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The Fiction Issue 2009

“3 Stories”

Robert Walser was underappreciated in his time and is still sort of a loosely kept secret today, passed around by writers and literature nerds like a test of how good one’s taste really is.

Robert Walser (Swiss, 1878–1956) embodies, for us, one of the highest points of modernist prose. Hermann Hesse said of Walser that “if he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” and we agree with old Hesse there. Walser was underappreciated in his time and is still sort of a loosely kept secret today, passed around by writers and literature nerds like a test of how good one’s taste really is. The most often reported part of the Walser mythos is that he suffered from mental illness, so let’s just tell you about it here. In 1929, at the age of 51, Walser, who had been hearing and seeing things that weren’t really there, entered an asylum. He would remain committed for the rest of his life, but he continued to produce what was long thought to be insane scribbling until two heroically thorough scholars, Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte, finished deciphering the incredibly small handwriting in the 1990s and published six books’ worth of Walser’s late stories and a novel. Only when Walser was moved, against his will, to another asylum in 1933 did he give up writing; as he famously told a visiting friend, he was there to be crazy, not to write. But all of that is secondary to his brilliant work. We know that people like their writers to be nuts and everything because it’s somehow romantic. Go ahead and feel that way if you want, but also please read Walser’s Selected Stories, his autobiographical first novel, The Tanners, and what we think is his best novel, Jakob von Gunten. The following three stories are from Walser’s 1916 collection Prosastücke (Prose Pieces). This is their first time in English. THE ITALIAN NOVELLA I have strong cause to doubt if readers will like a story like this about two people, two little people, namely a charming nice young woman and an honest good and in his own way at least just as nice young man who enjoyed the most lovely and heartfelt relations of friendship with each other. The tender and passionate love they felt, each for the other, was like the summer sun in terms of heat and like December snow in terms of purity and chastity. Their kind mutual intimacy seemed unshakeable, and their fiery, innocent inclination toward each other grew from day to day like a wonderful plant rich in color and as rich in perfume. Nothing seemed able to disturb this very sweetest of conditions and very most beautiful trust, and everything would have been nice and perfect if only the honest good dear and young man were not deeply familiar with the Italian novella. His precise knowledge of the beauty, splendor, and magnificence of the Italian novella turned him, however, as the perceptive reader will soon see, into a real numbskull, temporarily robbed him of half his healthy common sense, and caused, forced, and necessitated him one day, morning, or evening, at eight, two, or seven o’clock, to say to his beloved in a dull voice: “Hey, listen, I have something to tell you, something that has oppressed, plagued, and tormented me for the longest time, something that will make perhaps both of us unhappy. I cannot keep it from you—I must, I must tell you. Gather up all your courage and fortitude. It may happen that these dreadful and frightful tidings will kill you. Oh, I want to give myself a thousand resounding slaps on the face and tear out my hair.” The poor girl fearfully cried out: “You’ve never been like this before. What is torturing you and racking you with pain? What is this dreadfulness that you have kept secret from me until now and now have to confide in me? Out with your words on the spot, so that I may know what there is to fear and what there is still, somehow, to hope. I do not lack the courage to endure what is most difficult and bear what is most extreme.” – She who spoke these words trembled throughout her whole body, of course, with fear, and her unease spread a deathly pallor over all the charms of her face, otherwise so fresh and pretty. “Listen and learn,” the young man said, “that I am alas only too thoroughly expert in the Italian novella, and that precisely this knowledge is our undoing.” – “What do you mean, for God’s sake?” asked the pitiful young woman, “how is it possible that education and knowledge could make us miserable and destroy our happiness?” At which point it pleased him to reply: “Because the style of the Italian novella is unique in its beauty and vitality, and because our love has no such style to show for itself. This thought makes me miserable, and I am no longer able to believe in any happiness.” Both the good young people let their heads, their little heads, hang down for apx. 10 minutes or a bit longer, and were completely taken aback and adrift. But little by little they regained their composure and their lost faith and they returned to their senses. They picked themselves up from their mournful and dispirited state, looked each other affectionately in the eye, smiled, held hands, cuddled up close, were happier and friendlier than ever before, and said: “We want to take joy and pleasure in each other, now as before, despite all the style and splendor of the Italian novella, and tenderly love each other as we once did. We want to be modestly satisfied and not worry about any exemplary models that could only rob us of our own tastes and natural enjoyment. To be bound to each other simply and truly and be warm and good is better than the most beautiful, distinguished style, which can go hang as far as we’re concerned, right?” With these merry words they kissed each other in the most heartfelt way, laughed at their laughable dejection, and were once again satisfied. THE WICKED WOMAN A woman who one day, as these things sometimes work out, had to see the dream of her life—the dream she had thought herself permitted to dream—dead and buried cried whole long days and weeks long over the loss of the aforesaid. But by the time she had finally cried out all her pain she had turned, almost astonishing even herself, into a mean, angry woman who from that point on had no need as deep and vital as the need to see other women properly toppled, embarrassed, and cast down through her efforts to make them unhappy. She began more and more to hate every cheerful female face, because every happy visage made her feel wounded and insulted. She felt moved to hatch plots and malicious plans against every last pleasure she caught sight of, since every jolly glance seemed to give her pain. Now is it right for an unhappy person to take his or her hatred of humanity so far? No, never! must come the resolute answer. This wicked woman, ruined by such multifold sorrow, by a striving after happiness in life that came to nothing, made it her sad task to cleverly bring young women and young men together, make them notice each other, bring them closer and closer together in friendship, and then, when their sweet friendship seemed ripe to her, tear the two of them apart again with cunning betrayals, crude tricks, cruel slander and deception. The sight of a sobbing betrayed member of her own sex made her feel better and gave her pleasure. She did such things and others like them for quite a while, during which time the young women cheated of their joy and satisfaction continued to see her as a fine and noble lady. But little by little everyone noticed how wicked she was, and as soon as people achieved certainty on the matter her dangerous company was most rigorously avoided from then on, in such a way that the wicked woman soon had no further opportunities to cause unhappiness, do wicked deeds, and spread strife and discontent. STUDENT AND TEACHER A teacher, whom his students highly respected and were even very fond of for his lively personality, one day caught one of these students doing something rascally in class, and this made him extraordinarily angry. The schoolboy who had the misfortune to incite his teacher’s displeasure and direct it upon himself to such a great extent had been, until that point, the favorite pupil of the man he so rashly and deeply offended, but from then on he was in the teacher’s eyes an abomination whom the teacher cruelly belittled and appallingly beat day after day in front of the whole class, treatment the enraged man promised the poor boy punctually and faithfully to continue. Doubtless the teacher was taking out a personal hatred on him, and he, the adult, was going, with respect to the child, too far. The boy, thrown so lightning-fast out of the comfy armchair of goodwill onto the hard bench of disfavor, and seeing himself so unexpectedly transformed from prize pupil into notorious criminal, did not know what to do. However, after bearing as bravely as he could for weeks the sad fate of a fallen favorite and the cruel and contemptuous treatment associated therewith, he one day, driven by necessity, took up his pen to try to bring about a change in his utterly unbearable situation and wrote to his wrathful persecutor and tormentor as follows: “I have, since I cannot confess to my parents, for I do not want to add another care to the many they already have weighing upon them, no one else to turn to but you yourself, to try, if it be possible, to gain some sort of favor with you again. Maybe this letter will cause you to stop covering me with ignominy. Since, as I already said, I cannot pour out my sorrow to my parents, I will pour it out to you. Since I do not want to ask them to take me under their protection, they who love me, I will bring my request to the one who hates me and vents his rage on me. So I ask for protection from the one before whom I seem to have been left unprotected, and I beg for mercy from the one who, because he feels offended by my conduct, treats me so mercilessly. I have the courage, as you can see, to pour out my sorrows to he who inflicts them, and confide my suffering to he who causes it. I don’t like school anymore.” This letter gave the teacher all sorts of things to consider and reflect upon, and he behaved more gently again with respect to the student from then on.