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A Note on Robert Walser and The Robber (1925).

Robert Walser (1878--1956), the Swiss-German master of high modernist prose, was once so well known that Robert Musil, reviewing Franz Kafka's first book of stories, described Kafka as a "special case of the Walser type." Kafka was among Walser's contemporary admirers, as were Hermann Hesse and Walter Benjamin. Walser's quirkily modernist sensibility has since endeared him to contemporary writers and thinkers as various as Martin Walser (no relation), Susan Sontag, William H. Gass, and Max Frisch.

Walser wrote as many as nine novels (all but four of which are lost), several short dramatic works, poems, and thousands of pages worth of "Prosastucke" or "prose pieces," a feuilletonistic hybrid of story and essay in which he experimented with the fractured narrative, sudden leaps and shifts of perspective, and mutations of standard German vocabulary and syntax that have made his work so influential on later generations of authors writing in German.

Of Walser's four extant novels, Jakob von Gunten and The Robber are generally considered the most important--the former an example of his strongest early work, the latter displaying the increased stylistic complexity that characterized the later years of his career. Though generally comic in tone, The Robber is at the same time a highly serious study of the modern fragmented self and the role of the writer in society.

The Robber is something of a hybrid between love story, tragedy and farce. The title character, who may or may not be identical to the first-person narrator ("I" and "he" tend to get mixed up at points), is seen bungling his way through a number of comically traumatic adventures. The novel is largely episodic and shows the title character on a complex journey of self-discovery. This is a man who sweet-talks spoons, flirts with the politician Walther Ratheau, plays maid-servant to a little boy and uses a passer-by's mouth as an ashtray. We witness his encounters with various women, above all a waitress named Edith who seems always just on the verge of becoming his sweetheart.

Throughout the novel, "robbery" is presented as a metaphor for writing. In a self-reflexive move that anticipates the work of Raymond Queneau and the American postmodernists, Walser makes his Robber a former novelist who, plagued by writer's block, appears to be assisting the narrator in composing his own story. Those he writes about take a dim view of this. Edith, who is arguably his muse, eventually shoots him in anger. The novel ends with the Robber hospitalized but happy: at last he is able to imagine a satisfactory role for himself.

The Robber remained unpublished during Walser's lifetime and survives only in manuscript form. It is among the "microscript" texts Walser notated in such minute handwriting (the entire novel fits on twenty-four manuscript pages) that for years they were thought to be written in code. The novel's manuscript was first "deciphered" in the 1970s by Jochen Greven, whose transcription was revised in the mid1 1980s by Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang. The version currently in print in German is as "exact" a text as we are likely ever to have: Robert Walser, Aus dem Bleistifigebiet 3 (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1986).
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Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Previous Article:Catullus VIII.
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