, beautiful park,’ is how he ends “The Park”.) One thing and then another. Isn’t that nice?
- so says Nicholas Lezard in his review of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories for The Guardian. And we completely agree with his last sentence; if you read on the train, or any form of public transport, this is a book for you.
So, we were going to collect photos of Berlin spots mentioned by Walser in Berlin Stories, but then we saw this, and figured ours wouldn’t be nearly as nicely done. Thanks Mike Dressel!
Berlin never rests, and this is glorious. Each dawning day brings with it a new, agreeably disagreeable attack on complacency, and this does the general sense of indolence good. An artist possesses, much like a child, an inborn propensity for beautiful, noble sluggardizing. Well, this slug-a-beddishness, this kingdom, is constantly being buffeted by fresh storm-winds of inspiration. The refined, silent creature is suddenly blustered full of something coarse, loud, and unrefined. There is an incessant blurring together of various things, and this is good, this is Berlin, and Berlin is outstanding. —“Berlin and the Artist.”
I’m not even quite halfway through Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky, and it is all I can do to stop myself from blogging nearly ever single sentence. First, “noble sluggardizing”! Then, throughout the “prose pieces,” as they are designated, there are phrases like “that blue-eyed marvel, the early morning” and “magnificent restlessness” and “where poesy can be felt, poetic flights are superfluous.”
The book is one of my favorite types, the musings of a flâneur and metropolitan chronicler who observes the whirling city from its bars stools and park benches, its opera boxes and streetcars. It is the kind of book that affords the reader the eerie delight of life explicated just as it is. It is poetic and deeply felt even in its flippancy.
Even though Walser was writing about Berlin in the early 1900s, it is hard not to draw parallels to New York, for a certain type of person who has moved to the city to live a certain type of life, no matter the decade or century in which they arrive. That is, for me, both a help and a hindrance as I am trying, after a five month absence, to fall in love with this city again.
But! This post is mostly in service of encouraging you to pick up the slim volume, if you are certain type of person who is drawn to a certain metropolitan life; if you ponder, like Walser, “what plays will be put on this winter,” if you enjoy long, contemplative walks smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, and if you find the thrum of urban life to be a source of endless fascination.
WEEKEND NEW BOOK ROUND-UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Books: So easy to acquire, so hard to read. We are not making things any easier for you.
Varamo, Cesar Aira. The great Bobby Bolano says that Aira is “One of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today.” Granted, he’s said that of more or less all the writers working in Spanish today, but Aira is great, and you know that.
Berlin Stories, Robert Walser. Money-back guarantee: The first section of this book will make you love your city again. Just kidding. About the money back. But everything after the colon is true.
Other People We Married, Emma Straub. Sadly now
Frenchfreedom flap-less on the outside, but still as great as it ever was on the inside.
House of Holes, Nicholson Baker. Old weirdy beardy Baker is still the best living American prose stylist working today. (Claims: I will make them.)
The Fallback Plan, Leigh Stein. Ah, youth! Ah, moving back in with your parents!
The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata & Jim Fingal. I just started this, and it’s enraging. We recommend.
Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt. Maybe you heard Salface “The Big Cheese” McNalface talk about this on WNYC. If not, you should.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Nathan Englander. Expect a lot of reviews to take advantage talking about whatever it is we talk about when we talk about whatever—the title, Anne Frank, some aspect of the book. Impossible to resist!
Susan Bernofsky, who translated and wrote the introduction for the recently published Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, has won the biannual translation award The Calwer Hermann-Hesse-Preis (that’s German for Prize) for 2012. She is also curating the Festival Neue Literatur 2012, being held this weekend in New York City. Go check out some events if you can, they should be fun.
“This was my first experience reading Walser and I found many aspects of Berlin Stories to be striking. Berlin Stories is a book infused with the impressions of a struggling artist. A provincial wandering cosmopolitan Berlin and recording his spontaneous thoughts. A writer who has confronted the dull monotony of wage lifestyle and rendered it into something beautiful. And an artist facing the reality that pursuing success in the great metropolis often means dealing with a relentlessly insular and conventional bourgeoisie class.
Walser’s reflections of walking around Berlin are some of the finest and most accurate descriptions of city life that I have ever encountered. The narrators of these stories speak in unique and natural voice that have the feel of fleeting reflections though in reality they are often poignant and incisive observations. Walser is able to make even the most prosaic situations, for instance a morning commute, utterly beautiful.”
— from today’s Metro New York newspaper.
Riding the ‘electric’ is an inexpensive pleasure. When the car arrives, you climb aboard, possibly after first politely ceding the right of way to an imposing gentlewoman, and then the car continues on. At once you notice that you have a rather musical disposition. The most delicate melodies are parading through your head. In no time you’ve elevated yourself to the position of a leading conductor or even composer. Yes, it’s really true: the human brain involuntarily starts composing songs in the electric tram, songs that in their involuntary nature and their rhythmic regularity are so very striking that it’s hard to resist thinking oneself a second Mozart.
The New York Review blog published the second in a series of excerpts from the recently published Berlin Stories by Robert Walser, translated and with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky. Bernofsky, who is currently chair of the PEN Translation Committee and author of Foreign Words: Translator-Authors in the Age of Goethe, was interviewed for the blog Daily PEN America about the place of translation in America today.
…These essayish ‘stories,’ most appearing in English for the first time, reveal the exuberance (and, in a heart-rending coda, the defeat) of a young artist initiating himself into the glorious bustle of his adopted city. Everything is observed in language that asserts his professed posture as ‘a perfumed and mincing know-it-all and write-it-all.’ To Walser, Berlin’s architecture ‘errs perhaps on the side of the drastic’ and theater should be ‘shameless,’ since ‘it must after all be reckoned among the secret pleasures of a theatergoer to be permitted to find sufficient grounds to blush.’ Having exalted the gifts of a critic friend, he mutters, ‘Did you catch the undercurrent of vindictive envy?’ Not to be outdone, Walser deploys his own criticism with panache. As he derides ‘the princely Homburgly nature’ of a pompous actor, you can almost hear the collection’s principal translator, Susan Bernofsky, laughing into her laptop.
Today is the publication date for Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, a collection of his early stories, with some later ones as well, set in Berlin where he followed his elder brother in 1905, translated by Susan Bernofsky and others including Christopher Middleton. We thought we’d share the first story in the book, titled “Good Morning, Giantess!”:
It’s as if a giantess were shaking her curls and sticking one leg out
of bed when—early in the morning, before even the electric trams
are running, and driven by some duty or other—you venture out
into the metropolis. Cold and white the streets lie there, like outstretched human arms; you trot along, rubbing your hands, and
watch people coming out of the gates and doorways of their buildings,
as though some impatient monster were spewing out warm,
flaming saliva. You encounter eyes as you walk along like this: girls’
eyes and the eyes of men, mirthless and gay; legs are trotting behind
and before you, and you too are legging along as best you can, gazing
with your own eyes, glancing the same glances as everyone else. And
each breast bears some somnolent secret, each head is haunted by
some melancholy or inspiring thought. Splendid, splendid.
—I recall that I began writing the book with a hopeless flutter of words, with all sorts of mindless sketchings and scribblings. —I never dreamed I might be capable of completing something serious, beautiful, and good. —Better ideas and, along with them, the courage to create arrived only gradually, but also all the more mysteriously, rising out of chasms of self-contempt and flippant disbelief. —It was like the morning sun rising up in the sky. Evening and morning, past and future and the so delightful present seemed to lie at my feet; before me the countryside quickened with life, and I felt as though I could grasp human activity, all of human life in my hands, that’s how vividly I saw it.
Robert Walser, “The Tanners” (translated by Susan Bernofsky), from the forthcoming Berlin Stories, on sale January 24, 2012. In “The Tanners,” Walser describes writing The Tanners, his first published novel.