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Robert Walser, Thief

PUBLISHED: July 19, 2010

Like all good writers, Robert Walser was an inveterate borrower, at times wearing his influences openly. Some of his pieces are casual retellings of stories he’s read, while others go a step further. For example, my essay in the Summer 2010 issue mentions that Walser loved trashy novels for their sensationalistic plots. In one case, Walser wrote a story inspired by a novel called After the Torment, and he wrote it on the very cover of the novel. In Microscripts, this piece is known simply as Microscript 54, and it’s largely a summary of this melodramatic novel. But Walser adds a few characteristic twists: he toys with syntax and language (Susan Bernofsky translates one adverb as “silhouettishly”); he finds a personal, almost emotional connection with the novel (Walser writes that he “was introduced to a woman,” the story’s protagonist, and claims that literary characters “stand out better” than “living figures, who, as they are alive and move about, tend to lack delineation”); and finally, he ends with a customary moralizing summary (“thus does one go from happiness to unhappiness and then from unhappiness back to happiness again”).

In another piece, Walser borrowed both from another writer and from himself. That is, he twice rewrote Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In the first, written in 1917 and collected in the volume Speaking to the Rose, the responsible son who didn’t leave home visits Walser’s narrator. This son resents being connected with the story, and the narrator sides with him, saying, in plain language, that the story of the prodigal son is the “opposite” of “pleasant and edifying.”

The second version, written in 1927, published in a newspaper in 1928, and included in Microscripts, is more in line with Walser’s later style. Rambling—even unhinged—but biting, full of irreverent wordplay (in Bernofsky’s translation, two representative phrases: “factitious ludicrosity,” “canny uncanniness”), the story bounces between a number of topics—the narrator amusingly remarks that the biblical David didn’t “protect himself from hurled-spear eventualities”—and indicts the prodigal son as a “Glünggi,” a Swiss-German epithet similar to “idiot.” But the story absolves the prodigal son because his family received him with understanding and happiness, “which surmounts and surpasses all frailty and strength.” The story ends, like many others, with a tender axiom: “happiness is the most shaky and yet also the most solid of things.”

To ape the thief himself: thus does one writer scour works of the past, finding new life and new satisfactions.

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