A Schoolboy's Diary (Robert Walser)

Robert Walser was popular in his day, and admired by giants of German-language literature like Herman Hesse, Robert Musil and Kafka. But his literary star faded quickly; he died, poor and obscure, in the Waldau sanitorium where he spent the last 20 years of his life. Recent years have seen a Walser revival, with a critical reappraisal (the blurb sports glowing endorsements from Susan Sontag and Elias Canetti) and a raft of translations and reissues, including this short story collection (the second of three) from The New York Review of Books.

A Schoolboy’s Diary starts with Walser’s first published work: a series of classroom essays by Fritz Kocher, a (fictional) schoolboy. We learn in the metafictional preface that Kocher died shortly after leaving school (we never learn how), and Walser has persuaded the reluctant mother to let him “publish” the exercises. Casting the stories as the juvenilia of a dead youth is, perhaps, a gesture of self-effacement, the alibi of a writer eager to disappear into the page. But Kocher is the perfect skin for Walser to inhabit: at once guileless and wise, Kocher is learning the

Walser seduces the reader in spite of himself.

But it sets up a tension between: Kocher’s essays are wise and moving, with a floating, oneiric quality that as W.G. Sebald put it, has a “tendency to dissolve upon reading”.

Kocher’s essays provide an overture for the whole collection, a statement of its main themes: the simple pleasures of community and nature; the more complicated pleasures of writing; and in opposition to these two, duty both in the abstract and to the Fatherland.

Walser’s stories are simple and sweetly disarming. This collection takes its thematics cues from the essays of Fritz Kocher, a . The style is self-effacing, with a floating, oneiric quality.

Scribbled in dense, spidery Sütterlin on scraps of paper, the become part of the Walser mythos; the “clairvoyant of the small”, as W. G. Sebald put it, whose technique matched the humble subjects of his art. His miniaturism and sympathy for

As, Walser’s “prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the… things of which it spoke.” Walser also called him a “clairboyant of the small”; This helps explain why Walser was so quickly forgotten.

But not forever. In the sanitorium, where Walser was confined

Short prose pieces make up the bulk of Walser’s ouevre, composed in an idiosyncratic, miniaturist style. He called them “micrograms”:, which he even began to encrypt during his confinement in Waldau. Recently, a whole tranche (the “Pencil Zone”) was deciphered for the first time, kickstarting a Walser revival, complete with critical reappraisal and a surge of translations and reissues.

The New York Review of Books is in on the game, publishing three story collections and a novel. The first collection, A Schoolboy’s Diary, is organised around the essays of Fritz Kocher.


Written on August 6, 2018