Tom Whalen

Interviewed by Mitchell Galloway

Walser’s short fictions are often difficult to classify. You submitted “Rain” as a poetry translation, but we decided to accept it as fiction. What about this piece lends itself to be more a piece of poetry than prose?

“Rain” is prose, yes, but perhaps it’s more poem than story, more essay than fiction? I like how Walser’s work often makes classification irrelevant. I submitted it to Ange Mlinko, Subtropics’ poetry editor, because I know she’s not averse to the short prose piece or prose poem. I was very pleased that she and David Leavitt and the staff appreciated it.

Many of the short pieces you have translated originally appeared in the feuilleton section of newspapers. How did Walser’s work compare to other feuilleton pieces of the time (circa 1918)? What was the typical reader expecting? In these pieces did Walser parody the conventions of the feuilleton in any way?

Walser’s short prose pieces published in newspapers were different enough for Kafka to flip to the feuilleton section in search of them and for Eduard Korrodi, the feuilleton editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, to write that when he published a Walser piece (specifically those in the 1920s when parody would play a larger role in Walser’s prose), he “would receive letters from disgruntled readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the nonsense didn’t stop.” But for the most part, I’d say it’s not so much parody as it is his turning the conventional subject matter of the feuilleton to his own idiosyncratic ends, as can be seen in “Rain.”

Michael Hofmann writes in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories that Kafka “offers very little to the translator; there is no ‘voice’, no diction, no ‘style’.” Perhaps in contrast, what does Walser offer to the translator?

The “glacial purity” of Kafka’s prose, Christopher Middleton noted in “The Picture of Nobody: Some Remarks on Robert Walser” (1958), isn’t found in Walser, who was “anything but glacial.” Tracking and “miming” the shifting registers of Walser’s voice is one of the many difficulties and delights, if captured, in translating him.

In “Eine Art Erzählung” Walser writes, “If I am well disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines.” Besides writing in microscript later in life, do you know anything about his composition or revision process?

Caught in the swirl of Walser’s prose, it’s easy to think of him only as a free-wheeling master of improvisation. “I sit down somewhat reluctantly at my desk to play my piano, that is to say, to begin to discourse on the potato famine which long ago …” (“A Village Tale,” tr. Christopher Middleton, Selected Stories). But I think the narrator of “The Walk” offers us a more accurate take on his writing process: “Although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than delicate and dreamy, I am a solid technician!” (tr. CM, SS). My assumption, as well as that of Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang, the transcribers of the microscripts, is that he composed slowly. I credit his productivity and the rapid flight of his thought in prose to his steadfastness.

Can you talk about the forthcoming collection in which this piece will appear? Are there other pieces translated for the first time?

Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories contains seventy stories. That’s eighteen fewer texts than in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, but the new collection is twenty percent longer. As far as I know, all but three of these short pieces are previously untranslated. It opens in 1905 with an encomium by the twenty-six-year-old Walser to his homeland and concludes in 1933 with a meditation on his childhood in Biel, the town of his birth, published in the last of his four years in the cantonal mental hospital in Waldau outside Bern. Between these two poles, the book maps Walser’s outer and inner wanderings in various narrative modes, including essaylets, fables, idylls, tales of comedy and horror, monologues, travelogues, and prose pieces with “the stamp of calculated naïveté and artificial inartificiality” (“The Pipsqueak,” Girlfriends, Ghosts …). Besides presenting a representative sample of his short prose arranged chronologically by date of publication or composition, my selection process involved keeping in mind certain novelistic elements to bring the reader closer to this “most camouflaged of writers” (Elias Canetti).

I’m grateful that Walser’s work, for the English reader, continues to be a slow excavation. I would hate for every short piece to be translated and crammed into an exhaustive “collected works.” Do you think all of Walser at once would be, as “Rain” says, “too grand and difficult”? Can we agree a volume of Walser should always fit in the side pocket of a rucksack?

That seems the perfect place to me. “Beiseit”—apart, aside—is where Walser and his work thrive.