Monday, September 21, 2015

Jay Ponteri: On Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser

On Looking at Me Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton. Published by New Directions, October 2015.


People of the essay—I have an announcement to make. Pull out your earbuds. Fluff your pillowy ears. We, the essayists of America, hereby claim Swiss writer Robert Walser as one of our own. I repeat: Robert Walser has been chosen by the Essay Team. I repeat: Robert Walser wears his yellow leisure-suit uniform for the Essay Team (From “The Walk”: In my bright yellow English suit, which I had received as a present, I really seemed to myself, I must frankly admit, a great lord and grand seigneur, a marquis strolling up and down his park…). I repeat: the Essay Team believes walking while thinking-dreaming-perceiving and writing essays are twin earthworms tunneling through a single clump of damp soil. O autumn alluvium! I repeat: putting one foot in front of the other thought in front of the other foot in front of the other thought. I repeat: the Essay Team has open seats, people. I repeat: “open” is the operative word here. I repeat: it was one of those days of salvation and loss.

Don’t misconstrue here. I’m not saying Robert Walser was only an essayist nor am I arguing to fit his prose works into a single genre or to even discern various prose genres. If I did so, my own inner-Walser would scoff at me. I would scoff at me. I would invite you, reader, to scoff at me. Be a European, scoff at me. What I’m saying is the essayists of America, okay, the essayists of the world—what better place to make this announcement than in Essay Daily—are bringing Robert Walser into our fold.

I’m pretty sure fellow essay writer Elena Passarello has my back here as she came up with the idea of claiming Walser on this very website. My entire essay here is an aside. My essay is not even an essay. Are you a lion or a lamb? FYI, I’m defining the essay very loosely, as the mind within the mind in motion on the page. Or: the act, the EVENT, of revealing the prowling curious mind, the dreaming mind (the screaming zither), the remembering mind, the feeling mind, the mind attempting to figure something out, knowing it will never do so, on (and off) (and beyond) the page. The page is our hero. The page is our arrow. The page is our pharaoh. I want to save you from your sorrow. The only way I can see inside your thoughts is by showing you mine. The Essay Team will not reduce Walser’s immensity as a prose writer by calling him “an essayist,” but we will read ALL of his prose works closely, we will care for his works by purchasing them for ourselves and for others. We will discuss his works at cafes and bookstores, in classrooms, in ear canals, in pill boxes, in our thoughts, in the shower stall, in the bathtub, in the bathtub of our thoughts, in our bathtub’s thoughts. His books will grow in piles atop our nightstands, will cozy up to our IBM Selectric typewriters and laptops and legal pads of yellow paper. What writer gave more of his mind to his works than Robert Walser? Possibly Virginia Woolf? Clarice Lispector? John Keats? Even Walser’s novels—The Robber, The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob Von Gunten—often feel like beautifully wobbly story shells barely containing the author’s unfurling expanding—ripping out, raising up and over and within—interiority. For Walser the dramatic moment is not external action but interior instance. In short: thought is plot. In short: what happens in the mind is just fine. In short: if it’s yellow, let it mellow.

Hey readers, guess what? New Directions and Christine Burgin Gallery are about to publish a book of Robert Walser’s prose on painting—titled Looking At Pictures. 


Walser's brother Karl was a successful painter and sought-after stage set designer in Berlin. After Walser moved there in 1905, he ran around with his brother’s crowd, worked for his brother’s artist group “Berliner Secession.” Here is a passage from Susan Bernofsky’s and Christine Burgin’s lovely introduction: “As a young writer producing a great deal of short prose for publication in journals and newspapers, Robert Walser frequently devoted his attention to works of visual art, whether by his brother and his contemporaries or by old masters. Ekphrasis was a mode of writing he came to love; he pursued it all his life” (6). Now let me introduce to you our dream team of translators: from left to right we have Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton. Dear Mr. Middleton: I bow down in gratitude and reverence, in great praise, for first bringing Walser’s German-language prose into English in the 1960s. I thank you, Mr. Middleton. The Essay Team thanks you, Mr. Middleton. Others I know and don’t know thank you, Mr. Middleton. Am I the only who feels like pictures look at viewers, that the art, in fact, is made to view us, the viewers? Looking At Pictures collects meditations on paintings, dreams into paintings and beyond paintings, recalls prior writings on paintings, tells stories about painters, fabricates a painter’s journal. Looking at Pictures has very little to do with pictures and those who make them—has everything to do with LOOKING, with this particular viewer of pictures, more specifically, what passes through Robert Walser’s viewing mind. The mind that views pictures and painters is the mind in touch with both self and Other, with the self in mystery through the knowable and unknowable Other, which is to say, these writings are not so much about “looking at pictures” as much as they’re about Walser looking at himself looking at pictures, looking at his thoughts, making thoughts, as he thinks about, remembers, or imagines pictures and those who make them. Much of the writings (in)advertently reveal Walser’s aesthetic as a prose writer. Here in “A Painter,” the narrator, a painter, discusses his process:
A hand is often the seat of a great deal of stubborn willfulness, which first has to be broken. By deploying an energetic but gentle volition, it can be made wonderfully pliant, docile, and obedient. The defiance in it has been broken, like a bone, and the hand labors then like a strange, talented servant, growing stronger and more refined from day to day. The eye is like a bird of prey, glimpsing the tiniest aberrant movement. But the hand also fears the eye, its eternal tormenter. I myself don’t know what sort of spirits I am in when I am painting. A person creating something is one who is utterly absent and without feeling. Only when I take a break to survey what I have done, does it often occur to me that I am trembling with secret happiness. (21)
Walser was a maximalist. He worked towards radical inclusion, i.e., The eye is like a bird of prey, glimpsing the tiniest aberrant movement, i.e., an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. Dear Ander and Craig, That last clause might serve as a definition for the prose form we know as The Essay. Do you think? Do our lives move in loops or lines or zigzags? What part of me don’t you know? Little beads of sweat pooled in the bowl of her clavicle, which I licked clean. I’m a member of the Clean Plate Club. Bodies coil, bodies uncoil. Pema says, “Things come together and things fall apart.” A thought is a piece of flesh, is the oval motion of our vulva lives. I’m not sure what I mean there, Ander and Craig. Perhaps that the essay is one kind of bodily apparition. W.G. Sebald connects Walser’s need to STAY in the moment of composition indefinitely—to stay together with words, which are tiny bodies—to Walser’s core psychic issues around existence, i.e., human impermanence, core issues for all of us:
…the almost manic loquaciousness—these are all elements in the painstaking process of elaboration Walser indulges in, out of a fear of reaching the end too quickly if—as is his inclination—he were to set down nothing but a beautifully curved line with no distracting branches or blossoms. Indeed, the detour is, for Walser, a matter of survival. ‘These detours serve the end of filling time, for I really must pull off a book of considerable length, otherwise I'll be even more deeply despised than I am now.’ (139-40)
Speaking of detours, this essay will NOT dismiss the art and technique of literary translation as most reviews in those big-city dailies do, with such vapid sentences as, “The translation deftly captures the…,” or “This is a solid translation…” And that’s if the reader is lucky, for reviewers of translated works usually don’t even mention the name of the translator or the fact that what they have read then reviewed is a literary translation, an experience of translation! It’s as if the translation of Dostoevsky’s Бра́тья Карама́зовы just magically appeared in the English language! If Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton hadn’t undertaken the laborious task of translating into English Robert Walser’s German prose, I wouldn’t be reading Robert Walser’s words translated into English, and you wouldn’t be listening to or reading my words about Robert Walser’s, and I wouldn’t be what I am now—a human man wholly, confidently uncertain about the mysterious world he encounters, willing as much as possible on and off the page to not only ensure but deepen that uncertainty, the mystery of infinite possibility and connectivity. I feel the feeling, watch the feeling pass through me, without fastening the feeling to words, to a reason that reduces nuance. Perhaps it’s reason enough to say we are divided souls, we feel contradictory feelings. We feel alive. We feel the dead living inside of us. Robert Walser’s work is speaking to me, through me. I paint my lips with my yellow Walser walking stick. Here I offer the heartiest thank you to our translators. Thanks Susan, thanks Lydia, and thanks Christopher, or do you go by Chris? Any translator of Walser’s work encounters Walser’s decorative, chatty prose, rich in sonic tooth and frenetic, yellow imagination. Walser’s tendency was to write long, digressive sentences that expand and expand and never let go, extending an image or hyper-modifying a noun or verb or blooming a thought in order to inhabit (BLOW UP!) the Present Moment, warding off death, dread of death, the physical and psychic pain that signals its likelihood. Is this a zit or a tumor on my neck? Have I told my son today I love him dearly? Before distillation comes elaboration. Before death comes life. Before and after orgasm come loneliness. Yes, I have told my son I love him dearly. Yes, I have fed my pug dog her kibble and scratched behind her ears. Yes, I dreamt myself dead today. Yes, I have spoken to my beloved silver. Yes, the winds blow in from the gorge and shush and shake the bamboo leaves and yes, the words passing through my thoughts whoosh through my body, bake me a little (a lot) and now here they are for you. Are you viewing my word-pictures through your heart goggles? Walser’s description of his own writing style emphasizes expansion and association—two essential streams (among many) of the essay voice:
Certain conditions, circumstances, orbits are just there, never to appear again perhaps, or again only when least anticipated. Aren't anticipations and suppositions unholy, pert, and insensitive? The poet must ramble, must audaciously lose himself, must always risk everything, everything, must hope, should do so, should only hope. —I remember that I began to write the book trifling hopelessly with words, with all sorts of thoughtless sketching and scribbling. —I never hoped to be able to compose something that was serious, beautiful, and good. A sounder train of thought, and, along with it, the courage to create, emerged only slowly, but thus all the more rich in secrets, out of the gulfs of self-forgetting and of reckless disbelief. —It was like sunrise. Evening and morning, past and future time and the exciting present lay as if at my feet, a terrain right there in front of me came to life and I thought that in my hands I could hold human activity, all human human life, seeing it as vividly as I did. One image succeeded another and ideas played with each other like happy, graceful, well-behaved children. I clung delighted to the frolicking main idea, and as long as I went on busily writing, everything connected. (7-8)
Bernofsky’s and Davis’s and Middleton’s translations handle sound, imagination, and language with precision, variety, aplomb. There are ten different ways to make a thing. Words, sounds of words, dreams, ideas, stories—these various streams flow smoothly, thickly through Walser’s idiosyncratic, multiple voice pouring forth like a brimming cataract in spring after a heavily wetting winter. The prose in English expresses the clarity of spoken, voice-driven language, e.g., “One day I experienced a small, charming adventure with my landlady, wife of the cantonal notary, on account of a picture hanging on the wall of my room. This room was snugness, coziness and hominess itself” (41). Walser’s voice—in thought, in consideration—whispers and screams to itself and to others, interrupts and digresses, loops and double-dips (“snugness, coziness”)—always in what sounds to the my ears like engaged, curious conversation. His prose offers the feel of a good, affable, intense chat. The chats Europeans have—no time for small talk, let’s get to the matter at hand, to feeling, to ideas that cut right to the core of our existence, of our hearts. Death. Sex. Relation. Feeling.


The translations here also express Walser’s discordant atmosphere arising from intricate, expansive layering—two or three (or more) narrative threads plus digressions of dream and inquiry, connected or disconnected, still braiding, a diction hitting at high, middle, and low alike, rich sonic attributes, and endlessly varied syntax. One can find the heartbeat of Walser’s work at the level of the sentence. A single Walser sentence is multiple, cacophonous, spiraling and swelling—all amplified through the unfolding syntax, which I’d describe as dilated and compact. The prose purposely piles upon noun and verbs multiple, distinctly analogous and oppositional modifiers, always corresponding and adding surplus meaning. Walser’s syntax disorganizes grammatical units, inverts phrasing, fragments, interrupts itself, meanders, doubles, thrices, equivocates, circles around to what seems like the place it began but on closer examination we’re someplace else. Its winding, variegated flow is guided by the breath of a multivalent voice thinking speaking aloud to itself. Grandma never ends, Grandma extends beyond Grandma. The critic Walter Benjamin described Walser’s sentences as garlands. Walser’s sentences are little long curvy walks, and the translations here create comparable walks in English. Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Dream (I),” in which the narrator dreams into his brother Karl’s picture. The fantastic picture shows a ghoulishly tall woman walking alongside a small hovering boy, and Walser imagines himself that boy.
An enormous woman led me by the hand. Every woman is large when tender sentiments fill her, and the man who enjoys her love is always small. Love increases my stature; and being loved and desired makes me small. So now, dear, gracious reader, I was so diminutive and small that I could comfortably have slipped into the soft muff of my tall, dear, sweet woman. That hand that held me floated, dancing, was covered with a black glove that reached high up to above the elbow. We were crossing an elegantly curved and vaulted bridge, and the red-hued, poetically fantastical train of my noble lady twined in its full length across the entire bridge, beneath which dark, warm, fragrant water lazily flowed, bearing upon it golden leaves. Was it autumn? Or was it spring that bore not green leaves but gold ones? (53-54)
Evidently some literary magazines do not enjoy my proclivity to pull out long passages. I won’t name names. (Chicago Review.) I do believe the most perfect book review—and this is not a book review but a no-essay in the form of a lecture to nobody—would be re-publishing the book in its entirety with the headline, See for yourself.

Let’s turn our attention to this wondrous passage above.

But first I shall interrupt myself to say this:

Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton are Gifted Artists—and literary translation is an Art.

Now let’s hold hands and notice, together, Ms. Bernofsky’s clarity of sound alongside the precision of her diction choices. Any translator of Walser needs to find a(n) (im)balance between the prose’s tempestuous sound world and its ruffled sense-making apparatus, i.e., sometimes Walser makes sense by not making sense. As we reread this next sentence, listen for the generous accretion—like a welcome spill, oops!—of D’s, P’s, L’s, and R’s. “On my head, I wore a dainty dunce’s cap. My lips were red as roses, my hair a golden yellow that curled about my narrow temples in graceful ringlets. I had no body, or had one only barely.” The L-R sounds (“….hair a golden…,” “…narrow temples…,” “…graceful ringlets”), that mix of motor and tingle, heighten the narrator’s longing for the picture’s (and his dream’s) maternal figure. I’m someplace else, right now, in my thoughts of you, of Robbi Walser who speaks through the English of Ms. Bernofsky,“What we have we soon have no longer, and what we possess is easily lost. All we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we’ve never been. I was less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.” Consider the repetition of the word “longing,” how its grammatical positions within each clause it inhabits varies like a butterfly flitting around a single Fountain Butterfly bush. That word “longing” moves around like longing itself, here one moment, there the next moment, stretching then compressing. Longing is long. Then long gone. In long—all three translators here make an English prose that illumines all of Walser’s brimming layers, e.g., descriptions of the picture, dreams into the picture’s figures, essays and dreams around the pictures, digressions long and short into whatever passes through his viewing thoughts. The English prose dictates comparably what Walser at one time dictated in German. The English prose unfurls Walser’s great mix of compression and expansion, e.g., “That hand that held me floated, dancing, was covered with a black glove that reached high up to above the elbow.” Walser used a lot of words to chase around an indefinite amount meaning, yet the shorter forms of which he made use (sketch, essay-let, short-short story, dream) nudged him towards distillation too, which, along with his softly furry sound textures and imaginative stances, brought to life a kind of bursting concision to the work, and all of this is present in Bernofsky’s, Davis’s, and Middleton’s translations.

This is a lecture on a lecture on an essay I never wrote about a book Walser himself didn’t even write. Dear literary reviewers: I have a recommendation for you all. I recommend you directly engage within the review the writers whose work you’re critiquing. That word “critiquing” should be in quotations because for the most part reviewers are either selling books or spraying all over them with their ego-urine. I get irked by the sense the reviewer is talking to everybody but the writer of the work. Come on, people. Let’s be a little more direct, let’s encounter the connectedness of everything, the smallness of things. “What else does the infinite consist of than the incalculability of little dots?” asks Walser. We can impact others we don’t even know, will never see or touch or know. This writing made public is my private response to a thing made by a person who, if she is alive, might happen to read Sunday’s book review section. Dear Susan Bernofsky, I am speaking to you about what you have made. Dear Robert Walser, I’m always speaking to you. Dear Ander and Craig, There’s not a word count you’re looking for, right? People, at the least, let’s stop skewering each other. That just bores me to death. Why spend so much space-time tearing down a piece of art? A human being took the time to try to make something beautiful and complex, to try to help us feel less alone in the world, and here you are, Jennifer B. McDonald, pulverizing the author. Where are your manners? The novelist Thomas Mann panned one of Walser’s early novels, and Walser clearly couldn’t forget Mann’s words: “Even Thomas Mann, you know, that giant in the domain of the novel, regards me as a child, though a quite clever one to be sure.” One core aspect of Walser’s way of being in the world, that he spilled so generously into his work, that set Walser apart from his predecessors, peers, and future followers, is this sense of pure wonder like a child looking closely at something so ordinary, fleeting too, for the very first time. Walser’s capacity for wonder inadvertently reteaches us his readers how to pay close attention to the most simple gesture, to seek out within the real the dream, and to dream into the real. I consider myself a Critical Enthusiast thus I do not cloak little snipes in “critical response.” If I did I would be more interested in considering how my perceptions of a work’s flaws make the thing even more fucking beautiful. Can I say that word, Ander and Craig? Can I say “fucking”? And while I am at it—dear literary agents, Why so much focus on what can be sold based on what has been sold previously? Why more marketing and less engagement with language? Inside the word “market” is the word “mark” and inside the word language is the word gauge and the word egg. (Clarice Lispector, translation by Katrina Dodson: “The egg is a suspended thing. It has never landed. When it lands, it is not what has landed. It was a thing under the egg.”). Dear literary agents, I’m sorry, maybe I’m mistaken but were you not English majors? Why not pay attention to what brings you the lightest and darkest joys, what makes you feel less and more alone? Why can’t we all wear pink mechanic’s coveralls?


Why can’t we all play for the same team, people? I thought that’s why we began writing in the first place—to let go of separate teams of divided selves, to have only one big team of divided selves in support of the things we are making together and separately? Let’s make the thing. Let’s build small and big things, mysterious things. Let’s sharpen our pencils to the finest of points. Let’s put our pink-tinted goggles on, better to see the pink words passing through our pink minds. Robert Walser’s child-man narrator Franz Kocher concurs (fine translation here brought to us by Mr. Damion Searls): “Writing class may be the most lovely, attractive time for just this reason. No other class time goes by so noiselessly, so worshipfully, and with everyone working so quietly on their own. It is as though you could hear Thought itself softly whispering, softly stirring. It’s like the scurrying of little white mice” (17). Your cookie monster puppet. Your orange and blue moon boots. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Judy Blume’s Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing. The ice slicking the streets of your town. Your snow pants. Your yellow coin purse. Your Jolly Green Giant Vegetable Factory. Your Mishawaka Public Library Card. Your laminated book mark. Those were your childhood friends. They kept you company. They soothed you. The window was painted shut but you still looked through it, beyond it, where the world was but the world was inside you, so I asked Ms. Bernofsky about the joys and difficulties translating Walser. I report back to thee what she said:
Here's a joy in translating Walser: His sentences are so complicated and rabbit-hole-y that there's always a feeling of bliss when you've been wrestling with a sentence for some minutes, hours, or days, and then all at once the muddle resolves into a sort of clarity, or an unclear-ness that seems in line with the mysterious truths Walser's always sending our way.
A difficulty: Translating the structurally bureaucratic in such a way that the Walserian suppleness doesn't go out of it. Woodenness is fatal, and that's the constant danger with prose of this complexity - that the entire construction will turn to wood or stone under your fingers instead of offering up the living breathing flesh of a bold Helvetic insight.
The act of translation is an act of looking closely at a piece of writing in one language and creating its likeness in a different language. In a sense when I read Looking at Pictures, I’m a viewer looking at Bernofsky looking at Walser’s looking at pictures, who’s mostly looking at himself looking at pictures. One makes images on a page, on film, on screen, on a canvas, in space, in space-time. Another person, let’s call her viewer, views said image. This second person, viewer, also makes the image, fashions her own sense of the picture, brings to the picture her own body, her own idiosyncratic attention shaped by her way of being in the world. This epitomizes a human’s relationship to the world external. Look at this passage lovingly translated by Lydia Davis:
…he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. The shepherd is wearing a dark blue jacket, and around this contented loafer graze the lambs and sheep, while overhead in the summer morning air, swallows fly across the cloudless sky. Looming up from the opulent, rounded tops of the leafy trees, one can glimpse the wispy tips of a few firs. (51-52)
The picture, painted by Walser’s brother Karl, with its green meadow and blue-coated shepherd and grazing lambs and wispy fir-tree tips, exists as a separate entity from Walser, the picture acts independently from Walser’s body. It is and isn’t connected to it—it’s of him, inside him. Walser pays close attention to picture’s motion (the lambs’ grazing and flying swallows), attaches himself to creatures nourishing their lives, our lives too. It’s as Walser were making his own image here. He is and he isn’t. What he senses moving about in the world external, separate from him, exists inside him. What he sees other people seeing exists separate from him, inside him, and his meditations call attention to and stitch together those two realms. In stories about painters, meditations on pictures, and dreams inside and around them, what we might now refer to as Ekphrasis, Walser crowds around elements of a picture that fascinate him, that hint at the painter’s preoccupations but mostly reveal Walser’s preoccupations, Walser’s consciousness in the moment of viewing. Viewing as consciousness. One sees what one can see of the thing, one sees in only the singular way one sees. One sees oneself encountering the world and the world, in turn, looks upon the viewer. Double visibility, connectivity to self, to Other. Gertrude and Alice B. The action of viewing pictures, viewing something Other, becomes an act of revelation, of self, of Other, of the many Others inside the self. Who’s voice am I hearing? That stranger speaking cannot be me. O I love you strange soft open mouth. The critical and the imaginative braid together. Viewer and painter braid together. Two distinct dreams braid together. John and Yoko. Woodenness is fatal. George and Mary. The prose describes his mind’s eye looking at the painting, what the painting conjures up for him, what thoughts ping through his air-balloon consciousness in floaty flight. We look at Walser figuring something out on the page without even attempting to. In “Catastrophe” Walser views a picture of a ship at sea on fire. The picture is not shown nor does Walser mention the artist’s name. What’s foregrounded is Walser’s looking:
How terrifying a ship on fire is. Gazing at this picture, I said to myself: The mariners find themselves faced with the necessity of fleeing the fire; but they have nowhere to escape to but the water, and soon enough they’ll be trying to escape from that as well; yet they have no choice but to take refuge in it. Beautifully spread out, the water lies there like a meadow; not the tiniest wave disturbs this mirror that conceals unfathomable depths. The mirror’s expansiveness poses a threat to the ones in peril, those desirous of rescue. Beneath the water, unknown mountain chains extend. This fact is surely known to the better educated among the mariners, and this precise knowledge makes them feel significantly more forsaken than those who enjoy perfect ignorance in this regard. Education, though reliable and helpful, is also treacherous. (76)
A picture for Walser does not describe a static moment. His accordion activision takes in the story within the instance the picture portrays then dreams around the instance—that is, before and after, or even alternative possibilities, those unplotted points our mathematicians call extrapolation. In the passage above, Walser even peers into the Other world, the Invisible world, the Impossible world. I mean, there are many visible worlds, each headspace is a visible world, but there is only one Invisible world. There is only one instance of death. We live through so many deaths. The water is “spread out like a meadow,” and what lies beneath the water, what he cannot see is that unknown chain of mountains, there for some and not there for others, and not actually there at all. Walser endows every object and creature he senses with volatile, flexible, multiple, visible and invisible, pink-glowing spirit. Every sentences trembles in bodily contradiction. Here is a passage from my favorite piece in Looking at Pictures, entitled, “Thoughts on Cézanne,” one of the pieces Mr. Middleton translated, first appearing in the most amazing prose collection, Selected Stories, published by FSG then NYRB.
He magicked flowers onto paper, so that upon it they quivered, rejoiced, and smiled, swaying in their plantlike ways; his concern was the flesh of flowers, the spirit of the secret which dwells in the resistance a thing with special properties offers to understanding. (141)
Is it tacky to lift a passage from an entire essay I wrote then published elsewhere about this very sentence? Have I become one of these people who quotes himself? I have. Here is what I said in an essay that appears on the Tin House blog. (Dear Ander and Craig—No need to hyperlink unless you think it prudent to do so. What does the word prudent even mean? Who am I when I use the word prudent? Sincerely, Jay.) (Dear Ander and Craig—Perhaps we might view self-quoting as a kind of looping deepening uncertainty, an expression of humility. To essay is to unknow. To unknow is to renew mystery, to restore that Walserian child’s sense wonder, of play. When I look through my pink-tinted goggles at my hand, I see someone else’s hand, and when something opens before me, it makes room inside for me. Frenchie Joseph Joubert, translation Paul Auster, says it this way: “I know too well what I am going to say. I know it too well before writing.” Kindest of regards, Jay.) I’m drawn to the dazzling action verb “magicked,” which means, in its intransitive form, “to produce, remove, or influence through the use of magic.” Walser’s / Middleton’s choice here seems fresh in the way it shifts away from its ordinary usage as adjective to its stranger, more ethereal usage as action verb. Magicked. It immediately draws my attention to the sentence as beautifully essential artifice without at all removing me from the sentence’s surface. In fact the verb “magicked” pushes me deeper into the sentence’s mysterious, seemingly impossible action of making something out of nothing, of putting flowers ONTO paper, and in the next part of that sentence (its second base clause), those flowers begin to take on sentient life. The flowers “quiver,” “rejoice,” “smile,” and “sway.” Walser here describes not Cézanne painting flowers but the impression Cézanne’s painted flowers leave on Walser, the way Walser sees the flowers on actual paper and on the paper of his mind. Thinking is not restful. Not only do the flowers quiver and sway—as flowers are wont to do—they “smile” and “rejoice.” The flowers express and celebrate their feelings of joy. The flowers are not really flowers nor are they merely a representation of flowers on paper or canvas (which comes from a once living thing we call Tree)—they are sentient, human, capable of feeling and expression, and Walser expresses their expression, Walser also shows you his process of expression, how his mind moves. From object to subject. From insentience to sentience. From flesh to spirit. These movements uncover the Other within the self and the Other out in the world separate from the self.

Which brings me to where I started: we, the Essay Team, are willing to house Mr. Robert Walser and his stunning prose works. I’m not saying Walser is solely an essayist (I’d like to) but I will say that Essay Team members will care for his works, will read his works, will buy up all copies of new translations by Ms. Bernofsky and others. Why is this? What is Walser doing that is of great import to the Essay Team? Walser weaved prose works from the fabric of his inquiring thoughts and dreams, from his multiple contradictory selves. Walser’s work foregrounded not simply the contents of his mind but its oval motion. That’s what the poem does, what the essay does too—and don’t ask me to discern between the poem and the essay because I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not going to hold your hand here although if you ask me to I’ll hold your heart, dear reader, dear listener, dear nobody in particular. In “Watteau” Walser considers Jean-Antoine Watteau, an 18th century French painter. What begins in biographical reportage soon gives way to Walser’s disheveled inquiry and self-revelation. He uses the painter, the painter’s picture, as a launching point into the experience of meditation in which he shoots his thoughts through his dream-face, his singsong voice:
At an early age, no doubt, he would have to bid farewell to breathing and walking, thinking and eating, sleeping and all other activity, he relatively soon found himself compelled to feel, and, making the acquaintance of both garrets and gleaming ballrooms, as well as persons of all possible shadings, he quietly retreated into a realm all his own, finding a joy verging on perfection in reclusiveness. One who is please to be alive and feels gratitude on this account lives all the more amicably and peacefully, feeling no need to feverishly, hastily attend to matters that are better dealt with the more calmly and lightheartedly one goes about them. I happened to read his biography, which offered me little by way of clues. As I attempt now to sketch his portrait, he seems to me like a wish, a longing, and so the ethereal delicacy of my study surprises me not in the least. (123-24)
The first sentence seems (deceptively so) biographical but it’s not, it’s biographical dream (Nabokov’s book, Nikolai Gogol, comes to mind), infused with Walser’s own experience of being an artist. Memory as dream. And what a dream. That one departs from the world external to engage one’s emotional life (“…he relatively soon found himself compelled to feel…”). Walser crowds around Watteau’s reclusiveness to get at his own. Then this lovely shift to meditation; Watteau drops away, and the indefinite pronoun “One” materializes. Humble, timid Walser. Suddenly too shy to assert himself even as he reveals cogently his own process of making. As if he were trying to figure something out inside of a dream. The dream self in essay. “As I attempt now to sketch his portrait, he seems to me like a wish, a longing, and so the ethereal delicacy of my study surprises me not in the least.” That phrase “ethereal delicacy” signals where we have moved. To a mind’s dream, to something fragile, bendy too, visible and invisible, here and gone. The movement for Walser is always towards the invisible, and this, my dear friends, is why the Essay Team will care for Mr. Walser’s works. We move curiously from what we think we can explain but can’t to what we know we can’t explain, to what must remain mysterious, beyond, within reach but untouchable, touchable only through spiritual action. We know by not knowing. The essayist moves to the nether regions—O Iceland. O gutter. O autumn chill. O snowfall. The essay stands at the fence looking into the ether of Other partly lit, partly unlit, matter scattering anti-matter, language pivoting on contradiction. Should I preach to her or perch near her? The writer drives the essay through vertical, indefinite inquiry. Where the writer’s mind happens is where the essay happens. The essay demands its writer to not only be present in the moment of composition but to be present with one’s body, one’s fingertips and toes, collarbone, shoulder, back of neck, hips, penis, vagina, penis-vagina, vagina-penis, knees, armpits, earlobes, palm, lips, eyelids, one’s innermost self, the spleen’s soul and the soul of the spleen, the strange self, the receiving self, the self at play, in the dark, the breath in self. The self listens to itself, responds, equivocates, scrutinizes, draws connections, defines and redefines, embraces uncertainty and disorganizing thought, the act of unknowing ourselves, Others. This innermost self-elf remains curious, receptive, is in touch with the full spread of interior modes, e.g., sensorium, memory, thought, dream, music. Robert Walser stood in line at the tavern and didn’t know where to point his eyes and he became increasingly unsettled and he decided to close his eyes and he stopped moving in line and people simply walked around him, this man standing still with his eyes closed. Here I’m looking at a picture, making one, really, of Robert Walser, or no, I’m looking at a picture of me looking at Robert Walser, or am I looking at a picture of me looking at Robert Walser looking at pictures some of which aren’t even pictures? The sugar is not even sugar? O dear men of earth, I love you and I write to you with love. I’m not afraid to say, I love all of you men, even the most violent of you. People, we can’t feel empathy for others if we don’t look into their open faces and hold their gazes, sit or stand across from them and steady their eyes inside ours till mysterious, vulnerable creatures with whom we share in common everything and nothing emerge like the moon and the sun, like your mother’s voice emerges inside yours, I mean, they’ve been there all along, just not visible to the eye or discernible to the ear. It will take me the rest of my life to figure out why I love Robert Walser’s work so much, how and why it resonates within me, why his voice pours through mine. I used to feel very connected to aspects of Walser’s biography—his loneliness, struggle with mental health, his work’s disregard by his fellow writers, his poverty, his walking, his love for the natural world (surely Walser was a naturalist as much as Thoreau)—and how that story did and did not (conceal / reveal) manifest in the prose itself: those lonely characters, the deeply hewn interiority that never plays second fiddle to plot or the dramatic moment or more aptly said, the dramatic moment is, for Walser, the interior moment. Thought. Thought materializing through voice. Walser’s self-reflexivity, self-consciousness. Silliness. Acute, ample sensory receptors. The body of his work taken together is one big beautiful digression, a zigzagging walk through the motion of his consciousness. If I had to pair Walser with a musician, I would pick the music of Lisa Germano. Circular, deeply spiritual, revelatory, country and city, purposely imbalanced. O Miss Germano’s hum is something I want to curl up with, hold and be held by but that is an essay for una otra vez. As I get deeper in re-readings of Walser’s prose, as his voice thickens within my own, what resonates more is the loneliness he must have endured for so many years. Anybody who walks around feeling five feet inside of themselves, anybody who must peel through multiple layers of crowding, curling thoughts to reach the word external, to touch others, to be touched by others, must experience intense feelings of loneliness, separateness. Many writers (many non-writers too) experience this sort of depression (to be pushed inside) but do not try to record or recreate it on the page. The work they do pushes away from that in-dwelling, for that’s what they need to walk out into the world, to walk about it. Walser wrote from and about these subterranean spaces, below the sea floor, exploring deep caverns of self, of the psyche, beyond autobiography. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life works similarly, Mary Ruefle’s verse and prose too. Their works are of the self without being confessional—and I doth not use the word “confessional’ pejoratively; I have much compassion for confessional prose and verse—how the work reveals a multiplicity of selves, how the work often acknowledges itself as something being made. Walser shows the seams of the work and even those seams signal movement and what movement tells us is we are alive on this earth, how lucky we are to move about, to make things move, to make dreams of moving. How lucky we are to magick flowers onto paper.


Books from which I quote:

Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser. Translations by Susan Bernofsky, Christopher Middleton, and Lydia Davis. New Directions.

A Place in the Country by WG Sebald. Translation by Jo Catling. Random House.

Selected Stories by Robert Walser. Translation by Christopher Middleton. New York Review Books Classics.

A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser. Translation by Damion Searls. New York Review Books Classics.

Interview with Susan Bernofsky done over email.


Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University. His memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books and received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again,​ was published by Future Tense Books. His essay “L​isten to this" ​w​as mentioned as a Notable Essay in B​est American Essays 2010.​ He has published prose in Ghost Proposal, Clackamas Literary Review, Silk Road Review, Del Sol Review, Seattle Review, Salamander, Cimarron Review, Puerto Del Sol, and Forklift, Ohio, among others. 

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