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Books by Scott Watson and Taneda Santōka :: reviews by Jeffery Beam

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Books by Scott Watson Reviewed by Jeffery Beam

best books in the world are written by my friends

 

 

best books in the world are written by my friends.

Robert Walser (in miniature) / NY Review of Books, Esquire, Powell’s Books & dividedself.com

In the following “about 40%” a prose piece by Robert Walser (gleaned from  Esquire’s/”Swiss Writer Robert Walser . . . /”), Walser writes of the color green:

It’s incomprehensible, mind boggling, terrifying. It’s uncanny, almost overpowering. “What the point,” one asks. It’s almost pointless. It’s deadening, makes one dizzy. It hurts ones eyes, one’s heart, leaves one’s soul distressed and dismayed. Color, color. No other color has as much color, perhaps. None is as dazzling. Green, green. Wherever one looks, green.
***
Blue is decorous and gentle. Fall and winter can be blue, too. But green? Why green? Why, why so terribly, so exquisitely, so splendidly green? It’s on fire. Green: on fire. The world in spring is a blaze of green.
***
Green pilfers our energy; Napoleon feared spring, did he not? He didn’t? Well, maybe that’s just my imagination.
***
Indeed, there’s something insane about green, too; and as for that blossoming, isn’t that also a kind of insanity?
***
Indeed, green is — to be alive, green is to love. It’s often displeasing. It’s charming and at the same time horrifying, and it becomes wilder and more luxuriant with each passing day. Gradually, as summer approaches, it loses its depth. One gets used to it and strolls about under the leafy roof of those rich, whispering trees.

Read more of and on Robert Walser at the following links:

The Genius of Robert Waltzer by J. M. Coetzee / NY Review of Books

The Microscripts by Robert Walser & From the Pencil Zone: Robert Walser\’s Masterworklets: A review by Rivka Galchen / Powell\’s Books (from Harper\’s)

Finally, I have copied and pasted the following essay entitled “Kafka & Walser Are Chinese” from a broken or inactive link at selfdivider.com (& I bemoan the loss of this unique and brightly written site):

Robert Walser’s novel, The Assistant, translated by Susan Bernofsky, has been recently published after decades of neglect by the good people at New Directions. The unlikely amount of press he’s been getting should be at least one more heartening sign for the state of literature. For those who have not read him yet, he is a Swiss writer best known for his slim novel, Jakob von Gunten, and beguiling short-shorts that are elegantly simple and maddeningly elliptical at once.

Walser was perhaps one of the only great writers to truly disdain literary “greatness.” Many of the recent essays concerning Walser begin with a quote from Jakob von Gunten – “To be small and to stay small” – to sum up the writer’s personal and aesthetic credo. Yet the quote is misleading, as it conjures up a sense of pastoral contentedness rather than the sense of the negative kind of “smallness” that Walser’s art conveyed. There is a disruptive element in his writing which comes from a force that is more disturbing and radical: the self-destructive desire to vanish completely from society. From “Helbling’s Story” —

I ought really to be quite alone in the world, me, Helbling, and not a single living being besides me. No sun, no culture, me, naked on a high rock, no storms, not even a wave, no water, no wind, no streets, no banks, no money, no time, and no breath. Then, at least, I should not be afraid any more.

It is a well-known fact that Robert Walser spent the last decades of his life in a mental institution. And that, on the Christmas of 1956, some kids in a town called Herisau found his frozen body in a field thickly crusted with snow.

Benjamin Kunkel, in a recent New Yorker essay, makes a tantalizing connection between Walser and Kafka. He notes that in Walser’s epistolary story, “Job Application” (which reads like a wry progenitor of George Saunders’ send-ups of bureaucratic systems), the applicant Wenzel, who is a proxy for Walser, claims that he is, “to put it frankly, a Chinese.” Kunkel points out that Kafka, in one of his letters, had also made the same curious declaration in one of his letters: “Indeed I am a Chinese.” Kunkel claims that both Kafka and Walser were attracted to the notion of being “infinitely small” (Kafka) in a “human traffic… like an ocean” (Walser). “For both writers,” writes Kunkel, “smallness implied a drastic aversion to power, the exercise of it as well as submission to it.”

Kunkel makes an inspired point, but his point starts to track subtly (but crucially) off-target. He correctly notes that both Kafka and Walser admired the Chinese for their appreciation of modesty and smallness. But in interpreting this Chinese metaphor, Kunkel takes Wenzel’s statement from the story “Job Application” – everything small and modest is pleasing – at a crudely simplistic face value. Kunkel himself mentions that in “Job Application,” Walser adroitly switches back and forth from sweetness to sarcasm, and vice versa, but even after mentioning this, Kunkel completely fails to register the ambiguity and sarcasm inherent in Wenzel’s voice. Without hesitation, Kunkel literally concludes that Walser’s credo (and in extension, Kafka’s) is also: everything small and modest is pleasing. Through this critical misreading, the more subversive and consequential implication in Kafka and Walser’s Chinese metaphor is wholly lost – that being infinitely small provides a means by which one can achieve a state of restive invisibility. This subtext is, perhaps, the direct opposite of Kunkel’s literal interpretation of “everything small is pleasing,” and closer in principle to Kafka and Walser’s aesthetic concerns.

In the story “The Great Wall of China,” Kafka retells a Chinese legend to an unnamed “you.” He says that the dying Emperor has sent “you” a message via a messenger. In a gesture that mirrors K.’s oral recitation of a message to Barnabas that is to be relayed to the Castle (in fact, the short legend seems like The Castle condensed, reincarnated into an enigmatic parable), the dying king whispers his message into his messenger’s ear. Being a Kafka tale, of course, the messenger is mired in the infinite folds of the palace’s chambers and courtyards; he will never deliver the message. Thousands of years would pass. “But,” Kafka writes, “you sit at your window and dream [the message] to yourself when evening comes.”

Walter Benjamin tells us that it is not difficult to intuit that the unnamed “you” in the story is Kafka himself. And that Kafka has done everything in his power to make himself unknowable by making himself small. But unlike Kunkel, Benjamin recognizes that Kafka’s smallness is not a contented smallness of a pleasing kind, but a reductive maneuver by which a writer can vanish, become invisible:

It is impossible to overlook the fact that [Kafka] stands at the center of his novels, but what happens to him there is designed to reduce to insignificance the person who experiences it, to render him invisible by concealing him at the heart of banality. And the cipher K., which designates the protagonist of his novel The Castle… is certainly not enough to enable us to recognize the person who has disappeared. The most we can do is weave a legend around this man Kafka.

In an essay discussing Adorno’s book about Kierkegaard’s aesthetic philosophy, Benjamin crystallizes the “Chinese” metaphor even further:

[Adorno] discerns the ultimate statement of [Kierkegaard’s] philosophy in the image of (a painter’s) vanishing in a picture (painted by himself) – an image borrowed from the tradition of Chinese folktales. The self is “something vanishing that is rescued by a process of reduction.” This entry into and dissolution in the image is not redemption but consolation – the consolation whose source is the imagination.

Such an aesthetic sensibility belongs to Kafka, also; after all, the original title of the novel Amerika is Der Verschollene – The Man Who Disappeared. It is well-documented that Kafka made his fondness for Walser’s The Assistant known to Max Brod, and often read aloud Walser’s shorter pieces to him. He must have sensed a kindred spirit in the older writer, who was quixotically persistent about striving toward the “infinite smallness” so that he might notice the natural world unmediated, with more plenitude of feeling. Walser writes near the end of Jakob von Gunten:

And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined A zero. The individual me is only a zero. But now I’ll throw away my pen! Away with the life of thought!… I just want to see if one can live and breathe and be in the wilderness too, willing good things and doing them, and sleeping and dreaming at night.

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