‘An Adorable Bookling’

Looking at Pictures

by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, with additional translations by Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton
Christine Burgin/New Directions, 143 pp., $24.95
Robert Walser
ullstein bild/Getty Images
Robert Walser

If only the word “bibelot” had been a diminutive of “biblio-,” book, instead of a cognate of “bauble,” then I could have described Looking at Pictures as an ideal bibelot, a robust little hardback to slip into the pocket and take out to read in the elevator, say, without spoiling the line of the suit: well-printed, on stout, almost stiff, paper, copiously illustrated with well-colored and surprisingly assertive plates of paintings by Fragonard, Bruegel, Cézanne, and others, all glued down in the old manner like stamps and no bigger than postcards.

And so I would have paid a little homage to the Swiss genius and eccentric Robert Walser (1878–1956), who adored diminutives and kept himself alive—going everywhere on foot, and starving—by the writing and selling of his small prose pieces called feuilletons, or “little leaves.” “Worklet,” he describes one of the productions here, and another, “a tiny, infinitesimally small little essaylet.” Reaching the end of his sanity in the late 1920s, he further withdrew into something called his Bleistiftgebiet, his pencil terroir, writing on rejection slips and the like minuscule and perfectly illegible marks in perishable graphite (which, industrially magnified and magisterially deciphered, have now filled six further volumes, in addition to the twenty of his other works, all published by the canonical German firm of Suhrkamp). It was his way of taking himself off the books. As it is, then, I will call Looking at Pictures just an adorable bookling, and urge anyone with any tenderness in their soul to go out and buy one or two.

It consists of the selected art writings of Robert Walser. If there is something slightly starchy and preposterous-sounding about the prospect, then so there should be: anything by Walser should give a lift to the eyebrow and a smile to the lips. Like all his writing, it is both scripted—pedantically correct, ornate, mannerly, even a little pompous—to the point of artifice, and alarmingly liable to find in such a condition a source of endless amusement. Look at me walking on my hind legs, it seems to say. And then: Oh well, never mind.

Walter Benjamin talks of Walser’s “neglect of style,” which has an odd ring to it, given that Walser is incapable of writing a gray, functional sentence that merely gets on with the job, but perhaps it’s style as master that he means. In Walser you get style as instability or plurality, style as servant or passerby, volatile, huffy style, style as djinn, style that flies off the handle. Perhaps that counts as “neglect of style.” Walser writes with the excitement of an Englishman in a western, or of Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme Monsieur Jourdain, having just been informed that he’s been speaking prose all his life. This is to some extent a Swiss propensity—to a native speaker of Schwyzerdütsch, High German…

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