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Monday, September 24, 2012

Review of Oppressive Light Selected Poems by Robert Walser and translated by Daniele Pantano

“I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,” Robert Walser (1878-1956) explained to a friend and admirer who had come to see him at the Herisau asylum in Switzerland. Walser meant it. For the next twenty plus years until his death this famous novelist, short story writer, and self-described poet refrained from writing anything at all. Most who knew Walser best before he entered the asylum thought him mad. Those who visited him after he was committed believed him quite sane. It seems to me that there is a lesson here—somewhere.

 As a young man Walser got himself a job as a bank clerk, a job he was very good at and clearly identified with. He later failed at an acting audition, worked at multiple clerical jobs, and trained as a butler, at which he worked and seemed suited to. His little view of the good life, where details are ordered, and emotions are calm, probably stems from these experiences.

 For a time Walser even supported himself with his writings. Franz Kafka, for one, delighted in his prose and echoed Walser in his own writings. Hermann Hesse also admired Walser’s art.  But after the First World War Walser’s writings became less popular and he turned into a vagabond of sorts, moving from place to place. He had a position in the National Archives in Bern for a while, but then was fired. He drank too often and too much and finally tried suicide, an attempt which he also numbered among his perceived failures.

 During these years Walser wrote some excellent expressionistic poems. Many of these unique, well-crafted miniature pieces were published in prestigious literary magazines. Walser’s madness, if madness it was, did not originate in artistic anonymity or lack of acknowledgement. It came from some place deeper. For more of my review of Oppressive Light go here:  http://dougholder.blogspot.com/2012/09/oppressive-light-selected-poems-by.html

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