Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sorrow has its own special way of speaking

It's not often that a dead writer gets to publish a new book, but Robert Walser is never a typical case. By all accounts, he was a strange man, and his touch as a writer (in German) was so distinctive that the same, odd, unmistakable voice has emerged through quite a few different English translators.

Susan Bernofsky is emerging as his definitive translator, already as important in that role as the great Christopher Middleton, and with yet more work ahead of her. I am reading, with deep pleasure disturbed by spasms of joy, her new (2007) translation of Walser's novel The Assistant (New Directions), which he wrote and had published a century ago. Susan's version is the first to appear in English, and I can't imagine why it would ever need to be done over.

I'll call her "Susan," because I know her a bit. We went to graduate school together, though I can't remember ever talking to her about anything other than Walser. Back in 2000 I reviewed her translation of The Robber, the first Walser novel she translated; we talked about Walser again. Then we both ended up living in New York at the same time, she as a professor and me as a travel editor. I seem to remember trying to vouch her way at the last minute into some German film festival, and failing.

None of that is anywhere near as interesting as the prose of Robert Walser. I have several dangling threads on this blog already, but I plan to pop in and out of here with snippets of The Assistant, in hopes of generating for Walser some readers and for Susan some sales.

This is a characteristic bit. It's a description of a man named Wirsich and his mother, walking away. Wirsich was the previous assistant, but he lost his position after an obnoxious, drunken episode. Along with his mother, he has come back to the boss (who is a struggling inventor), in hopes of getting back his job. Now, having failed, they are going away again, mother and son. The assistant who now has Wirsich's old job muses as he watches them go:

"On this entire long walk - for ten minutes is a long time for two people filled with defeat and worry to walk - they will no doubt exchange scarcely any words at all, and yet they will be speaking a quite comprehensible language, a silent, all too comprehensible one. Sorrow has its own special way of speaking. And now they are buying their tickets, or perhaps they already have them, it's a well-known fact that round-trip tickets exist, and now the train comes roaring up, and poverty and uncertainty climb aboard. Poverty is an old woman with bony covetous hands. Today she tried to make conversation at table like a lady but did not fully succeed. Now she is being carried off, seated beside Uncertainty, in whom, if she peers closely enough, she will have to recognize her own son. And the car is filled with pleasure-seekers out on Sunday excursions, and they are singing, hooting, chattering and laughing. One young fellow is holding his girl in his arms so as to kiss her again and again on her voluptuous mouth. How terribly painful the joy of others can appear to an aggrieved soul!"

I'll be back, some other time, with the most wonderfully strange descriptions of the depth of a lake and fireworks I've ever encountered.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This translation, and particularly its first sentence, seems an amalgam of the clumsy and the antiquated. I really think we can do better with Walser.

"for ten minutes is a long time for two people filled with defeat and worry to walk"

"no doubt exchange scarcely any words at all"

Just too plodding.