Though praised by Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, and many other significant writers of the late 19th through the mid-20th century, Robert Walser, the Swiss German modernist author of “The Robber,” among other works, is not widely read today outside of the classroom — although interest in his work remains as evidenced by last year’s publication of “Microscripts,’’ a series of his short manuscripts illustrated by Maira Kalman.
This latest collection from New York Review Books gathers more than 70 of the author’s short works, many of which are published in English for the first time. The book presents a rangy demonstration of Walser’s penchant for apparently serene portraits of quotidian moments that often mask existential quandaries.
Walser, who died in 1956, is self-conscious about the act of writing as a form of expression, and the first part of the book, “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” shows an author awake to the world around him, humming with well-considered ruminations on his surroundings. The essays are written from the point of view of Fritz, a sharp, loquacious student with a significant reservoir of self-awareness and ability to render his thoughts in clear, thoughtful prose: “Every word comes from the heart. How beautiful it is, after all, to have a quaking, sensitive, choosy heart.”
Assessing his fellow students and teachers (“We are short-tempered and affectionate, hotheaded and docile, obedient and fresh, sarcastic and pious, moved and silly, indifferent and enthusiastic. We have every type of virtue and bad behavior among us, every kind of rascalliness and charm”), as well as his own strengths and weaknesses as a writer and general thinker, Fritz dutifully records his beliefs and feelings in measured prose that shows vast intellectual reserves and also hints at the always-present insecurities that come with adolescence.
The second part of the book includes a few dozen stories, most just a page or two and many of them mere sketches or intellectual flights on such subjects as poverty, poets, teachers, and the natural world. Again, the smoothness of the prose and airiness of the subject matter often belie darker currents underneath, but 21st-century readers, certainly those unfamiliar with the ideas and goals of specific literary movements, may struggle with this section, flailing for something meatier to hold on to.
This is not to say they aren’t worthy of close study. Walser has a direct, even exuberant way of addressing the importance of art and the joy to be found in books: “No doubt books often also sidetrack us from useful and productive actions; still, all things considered, reading has to be commended as beneficial, since it seems to be utterly necessary to apply a restraint to our violent craving for belongings and a gentle anesthetic to our often ruthless thirst for action.” His candid humor and unadorned engagement with readers is also to be admired, as in “The Idol,” at the end of which the narrator discusses writing “a story that made he who had experienced it stop and deeply reflect, a story at which, however, I merely ask the reader to smile.”
In the third part of the book, the longer-form story “Hans,” Walser expands on the well-composed fragments from the previous section, resulting in a fuller experience for readers — and a deliciously abrupt surprise ending.
Ultimately, “A Schoolboy’s Diary” accomplishes what a posthumous collection from a publisher of serious literature is supposed to accomplish: It provides a useful overview of the author’s oeuvre and an ample demonstration of his talents.