Review: The Tanners, Robert Walser
A Common Reader
I have had a very busy week and have been suffering mild literary withdrawal symptoms due to the demands of visitors preventing me from updating A Common Reader for the last few days, or even responding properly to those who have commented on my reviews – apologies to those.
However, I’ve managed to snatch some reading time and have enjoyed reading The Tanners by Robert Walser. The only other book I’ve read by Walser is The Assitant, which I enjoyed greatly so I came to this newly published edition of The Tanners with a sense of anticipation.
Swiss writer Robert Walser wrote during the first part of the 20th century, and was a unique writer and as his Wikipedia entry says, “A characteristic of Walser’s texts is a playful serenity behind which hide existential fears. Today, Walser’s texts, completely re-edited since the 1970s, are regarded as among the most important writings of literary modernism”. Walser led an outwardly limited life, never marrying and ending his years in an asylum. He died while out for a long lonely walk in the snow
Robert Walser is an important writer for those with an interest in this period and in writers who followed in his wake such as W G Sebald. Sebald in fact provides a critical biography of Walser in his 36 page introduction to this edition of The Tanners which is worth the purchase price in itself, beginning with the words,
The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether. . . he was only ever connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways.
Walser wrote in minute pencil text, with letters barely 1mm high, and a facsimile of a couple of pages is provided in the introduction. Apparently these pages had to be painstakingly deciphered before his works could be published.
The Tanners tells the story of three brothers and a sister,Simon, Kaspar, Klaus, and Hedwig who together comprise the Tanner family. As the cover says, the story concerns “their wanderings, meetings, separations, quarrels, romances, employment and lack of employment over the course of a year or two”. The story focuses on Simon, a strange young man, devoid of ambition who fails to see the need to make progress in the world and drifts from on temporary job to another, finding accommodation with a variety of women who he seems to charm into unconcern about prompt payment of rent.
He has no difficulty with landing himself on the charity of others but wraps around himself a cloak of philosophical musings which help him justify his dependency. He soon loses interest in the clerical jobs he takes on and makes long-winded speeches to his employers explaining why they have disappointed him.
A long section of the book is taken up with his prolonged stay with his sister Hedwig, who is employed as a teacher in a remote village. In this situation Simon comes into his own as a poetical son of the soil who charms his sister into providing for him while he muses on the fulfilment of living simply in rural surroundings.
When eventually Hedwig managed to free herself from her limpet-like brother, Simon returns to the city where he takes a position as a servant to a widow with an invalid son. Simon, always seeing the positive in any situation takes to his new position with enthusiasm, adopting an almost masochistic delight in the restrictions of his new life:
How glad I am to be so hemmed in, so confined, so encloused. Why should a person always be hankering for wide open spaces, and isn’t longing so restrictive a sentiment? Here I am tightly squeezed in between four kitchen walls, but my heart is wide open and filled with the pleasure I take in my modest duty.
Simon’s masochism soon reaches its extreme when the lady of the house drops a beautiful piece of crockery and is so incensed that Simon has observed her act of clumsiness that she orders Simon to pick up the pieces and stands over him while he scrambles around on the floor, not knowing that Simon’s through-train is far from servile:
My cheeks are brushing against your dress. Every shard I gather up says to me, “You wretched creature”, and the hem of your dress says to me, “O happy one!”. I’m intentionally taking my time about gathering up the shards. Does it now fill you with fresh rage to be forced to notice? I’m finding is amusing to have been the miscreant. I like you when you’re angry with me. Do you know why your anger so pleases me? You’re only angry because I witnessed your clumsiness. You the grand lady in the presence of ignoble me. Whit what enchanting rancour you bade me gather up the shards. And I’m not even hurrying as I do so: for I wish you to become utterly furious and incensed over my taking so long. . . Your silk dresss is beautiful when one considers that it contains a female body capable of trembling with excitement and weakness. Your hands are beautiful hanging down towards me in all their length. I hope you’ll box my ears with them some day.
By the end of the book, we realise that Simon is never going to amount to much in this world. He drifts on to more rented rooms and more temporary jobs. He meets people in inns, goes out for walks with whoever wants to accompany him and he lecture them at length about the joys of the simple, uncommitted life, despite its aimlessness and its deprivations.
Clearly there is much of Walser in this book, the sense of alienation from the concerns of others, and the existential anxieties that underlay the lifestyle of a drifter. We somehow feel that anxiety on behalf of the people Simon encounters, for sooner or later they are going to be disappointed in him and find that his charm is thinly laid.
For myself I have been reminded of the importance of this writer and will now go on to read his other books in translation, of which there are now quite a few.