When the late Christopher Middleton published a translation of Robert Walser’s selected stories in 1988, the Swiss-German writer was practically unknown in the English-speaking world. Since then, his reputation has snowballed. Now readers are familiar not only with Walser’s writings, which were appreciated in his time by the likes of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, but also his life story: after producing an enormous quantity of stories, unclassifiable feuilletons, and a half a dozen novels over the course of the first three decades of the 20th century, he subsequently spent the years from 1929 through his death in 1956 in mental asylums, eventually ceasing to publish. “I am not here to write, but to be mad,” he explained.
In the past few years, English-language publications of Walser have been appearing at an ever-faster rate, to the joy of his admirers but also at times to their frustration: Walser’s voluminous production includes, as it turns out, some pretty thin stuff alongside such masterpieces as “Kleist in Thun” or “The Walk,” to name a couple of the most memorable stories in Middleton’s 1988 selection. Among the recent contributions to this mass of translations is Looking at Pictures, both nonfiction and fiction about painting and painters, fluently translated by several hands, primarily Susan Bernofsky (who for some time now has been Walser’s main translator) but also in a couple of cases by Lydia Davis, the renowned writer who is also known for her translations from the French (but not previously from the German, to my knowledge); also reprinted here are two of Middleton’s previously published translations.
But as for looking at pictures, there’s little evidence of it here, despite the volume’s title. Rather, Walser was more likely to find in images a reason to look into his own fervent imagination. In fact, Looking at Pictures could serve as a convenient object lesson in how not to write about painting. Rule one: If the painting is not an illustration of an existing story, your task is to resist inventing a story to which the painting could have served as an illustration. To do otherwise is more a way of looking away from the painting than of looking at it. And it’s almost as bad as breaking rule two: Don’t use the painting as an excuse to free-associate.
But Walser was one of the great literary free-associators. One of the wonderful things about his writing is that by the time you get to the bottom of a page you realize that his thought has wandered somewhere you’d never have predicted from what you read at the top. It’s marvelous and inimitable, and it’s aptly summed up in the first sentence of a piece in this collection called, simply, “Watteau”: “Knowing little about him, I shall nonetheless promptly make my way, as if rambling across meadows, into the task of describing his life, as if stepping into an attractive, prettily wallpapered little house, this being a life devoted to gaiety, that is to art, in other words to a certain delight in one’s own person.”
The writer’s manifest modesty (“knowing little about him”) and the “rambling” nature of his thought are Walser’s style in a nutshell. And it’s charming. But that art is conceived as essentially a form of self-indulgence (“delight in one’s own person”) is a problem — if only because it puts the writer’s art of self-indulgence at cross-purposes with any attempt to focus attention on the painter’s. And so Walser eloquently calls attention to the obvious, such as (still of Watteau) that “all the romanticism that dwelled within him possessed, as it were, excellent manners,” without being able to enlighten us further about the matter. It’s frustrating, and might have been less so had Walser devoted his verbal ramble to an imaginary oeuvre by an imaginary artist — or simply pretended that he was doing so — sparing the reader of the feeling that much of what could have been grasped about the artist had escaped the writer’s notice.
In an essay on Van Gogh’s “L’Arlesienne” (1888), Walser offers a fine evocation of the woman we see portrayed in the painting: “These hard features were once soft, and these cold, almost malicious eyes were friendly and innocent…. She no doubt often went to church, or to dances. How often must her hands have opened a window, or pressed shut a door. These are the sort of acts you and I perform daily, are they not, and in this circumstance resides a certain pettiness, but also a grandeur. Can she not have had a lover, and known joys, and many sorrows? She listened to the ringing of bells, and with her eyes perceived the beauty of branches in blossom. Months and years passed for her, summer passed, winter. Is this not terribly simple. Her life was filled with toil.”
At a moment such as this, one feels how much more a great narrator such as Walser can give to a picture than the dry enumerations of an art historian or critic would allow. But then when he summarizes by saying, “He paints her just as she is, plain and true,” it’s impossible not to wish that he had looked more closely at the picture in order to begin to explain to us how in the world Van Gogh went about doing that. What it would mean to paint a human being “just as she is,” and what is the technique that would allow such a thing to happen? — that’s what one is desperate to know. Walser leaves us without a clue.