Arts & Culture » Arts

Swiss Mystery

Wash. U. grad Susan Bernofsky brings the mysterious Swiss writer Robert Walser into English


Unlike nearly everyone else who has studied at Washington University and come to love the work of Robert Walser, Susan Bernofsky did not learn about this quizzical, quirky Swiss writer from William H. Gass. Gass -- the director of Wash. U.'s International Writers Center and a well-known author -- is the sort of figure who single-mindedly inspires graduate students to study on the Hilltop campus. He lectures brilliantly and sells out, so to speak, his courses, including one called the Philosophy of Literature that he has twice taught, both times featuring Walser on the syllabus. It's safe to say that most people who have left Wash. U. with Walser in their boxes of books first encountered this curious writer on one of those syllabi.

Except Susan Bernofsky. She came to St. Louis partly to study with Gass (receiving her M.F.A. in fiction writing in 1990), but she did not hear about Walser from him. Actually, the inspiration went the other way around. "Susan Bernofsky was my student at the time," Gass remembers, "and she showed me these translations of Walser she had done. I had heard his name but not read him; his work was not readily available at the time, certainly not in English. I started reading him, and I was hooked in." This is precisely what happens whenever a certain kind of reader -- one who delights in bold, playful narrators and whimsical tales edged by sadness -- encounters Walser, and those readers who passed through Gass courses at Wash. U. ultimately have Bernofsky to thank for their pleasure.

Now, with the publication of The Robber, a previously untranslated novel discovered many years after Walser's death in 1956, English-language readers anywhere can thank Bernofsky for access to this mysterious Swiss. The Robber is, actually, Bernofsky's second published effort translating Walser. Her first book, Masquerade and Other Stories (Johns Hopkins, 1990), compiled the translations she had showed Gass that got Walser onto his syllabus; Gass, in fact, provided a forward to the collection. Bernofsky shares credit for some of those translations with Tom Whalen, her former mentor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where she got hooked on Walser. Though a grand book in its own right, Masquerade is overshadowed by Selected Stories, a collection of Walser's short pieces translated mostly by Christopher Middleton. The strength of the selections and Middleton's genius make it extremely unlikely that a better book of Walser's short prose will ever appear in English.

Middleton also translated a Walser novel, Jacob von Gunten, and you will want to read that, too, once you become hooked. But as a novel, The Robber is a more stunning Walser performance, and Bernofsky delivers it into English with grace, verve and hilarity (see the accompanying review). We are lucky that she had the German text to translate at all. "It's one of the microscript texts, written in the tiny pencil jottings Walser used for his rough drafts," Bernofsky explains. "For a time, after a stash of these manuscripts came to light in the 1970s, they were thought to be written in a secret code. The writing only looked like code because it was exceptionally tiny -- between 1 and 2 mm in height -- and written with a blunt pencil. As the main transcribers of the microscript manuscripts have pointed out, you look through a magnifying glass to decipher the texts, but it doesn't really help."

Six volumes of these microscript texts have appeared in German, mostly short prose; The Robber is the only late Walser novel that we have. Translating it was every bit as maddening as deciphering the microscript must have been. "Walser's famous in German for writing what one unliterary neighbor of mine in Switzerland once called 'tapeworm sentences' -- he pushes German syntax to its limits, and it's often very tricky to follow the weavings of his sentences in English," Bernofsky explains. "This is also the fun in translating his work: Each sentence is a puzzle, but it also has to sound interesting, funny, playful (and sometimes a little sad) in English as well."

The nearly indecipherable microscript and the funny, playful (and sometimes a little sad) voice befit what we know of Walser the man. Because he lived an extreme life of wandering, menial labor and poverty, wrote like a mischievous angel and lived his final 26 years in mental institutions, Walser tends to attract a prurient biographical interest that can demean the integrity of his artistry. Not surprisingly, this supremely self-conscious writer left behind a sentence that explains this morbid interest, more or less. "What a bore, how tedious a person's own suffering was," he writes in The Robber, "whereas that of others was fairly thrilling."

But Walser did describe his writing as a ripped-apart book of his self, and the life does breathe in and out of the work. In this novel, for example, a description of the robber resembles a painting Walser's brother made of him when he was a boy, dressed up (of course) as a robber. Walser's narrators, like Walser himself, tend to walk insatiably, recreate by minutely observing the details of street life, fantasize themselves as butlers, pursue tangled and doomed romantic interests and obsess over their invisibility in the world of letters. Because of these traits, Walser the man must have been, at times, an exasperating and miserable person (at least once, he answered his door impersonating his own butler), but on the page, he is always full of whimsy and insight. Indeed, we love his narrative voice so much that we resort to Walser's biography in the spirit of a concerned friend, wishing only that he would find the right woman, one who sees in this difficult, awkward character the light that we see.

In the end, he has found such a woman. He found her in Susan Bernofsky. It makes sense that this reclusive, prolific man -- who even in his last, institutionalized years continued to write on scraps of paper that he kept to himself (see how tempting are the tidbits of biography?) ultimately found his true love only on the page, and seduced her only with his funny, playful (and sometimes sad) voice.

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