Saturday, April 19, 2014

NEW! Review of Robert Walser

A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser. Translated by Damion Searls. NYRB Classics, $14.95.

Reviewed by Diane Gremillion

Robert Walser’s A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated from German by Damion Searls, garners affection from readers by adopting several perspectives throughout the narrative. There are three parts to the book: Part I (“Fritz Kocher’s Essays”), Part II (a medley of short fictions), and Part III (“Hans”). The stories, written just before World War I, masterfully foreshadow the tensions building up. However, A Schoolboy’s Diary never explicitly states its intentions or any clear agenda. What one piece subtly hints at, the next piece builds a stronger case for, and then may be alluded to in another work in the book. Throughout this collection, Walser retains his sophistication and distinct writing style, simultaneously exposing readers to various outlooks. Poets’ lives, poetry’s purposes, soldiers’ lives, and war’s value are interrogated from various ages and positions in society. Just as Fritz Kocher claims that he would rather die than live a boring life, Hans of the last story is a wanderer who refuses to commit to anything uninteresting. They both strive to challenge expectations and to enjoy themselves. True to these characters, A Schoolboy’s Diary is, if anything, entertaining. 

“Fritz Kocher’s Essays” are framed as a young German schoolboy’s class writing assignments. The introduction, written by Walser, informs readers that this pupil (whose persona he adopts) dies young, which influences how readers interpret Fritz’s outlook on life. Nonetheless, these pieces are endearing, upsetting, and inspirational. With the candid nature preserved only by youth, Fritz writes, “I would die, yes, stubbornly die out of spite, if I was poor.” This phrase carries emphasis because of the knowledge that young Kocher does, in fact, die. Fritz is aware of his high social class and explains his understanding as a child would:

Someone is poor when he comes to school in a torn jacket … I wouldn’t want to be poor, I’d be ashamed to death. Why is being poor such a disgrace? I don’t know. My parents are well off. Papa has a carriage and horses. He couldn’t have them if he was poor.

Walser’s mastery of a schoolboy’s writing style allows him to confront complex social paradigms with little acknowledgement of the implications of each statement and to vocalize the concrete details in which the problem manifests. For example, “all the poor people work in the factories, maybe to punish them for being poor.” Fritz’s insensitivity is often shocking. He despises the poor and lacks empathy, and his thinking is one-dimensional. However, he also offers extremely insightful bits on other topics not influenced so heavily by class, such as friendship between boys, nature, and music. However, Fritz’s language and style are occasionally elevated to an advanced level. This may be an intentional source of friction, created by Walser, between what the narrator should be capable of saying and what is actually being said, as in this passage:

What a precious flower friendship is. Without it, even the strongest man could not live long. The heart needs a kindred, familiar heart, like a little clearing in the forest, a place to rest and lie down and chat … O, there are false friends, whose only goal in life is to wound, to hurt, to destroy! There are people who zealously strive to seem to be our friends…

Although Fritz’s age is never specified, he is in grade A-2, and based upon his candidness, he is still too young for “zealously” to be a part of his active vocabulary, to write “O” in the style of a lyric poem, or to convey emotions such as “the heart needs a kindred, familiar heart.” This disjunction in style serves as a type of comic relief. Readers must imagine little Fritz Kocher delivering these profound messages, which lightens their mood. 
Walser uses the same writing method—gradual hints at meaning—in Fritz’s essays as well. These exercises work together to create a dialogue for readers and to further explain his personal beliefs. At one point, Fitz references the unspoken nurturing bond between his mother and himself, the youngest child:

I felt like I had to say something loving to [Mother] but I couldn’t get it past my lips. She noticed what I was trying to get out and hugged me close and kissed me. I was unspeakably happy and glad that she had understood me … I was so happy that I could talk to my mother in this nicer way.

Fritz connects with his mother by nestling in her arms, rather than explaining to her verbally how much he loves her. In this instance, feelings speak more clearly than reason could express. Walser creates this image between mother and child, thereby eliciting a deep level of affection and familiarity among readers, and then evokes the same emotion once again when Fritz describes music:

Purely rational beings will never appreciate it, but they are precisely the ones it is most deeply beneficial for, in the moments when they do listen to it. You can’t try to comprehend and appreciate any kind of art. Art wants to cuddle up to us. Its nature is so completely pure and self-sufficient that it doesn’t like when you pursue it.

Personification of art cuddling up to listeners, completely wrapping itself around them, echoes Fritz’s bond with his mother. The mother’s love and the music completely surround Fritz and induce the same positive reaction. Although this intensity of contact which language cannot express is not explicitly stated, the two instances complement one another. 

This same tactic, paralleling emotions and struggles throughout separate works, appears in the series of short stories, but in more creative ways. Each story carries the possibility of different perspectives. The common, yet unspoken, themes create unity among the seemingly separate narratives and endow readers with deeper, more complex understandings of the beliefs at hand. The collection, unlike Fritz’s writings, focus on many more mystical topics, such as “Apollo and Diana,” “The Tale of the Four Happy Fellows,” and “The Little Tree.” The titles alone hint at the style of each piece. Walser operates frequently in the hypothetical, thereby gaining freedom to use abstract images, evoke magic, and say exactly what he means. Very simple and approachable subjects allow him to examine larger themes. In “Hat-Chitti,” Walser creates words for specific emotions. In this way, he retains a joyful air while confronting a somber topic:

Oh how terrible this chitti is! Grim inner hatred and deep quiet rage are very, very bad things. Not only boys can bear grudges against other boys in such a way, so too just as well can grown-ups against grown-ups, mature adults against mature adults, and, I would venture to say, nations against nations … Yes, that is chitti, hat-chitti: unburied inner hatred.

From a German author, written in 1915, this is audacious and extremely insightful. Walser circles around what he really means, and once the issue is explored from every possible perspective, an undeniable concreteness to his sentiments emerges. Soft allusions connect each piece and narrow down from the oblivious observations of a schoolboy to the reality at the end of the book: a soldier called to war. 

Readers today may find fault with these pieces because women are never presented as narrators or endowed with thought in the writing. When this book was written, however, German women still had not gained the right to vote, which might help to explain Walser’s lack of consideration. Still, the subtle elements of sexism may be unsettling for readers. The assumedly male speakers often describe women according to their beauty. Fritz writes, “The women’s singing is the prettiest,” “The ladies look especially lovely,” “She is as beautiful as a princess,” “[She has the] most beautiful hands on earth.” While women are never given a voice in these stories, it is also important to keep in mind that Fritz Kocher’s sexist views, like his comments on class, parrot cultural and social conventions modeled for him in his life. The only alternative to being lovely for women in A Schoolboy’s Diary is the one “wicked woman” written about by the assumedly older narrator, Hans. Women’s function in this part of the book, besides being beautiful, is to raise men’s stature in society comparatively. “If [military service] was fun, then young girls would be best at it. Since, however, it isn’t, men are better suited for it.” These opinions are reflective of commonly accepted views in the early 20th century, but are nonetheless sexist and important to identify. 
Walser masterfully writes about increasingly concrete issues, despite progressively abstract narratives. This style requires careful readings from translators in order to identify and to achieve the same effect in a different language. The larger messages are presented within the details. As Fritz concludes his last essay, “[The teacher] is too small to seem big to us.” Despite his youth, Fritz maintains a larger perspective on life than those outlined in simple classroom rules. Similarly, Walser sustains a broader understanding of his nation and of his writing. The result—written during a moment when the world most desperately needed it, but failed to see the larger meaning—is timeless.

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