Lightness of being

Benjamin Weissman is the author of two books of short fiction, most recently "Headless."

ROBERT WALSER (1878-1956) is the dreamy confectionary snowflake of German language fiction. He also might be the single most underrated writer of the 20th century. Even though his prose is quite delicious -- and no matter how many times his perfect novel, "Jakob Von Gunten," is reissued -- booksellers rarely stock him. Walser is a sentence artist of the highest magnitude who spent his last 27 years in an asylum in Switzerland.

From the early 1900s until 1929, Walser wrote nine remarkable novels and thousands of ultra-brief stories, which represent some of the best short prose written in any language.

He published much of this work in daily newspapers (an editorial practice inconceivable today) and counted writers such as Walter Benjamin, Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka among his admirers. Indeed, Kafka reportedly gave his close friend Max Brod one of Walser's books as a birthday present. And Brod regularly published Walser. Some critics feel Kafka was inspired by Walser; Robert Musil observed upon first reading Kafka that he was "a peculiar case of the Walser type." Walser's influence also can be seen clearly on this continent. I don't think American masters Donald Barthelme or Lydia Davis could have written their short, eccentric stories without his early guidance. (The first American translations of Walser appeared in 1957.)

Walser was a miniaturist. If his pages, paragraphs, sentences and clauses were footsteps, his prose would be the art of the tiptoed. There is a lightness of touch here, close in delicacy to Japanese haiku or the light strokes from a sumi brush. The gait of his language is quieter than a kitten's.

In 1929 -- after several suicide attempts and a prompt from the various siblings with whom he often lived -- Walser committed himself to the Waldau Sanitarium. He paid for his stay there with money that he'd inherited and at the time wrote this about himself: "I am a kind of artisan novelist. A writer of novellas I certainly am not. 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. My writing is wallpapering . . . . My prose pieces are, to my mind, nothing more nor less than parts of a long, plotless, realistic story. For me, the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself." He continued to write for the next four years. On June 19, 1933, he was forcibly moved to Herisau, a less gentle asylum.

Written in 1908, and now reissued in a new translation by Susan Bernofsky, Walser's novel "The Assistant" details the inner life of a man named Joseph Marti, who takes a job as an inventor's secretary -- a job Walser himself briefly held. Marti (the maiden name of Walser's mother) lives with the inventor's family, the Toblers, in a villa at the base of a lush alpine valley. "Above the crowns of trees," he writes, "the dazzling-gauzy-white outlines of the Alps appeared like notes of music fading into the distance."

The inventor has made four contraptions: the Invalid's Chair, the Deep Hole Drilling Machine, the Marksman's Vending Machine and something called the Advertising Clock. Room and board are all "the assistant" receives by way of remuneration. He will be paid only if the inventions are successful. But that's OK; to the impractical Joseph, the fullness and generosity of the high alpine life, with its regular meals, dips in the lake and supply of cigars, is compensation enough.

Throughout "The Assistant," one finds the usual Walser touches. There is the pull of a mysterious woman, absurd and elaborate bursts of appreciation at living and a cornucopia of tasty food. In one scene, a drunk and disorderly Joseph spends two nights in jail and seems to fall in love with a handsome, rowdy milkman. "The fellow had a mouth whose curve and shape were truly lovely, a face that was nobly, freely and serenely framed," Walser enthuses. "[N]ot adverse to simpler, softer sentiments; at least he could sometimes be heard yodeling and singing, which he did quite beautifully and with a good sense of rhythm." Every few hours, several prisoners play a spanking game called Slap the Ham that involves "walloping fairly brutally, using the palm of the hand, the buttocks of a person condemned to make this part of his body accessible to these merciless blows." During his second night in jail, Joseph dreams about the milkman in a long, romantic military fantasy.

"The Assistant" has, at times, the rambling feel of a journal. Perhaps it could have benefited from a rigorous edit, but Walser fans will appreciate the loose approach. Not since Laurence Sterne has the digression been taken on such lovely excursions, in the form of a mental walkabout that occurs in nearly every scene.

Walser pauses to reflect on pet words, thought patterns, handwriting, facial expressions, job guilt, food, sounds, nature in all its subtle spectacularity and, above all, the self-mockery that seems, by turns, to anchor him and set his sail. Each moment is ornamented, endowed with life and vibrancy, both from the flickering outside world and the inner firings of Walser's imagination. Whether he's writing about an inventor's assistant here or a young man studying to be a butler in "Jakob Von Gunten" (his finest novel and among the few translated into English), Walser's aesthetic stance becomes quite radical as he renounces traditional subject matter in order to float, drift and play.

Walser opened up what is possible in prose writing. Here is a writer who produced stories about his trousers or his appreciation for a button on his shirt. (In the latter effort, he speaks directly to the button.) His fiction features flowers, trees, balloon journeys, pretend letters of employment, meditations on being nervous and walking, always walking -- he was a walking fiend who once walked from Bern to Zurich, about 75 miles. The only hateful word I have ever read in Walser comes when he discusses the automobile, that great disturber of nature and archenemy of the pedestrian.

Walser had a furiously active mind and was obsessed with idleness. Joy and sorrow operate in close proximity in his work. Nearly 51 years after his death, he remains a literary enigma, a fiction writer relegated to the status of obscure minor poet, who died on Christmas Day, 1956, outside the asylum in the snow with his hand over his heart. *

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