Modern Reader #4: Without Style

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I read Robert Walser’s The Tanners by accident—or, to be more precise, I bought it by accident. I’d recently run across an interview with Susan Bernofsky, the translator, and when the bright yellow cover gleamed at me from the table, I had to have it. A few weeks and zero pages later, my issue of Harper’s arrived with a review of Walser’s Microscripts. More of an essay than a review, it was written by Rivka Galchen, whose 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances I decided it was time to read. They lined up in a row like absurdly well-behaved schoolchildren: The Tanners, this exquisite review, and Atmospheric Disturbances.

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I often wonder if reviews can be great. Can a book (or an essay) that is essentially “about” another book compare to an original work? Then I read essays like Galchen’s, and the page reminds me: Yes.

In the opening paragraph, Galchen suggests, “Let’s say literature is not your religion, but it once was, and you’re the kind of apostate who sits in church pews every day; Walser, then, like Dickinson, is your prophet: reluctant, nearly inaudible, having made efforts to hide in the belly of an old New England house, or a sanatorium.”

Galchen goes on to open up Walser’s world like something less clichéd than an oyster. She donates the obligatory biographical details and digs into the “uncanny” nature of Walser’s “masterworklets.” With extended quotations, Galchen lets Walser speak for himself. Still, when I opened The Tanners, I didn’t really know what to expect – why was this writer so enigmatic? So difficult? The “least famous canonical writer”?

At first I found him endearing: “The white clouds are out walking in the sky, and I have to sit here writing. Why do I have eyes for the clouds? If I were a cobbler, at least I’d be making shoes for children, men and ladies, and then all these people could go walking in the streets on spring days wearing my shoes. I would experience spring when I saw my shoes on their feet. Here I cannot feel the springtime—the springtime is disturbing me.”

Then I lost my momentum. About eighty pages in, I got lazy. It languished on my desk, and other reading came, as it does. I spun through Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. The plot pulled me from New York to Argentina, through the unraveling mind of our sympathetic protagonist. Galchen comfortably inhabits the mind of the psychiatrist, Leo Liebenstein, filling his thoughts with precise scientific diction: neurocysticerosis, schizotypals, willed depersonalizations, exponenting.

The references in the book range from the hip (Henry Darger and Temple Grandin) to the academic (Plato, Hamlet, and Adorno), and the ambivalence of the solitary mind anchors them all.  To Leo, Hamlet is about “what happens when you grossly overestimate what thinking can accomplish.” Really? Isn’t Hamlet about the frailty of truth, about inheritance, about the mystery of death? Leo explains his world through the mind. He quotes Adorno: “The unreality of children’s games gives notice that reality has not yet become real.”

Despite Leo’s narrow vision of the world, it was easy to read Atmospheric Disturbances because Galchen did not lose the book in the Leo’s psyche. His psychosis did not derail the plot but propelled it. Unlike Walser, who lets the minds of his characters (or perhaps his own mind), move the novel along, one tangential thought after another, Galchen maintains authorial control.

Why couldn’t I focus on The Tanners? At first I thought the problem lay in my reading style. Since high school I have been a note-taker. Stars, hearts, exclamation points, interrobangs line my notebooks alongside page numbers and brief, fleeting ideas: “pg. 85 does the plot move?” “pg. 98 metaphors?!!!” “pg. 118 art? ‘life is short when you’re distrustful…’”

My notes do not compete with Walser’s microscripts in size, but they may be similarly obsessive. I take notes every other page or so, so it is no surprise that my reading is slow-going. But, a comrade to Walser, I like my notes.  I can look back at Atmospheric Disturbances from my own perspective: “she really likes the word ‘ersatz’” “pg. 100 if the novel is a collective fantasy/insanity, is the narrator crazy? the author? the reader?” “pg. 159 ‘the errors of a suspected psychosis.’”

By the time I’d finished the novel, leaving Leo in New York, or wherever, The Tanners was not pulling me back. I had forgotten the substance of the review, and it was probably for the better. I generally avoid blurbs, reviews, and even introductions until after reading a book, and I’d gone so far to avoid being influenced that I lost the May issue of Harper’s somewhere in my apartment.

The real reason—the neurological reason?—that I dropped The Tanners: narrative. Or lack thereof. In one of my meanders around the Internet, I ran into a very smart review of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself in The New York Review of Books. The book compiles an interview with David Foster Wallace, and the review quotes him at length: “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.”

So I’m off the hook, right?

No – the greatest literary mind of our generation rebukes us, “Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative?” “Yes” is the wrong answer. Though I could craft my days and my life into a story, in a conventional sense, that narrative would be artifice.

Back to The Tanners, then. With this pep talk, I finished in a couple of days, taken in again by Walser’s light word play, unique worldview, and his (lack of) narrative. The book, like all of his novels, is somewhat autobiographical. Like Walser, Simon Tanner apprenticed at a bank, quit in disgust, and enjoys long walks. He has a brother who is a painter and a sister who is a teacher with whom he lives for a short period of time. Without a literary community to buoy him, Simon is more of a wastrel than his real-life counterpart. (Bernofsky’s translation uses the word “wastrel” twice to identify Simon.) Of course, Walser had yet to settle in his home at the sanatorium.

More than the “story” itself—if the overarching events can be described as a story—Walser’s interior vignettes resemble the gears of a creative mind, investigating a detail beyond its end. With interior monologues, Walser conveys the constant simultaneity of life-happening-in-the-world and life-happening-in-your-mind—a disconnect that Galchen plays with, too.

Walser’s chronological but non-causal narrative fits well with contemporary experimental fiction, and the resurgent interest in his texts comes as no surprise.  Though I do not agree, as Walter Benjamin has said, that Walser is “without style,” Walser certainly saw the world with a precise and sensitive eye. Galchen demonstrates control over her book, whereas I am not even sure if Walser was in control, or wanted to be.


M. Rebekah Otto lives in Berkeley, CA. She grew up in Chicago. Her current interests include her new nine-to-five, vintage wallpaper, and Evan S. Connell. Also, she's the former Books Editor of the Rumpus. More from this author →