“The Secretary” — Robert Walser

Books, Literature, Writers

“The Secretary” by Robert Walser

I had the audacity to write a book that caused quite a stir. As a consequence I was permitted to interact in a casual manner with people of substance. The doors of serious, elegant households were flung wide open to admit me, which was most certainly to my advantage. All I had to do was stroll right in and take care to behave in an agreeable manner as consistently as possible. Once I set foot in a gathering of at least forty full-blooded celebrities. Just imagine how glorious that was!

The commercial head of an association for practitioners of the fine arts one day invited me, after appropriate deliberation, to become his secretary. “I hope,” he said, “that you will prove just as capable of selling pictures as you are of publishing books!”  The offer was too kind to be dismissed out of hand. Accepting this proposal, I resolved that from this moment on I would consider myself fairly remarkable. I felt obliged to remind myself that a person who, upon receiving support, neither feels gratified nor shows his pleasure and gives voice to his satisfaction insults the world at large.

Its plain to see: a keen mind, superior intelligence, a high or the highest level of education and culture should, if this is somehow conceivable, be expected of all secretaries. Even their external appearance must, it goes without saying, be proper and distinguished. One assumes them to be pliant and at the same time clever, suave, gallant and at the same time in every way resolved to achieve commercial success. Elegant manners and glossy social savoir faire number decisively among their inborn qualities.

I don’t know whether I did in fact display all the above-mentioned traits, but I do know that half the city came traipsing through my office. Persons of all dispositions, of every rank and station came barging more or less vigorously into the ministry, I mean headquarters: the cream of society, elegant agents, poor journeymen, sly Gypsies, unruly poets, alarmingly refined ladies, dour princes, strikingly handsome young officers, authors, actresses, sculptors, diplomats, politicians, critics, journalists, theater directors, virtuosos, celebrated scholars, publishers, and wizards in the field of finance. In and out went some who had long since arrived at the top, some who were still groping about the bottom, and others hoping to ascend–both radiantly luminous and somber, gloomy individuals. As in an odd masquerade there entered: young and old, poor and wealthy, healthy and frail, lofty and lowly, merry and morose, happy and unhappy, saucy and shy, cheerful and sad, attractive and hideous, polite and impolite, glorious and shabby, respected and despondent, the proud and the imploring, the famous and the unknown, along with faces, gestures, and figures of all genres.

Art exhibitions are known to have as their goal the advantageous display of works of art and the attracting of buyers. The secretary plays the role of intermediary or go-between, facilitating communication between artists and their extensive, art-infatuated public. It is his task to ensure that a goodly number of bargains are definitively struck, that pictures are industriously sent out the door to buyers. Persons expressing interest in these works might appear on the scene only to swiftly vanish from sight again, unfortunately for good. The secretary must be attentive, as the most unimposing man can unexpectedly prove to be a connoisseur and buyer.

For a time I imagined myself to be exceedingly skillful at the art trade. Unquestionably I was splendidly suited to taking leisurely hackney-cab rides upon pleasantly lively, bright, glittering streets and to spending half and whole hours merrily chatting with jolly artists’ wives. Spirited evenings at the club regularly showed me in top form. I was a master at passing about platters heaped with delicacies, and was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to and encourager of female painters. In such and similar respects, I acquitted myself gloriously. After the fact, however, I reached the conclusion that I cannot have been a particularly valuable, clever, prudent, and successful secretary for paintings. Specialists in the field were on several occasions seen to shrug their shoulders at the extent of my accomplishments. The head of the firm seemed to find it appealing to speak with his functionary above all on the subject of poetry and the like.

A stately successor soon reduced me to a predecessor and provided me with an occasion to lay down my post, resign my position, delicately make way, and charmingly busy myself elsewhere. Thinking poorly of me or feeling resentful because he had made so bold as to presume talents in me that I did not in fact possess was something that would never have occurred to my benefactor. To demonstrate that he was still of a mind to remain well-disposed toward me, he invited me, with a turn of phrase both courteous and jovial, to join him for supper.

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