November 6, 2015
Two new Robert Walser translations coupled with art
by Kait Howard
The work of the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878–1956) languished in relative obscurity for decades, but a slew of recent English translations of his work have raised his profile in the U.S. These days, we’ve even spotted readers thumbing through copies of what Ben Lerner called Walser’s greatest novel, Jakob von Gunten, on the NYC subway (our supremely empirical method for gauging popular reading tastes).
Two new books not only offer freshly-translated writing by Walser, but lure new readers with illustrations accompanying the author’s brilliantly whimsical texts. The multitude of scattered, short texts has resulted in piecemeal translation and publication, but seems also to have allowed for creative approaches in presentation.
Next week, New Directions will release Looking at Pictures, a volume of Walser’s little-known essays on art, printed alongside color reproductions of the works discussed. Translated by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton, the book showcases Walser’s musings on Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Watteau, Bruegel, and others, as well as more general essays on poetry and painting.
These pieces function less as art criticism than as imaginative exercises in Walser’s distinct narrative voice. A perfect example is this gem from Walser’s description of Gustav Klimt’s sensual Die Fruendinnen (The Girlfriends), as excerpted by The Paris Review:
“Come here, beloved new fresh beautiful tale of a painter, let me pacify you. I should like to bring up certain sensitivities with you. I do expect to elicit indignation. The painter’s wife wore wondrously pretty little knickers and had the most enchanting wrists and kneecaps. Her limbs were of a shimmering smoothness, slenderness, and purity, and now this marvel of a painterly spouse encountered the lady of a manor. ‘Oh, my dear girl,’ said the lady, ‘won’t you please show me your assuredly darling sweet knickers?’”
The second book comes in the form of a bilingual volume of previously unpublished Walser poetry from the French revue and press Cahiers d’Art. The poems appear in the original German as well as the English, alongside watercolors by the contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte.
Thomas Schütte, Watercolors for Robert Walser and Donald Young is dedicated to both Walser and to the late Chicago gallerist Donald Young, who organized a 2012 exhibition of artwork in homage to Walser. The editors at Cahiers d’Art saw ample justification for the pairing:
“Walser’s poems have been exhibited as artworks in the past, and the poet was fascinated by watercolors and the particular effect they have on human eye. With these watercolors, Schütte has not only given us an extraordinary and moving selection of his own artwork, but he has paid tribute to Walser, who is one of his heroes.”
According to the Robert Walser Archive, the author published more than one thousand texts in over one hundred different journals and newspapers, and accordingly, “the research process is by no means complete; new texts and documents are still being discovered.” Just this summer, Bomb published a delightful short piece of fiction,“Olympia,” which originally appeared in the newspaper Prager Presse in 1925, and has now been translated by Bernofsky.
It looks like Walser’s readers (and his publishers) can look forward to more.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.