Lessons in Abstraction: The Strange Life of Europe’s Most Overlooked Modernist

by Andrea Scrima

Clairvoyant of the Small, Susan Bernofsky’s long-awaited biography of the Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser, is erudite, painstakingly thorough, and sensitively written. Readers of Walser finally have a volume that connects the development of the writer’s work and its publishing history to the various episodes of his peripatetic adult life in the cities of Biel, Bern, Zurich, Berlin, and finally the sanatoriums in Waldau and later Herisau, where Walser—revered by Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, and many others—presumably ceased writing altogether.

Bernofsky traces the development of Walser’s work chronologically, contextualizing his books, stories, novellas, short prose pieces, and feuilletons in the timeline of available biographical information. She cites from letters written by Walser and his friends and publishing associates as well as from key passages in his work that reveal turning points in narrative form and linguistic innovation. One of the book’s greatest treats comes when Bernofsky delves into Walser’s late style, which employs language in a way that is “not just descriptive but constitutive in constructing a literary reality.” Writing about Walser’s secret and radically experimental novel The Robber, finished in 1925 but not published until the 1970s, she asserts: “So rich in digressions that detours seem to be its primary narrative mode, it is also thick with metaphors sprawling so out of control they seem to offer their own alternate realities.” Here is where Bernofsky, one of Walser’s most dedicated and accomplished translators, reveals her intimacy with the inner substance of his literary project. Her analyses of Walser’s linguistic devices—the abstract nouns he invented to humorous effect (e.g. the wonderful term corridoricity, meaning “behavior that takes place in corridors, such as abruptly slipping away while someone is talking to you”); the playful portmanteaux (“spazifizotteln, composed of spazieren (to walk) and zotteln (to dawdle) by way of spezifizieren (to specify)”); the delightful coinages that evoke indelible images (Töchterchenhaftigkeiten, or littledaughtlerlinesses)—offer excellent insight not only into the prodigious task of translating this at times nearly untranslatable writer, but also the unique, oftentimes abstract beauty of Walser’s inimitable voice. Read more »

“What exasperates and amuses me pertains almost exclusively to Switzerland and the Swiss” — A Conversation with Madeleine LaRue

by Andrea Scrima

Andrea Scrima: Madeleine, you translate, write critical essays, and have been editing for Music & Literature for six years. Recently, all these areas of your expertise were called upon in a particularly rigorous way in preparation for a quietly sensational literary event: the publication of a mammoth portfolio of Swiss writer Peter Bichsel’s work in English translation. Can you tell us a bit about Bichsel, and what some of the difficulties were in producing this issue?

Madeleine LaRue: It did turn out to be pretty mammoth! How about I tell you, by way of introduction, about the first time I met Bichsel in person. He’d come to read at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, the center of the grand old West Berlin literary establishment. It was November, it was dark and cold, and when he emerged at the back of the room and started walking up toward the stage, wearing the same black leather vest he’s been wearing for the past forty years, I think we were all a little worried about him. He was eighty-two then, and he looked exhausted. It had been a while since he’d been on such an extensive reading tour outside of Switzerland. He got to the stage and settled into his chair. The moderator welcomed him and asked how it felt to be back in Berlin—a simple question, a nice, easy opener. Bichsel still seemed tired, but as he leaned back and said, very slowly, in his lilting Swiss accent, “Ja, ja, Berlin,” his eyes lit up and he launched into a story about his first time in the city, in the early 1960s, and how he got caught in the middle of a bar fight with some people! Who turned out to be Swiss! And they all got thrown out onto the street together, and he’ll never forget it! And ja, ja, Berlin—and from his very first word, we all became like delighted children at Grandfather’s feet, totally enraptured, utterly unwilling to go to bed until we’d heard just one more story, pleeeease? And he himself became younger, full of life, charming and hilarious and genuine and profound. Read more »