“Remembering The Tales of Hoffmann”
by Robert Walser
I was living in the tranquility of rural, provincial isolation, in the flat countryside where fields and forests lie about motionless and mute, the plains and plots of land appear endless, broad wide regions often prove to be only narrow strips, and vast estates slumber peacefully one beside the other.
Brown, yellow, red autumnal foliage, fog that mysteriously wrapped the wintry earth in veils; large, wet, fat snowflakes tumbling down into a morning-dark courtyard, a white park covered in snow, a winter village with village lads and village women and geese in the village street—all this I had seen.
I’d seen a poor, sick, unhappy day laborer forgotten by all the world, lying in her squalid bed of sufferings; I heard her sighs.
Forests, hills, plains silent and wordless in the dull hush of the gleaming winter sun. Here and there a solitary person, an insignificant little word, an isolated sound.
One day I left all this remoteness and all this silence behind and set off for the seductive gleam of the capital, where soon thereafter I saw The Tales of Hoffmann at the Komische Oper.
I felt like an astonished hayseed amid all that gleaming intoxication, the graceful, sense-beguiling tumultuousness and the blindingly elegant society gathered there.
But when the interior of the grand edifice became as silent as a tiny chamber filled with reveries and fancies of the soul, as the might and art of sound opened their divine mouths and began to sing, ring out, and resound, beginning with the overture that wheedled its way into all our souls with its bright and dark, gay and earnest melodies, only to entwine them—now constricting, now liberating from constriction—with heavenly bliss, and then soft warm song burst from the lips of the singers and songstresses, images brimming with delicate, noble, magical colors and magical figures lightly and gaily emerged to delight the eye and taste, music and painting most beautifully took possession of every heart, eye, and ear, and everything became suddenly quiet as a mouse, only to resound once more as if it wished never to stop so beautifully resounding and conquering its listeners with its desired, delightful force: pain and sounds of joy mirroring the adventure of existence, exemplifying the meaning of life, and soaring up and down the scales like angelic figures ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder!
Oh, everything was so regally beautiful and luxurious all about our tear-filled, feverish eyes and in our hearts. All of life could now cease outright or else begin utterly anew.
What a presence to partake of! Thousands of hours flowed together to form this one single hour. Yes, what a beautiful, good, meaningful evening this was.
Landmarks, newish from Two Lines Press, collects poetry and prose in English translation. The collection features over a dozen languages and includes a special selection on the Arab Spring. I snacked on this book over the past few weeks, reading it at random whenever a nook of free time presented itself. There are still a few selections I haven’t gotten to yet, but most of what’s collected here is superb, thanks to editors Susan Bernofsky (who you probably know from her Robert Walser translations) and Christopher Merrill.
Two Lines’ blurb:
The premiere anthology of international literature returns for its 20th anniversary with stellar new prose and poetry, headlined by a collection of writing dedicated to the Arab Spring.
Coedited by leading German translator Susan Bernofsky and celebrated poet and translator Christopher Merrill, Landmarks gives us never-before-seen work from over 20 nations. Lauded Argentine author Juan Jose Saer, widely considered the heir to Jorge Luis Borges, transforms a photo of Earth from space into a tense, alcohol-fueled meditation on emptiness. Scholastique Mukasonga’s heartbreaking story ponders how so many of her fellow Rwandans could participate in a bloody genocide. And the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms is found among the volume’s many poets, alongside Yehuda Amichai—widely considered Israel’s greatest modern bard—and the up-and-coming Brazilian Ana Martins Marques.
In a special section of vital new work from the Middle East, ten writers provide an artist’s insight into the momentous events of the 2010 Arab Spring. Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan reveals haunting, everyday images from his nation. Ali Al Jallawi, twice imprisoned for critiquing of Bahrain’s political regime, ponders his relationship to God. And in Egyptian writer Mona Elnamoury’s surrealist story, images of torture and terror give way to a spectacular dream beneath the folds of an otherworldly quilt.
A truly a global education, Landmarks continues two proud decades of exploring the riches of world literature and making connections between the abundance of amazing work being produced around the world.
Maybe the best feature of Landmarks is the rich insight it offers into translation. Each selection is prefaced with an introduction that offers context for the writer and the conditions of the writing, as well as the translation process itself. The poems are printed in two languages as well—the original on the left, the translation on the right. (Prose selections only feature the first page of original language printed alongside the translation). Being able to see the form and contours of the poem next to its translation is fascinating. Even if the poem was composed in an alphabet utterly foreign to me, being able to see it in its original form still offers a sense of its rhythm. Great stuff.
Two from Ahmatjan Osman, translated from Uyghur by Jeffrey Yang:
I think this NYRB edition of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is the biggest paperback in the house.
Robert Walser shorty:
“Full” by Robert Walser
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
So many times, as I rode through the streets and hubbub of Berlin in the quaint, lumbering, and yet buoyantly plodding horse-drawn omnibus, which never failed to invigorate and charm me anew, I would hear the aging, good-natured conductor humbly and humorously uttering a single insignificant and yet also at that moment quite significant word, which in addition, by the way, was written for the sake of correctness and order upon a panel that could be either concealed or displayed. When the inscription
was hanging tidily and properly in its place, people knew that for the time being no one else would be allowed to climb and clamber aboard because the gondola or pleasure palace rolling along on its wheels was already packed suffocatingly full, a regrettable circumstance that was announced in no uncertain terms by the warning placard: “Stop! Whosoever they may be, this line they shall not cross!: At times, however, despite the rejecting, dismissive plaque, there would be a crowd pressing forward, expressing the impetuous desire to climb up and be carried off. And then someone, such as the chamberlain on duty, would say in a courteous voice,”Folks, we’re full up,” or he would say,”No shoving, please. It won’t do any good,” or perhaps it would occur to him to say, “With the greatest pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, would I invite you to climb aboard and take your seats, but it is my harsh duty to draw your attention to the fact that the car is already stuffed to the cracks with passengers. I do beg your pardon for having to deny you access and entry.” Sallies and attacks on one side, rebuffs and refusals on the other, the vessel continues to sail calmly and gaily through all the metropolitan traffic, which almost resembles an ocean.
Once again some hasty hothead is about to leap aboard, and once again an imperturbable”Full!” resounds in the daredevil’s ears, whereupon he is obliged to circumspectly remove his foot from the footboard once more. Once when the omnibus was cruising full steam ahead, everything proceeding smoothly and properly, and with no one even remotely plotting an ambush or violent coup, someone slipped aboard; a person who apparently had been accustomed from an early age to go through thick and thin and strike down anyone and anything that got in his way.
“Full up, sir,” the official remarked.
“Stupid, ridiculous nonsense,” replied Monsieur Dreadnought. He was without a doubt the sort of person who thought it advisable to engage in the most ruthless power politics. “I beg your pardon, did you not hear what I said?” the good carman inquired. But now a veritable downpour of invectives was unleashed upon his unfortunate head. This powerful flood of unforeseen unpleasantnesses was so overwhelming that the good man was forced to give in. All the same he complained, saying: “It’s just not right, not right at all, and it’s a good thing not all people are like this gentleman who’s cursing me even though all I did was tell him we were full. It was my duty to tell him so, but certain people insist on trampling and flattening everything once they’ve made up their minds to do something. I don’t go around saying ‘full’ for my own amusement, or because I want to antagonize people, or out of Schadenfreude. Every person has his tasks to perform and his duties to fulfill, and it just happens to be my duty to tell people ‘full’ when the car is full up. It isn’t fair for a person to take offense like that. It’s downright preposterous how quick some people are to fly into a rage. Well then! I’ll stick with the ones who have some sense; thanks and praises be to God, there are still some of them left.”
This is what the conductor said as the omnibus unhurriedly trundled on its way.
“The Battle of Sempach” by Robert Walser
One day, in the middle of high summer, a military expedition was advancing slowly down the dusty country road that led towards a district of Luzern. The bright, actually more than bright, sun dazzled down over swaying armour serving to cover human bodies, over prancing horses, over helmets and parts of faces, over equine heads and tails, over ornaments and plumes and stirrups as big as snowshoes. To the right and to the left of the shining military expedition spread out meadows with thousands of fruit trees in them up as far as hills that, looming up out of the blue-smelling, half-hazy distance, beckoned and had the same effect as light and carefully painted window dressing. It was before noon and the heat was already oppressive. It was a meadowy heat, a heat contained in grass, hay and dust, for thick clouds of dust were being thrown up that sometimes descended like a veil over parts and sections of the army. Sluggishly, ploddingly, carelessly the long cavalcade moved forward. Sometimes it looked like a shimmering and elongated snake, sometimes like a lizard of enormous girth, sometimes like a large piece of cloth, richly embroidered with figures and colourful shapes and ceremoniously trailed as with ladies, elderly and domineering ones as far as I’m concerned, accustomed to dragging trains behind them. In all this military might’s method and way of doing things, in the stamping of feet and the clinking of weapons, in this rough and ready clatter lurked an “as far as I’m concerned” that was uniform, something impudent, full of confidence, something upsetting, slowly pushing to one side. All these knights were conversing, as far as their iron-clad mouths would allow them, in joyful verbal banter with each other. Peals of laughter rang out and this sound was admirably suited to the bright tones emitted by weapons and chains and golden belts. The morning sun still appeared to caress a good deal of brass and finer metal. The sounds of tin whistles flew sunward. Now and again one of the many footmen walking as if on stilts would tender to his mounted lord a delicate titbit, stuck on a silver fork, right up to his swaying saddle. Wine was drunk on the move, poultry consumed and nothing edible spat out, with an easy-going, carefree amiability, for this was no earnest war involving chivalry they were riding to, but more of a punitive expedition, a statutory rape, bloody, scornful, histrionic things. Everybody there thought so and everybody saw already the heap of cut-off heads that would redden the meadow. Among the leaders of the expedition was many a wonderful noble young man splendidly attired, sitting on horseback like a male angel flown down from a blue uncertain heaven. Many a one had taken off his helmet to make things more comfortable for himself and given it to an attendant to carry. By doing so he displayed to the air a peculiarly finely drawn face that was a mixture of innocence and exuberance. They were telling the latest jokes and discussing the most up-to-date stories of courtly women. The serious ones in their company they tolerated as best they could; it seemed today as if a pensive expression was deemed to be improper and unchivalrous. The hair of the young knights who had taken their helmets off, shone and smelt of oil and unguents and sweet-smelling water that they had poured on it as if it had been a matter of riding to visit a coquette to sing her charming love songs. Their hands, from which the iron gauntlets had been taken off, did not look like those of warriors, but manicured and pampered, slender and white like the hands of young girls. Read More
“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.
William H. Gass on Robert Walser. From Gass’s introduction to Masquerade and Other Stories; also collected in Gass’s Finding a Form.
“Cowshed,” a short story by Robert Walser—
I went to see Bonn. I beheld him in his famous checked Sherlock Holmes suit. The sight of his tawny leather spats devastated me. But it is far from my intention to make so bold as to speak of Bonn, whom I also learned to admire as Edmund Kean in the play by Dumas. Today, with the kind reader’s permission, I wish to speak of the Cowshed, an artistic singsong and jinglejangle establishment that lies in the northern reaches of our beloved city, Berlin. At the Cowshed, among other things, I met and learned to revere beyond all measure a Swiss girl who figured as a waitress there. There are figures galore at the Cowshed. I myself am a not unpopular, at times even celebrated regular. When I set foot on the premises, which are redolent of an aging, half-dead elegance, the publican gets up from his seat where he is keeping watch and greets me with great amicability by making a thoroughly courteous, suave bow, the significance of which is that I should buy a round of cognac. Oh, the conduct I display here at the Cowshed. It resembles the conduct of a Prince Dolgoroucki, a Count Osten-Sacken, a Prince Poniatowski. I always treat the artistes assembled upon the small triangular stage, which is stuck in a corner as if lost in indeterminacy and incertitude, to a boot. The significance of the term boot in localities such as the Cowshed is no doubt unfamiliar to most ladies and gentlemen of a literary bent. A boot of this sort is quite simply a tankard of beer shaped like a lady’s boot, made of glass and holding nearly two liters. The music made at the Cowshed is often ear-rending; nonetheless I do adore it and dream of divinely beautiful things whenever it creeps into my ear to ensnare me with melodies. Invariably I have some refreshment placed upon the fortepiano of the bushy-haired, gasconading lout of a band leader. This amenity, which he loses no time in appreciating and, as for the rest, most artfully guzzling, ah pardon, I mean drinking, consists in nothing other than various glasses of beer. Yes, I do have to say that quite a lot of money exits my pockets at the Cowshed. Excellent interest accrues on the capital thus invested, and this interest takes the form of merriments that give me no end of pleasure. For the most part I am a most cleverly respectable fellow, but at times, at times when the mood happens to strike.